Is this the year for a vital LGBT civil rights movement?
On May 3, thousands of LGBT activists and allies from all over the world will gather for Equality Forum’s National Equality Rally at Independence Hall. For the first time in Equality Forum’s 17 years, a rally commemorates the July 4 gay rights protests that took place in Philadelphia from 1965 to 1969. A subsequent march will pass by the National Constitution Center, the Gay Pioneers Historic Marker, the Liberty Bell Center and other landmarks that commemorate freedom. It’s an appropriately timed celebration: In the wake of Obama’s election and recent gay marriage wins, the community’s mood is optimistic.
Jacob Kaskey, policy and outreach coordinator for Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, says that the movement for LGBT rights is gaining momentum. “It’s an exciting time for the LGBT movement because you have a lot of states taking really positive steps toward providing equality for all of their citizens, whether passing protection against discrimination or providing marriage equality.”
Reading the queer movement’s tea leaves is a complicated affair. Nov. 7 was bittersweet for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered folk. Queer voters gave candidate Obama their overwhelming support, yet the very same day, California—that cradle of political innovation—approved Proposition 8, a ballot referendum amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
But things are looking up again after a recent spate of state court and legislative actions legalizing same-sex marriage. Courts in Connecticut and—coastal residents gasp—Iowa declared same- sex marriage a constitutional right. It has been a busy few months, especially considering that no state has legalized same-sex marriage since 2003, when Massachusetts became the first to do so. And Vermont, the first state to offer civil unions to same-sex couples, became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage without judicial assistance.
You would have to be living under a rock, or perhaps a fundamentalist church in Colorado Springs, to not realize that the culture is changing, and inexorably so. Television, America’s great if often banal democratizing force, beams that change into the dimmed living rooms of families across the country. And Hollywood films project new visions. From the sexuality and significance of American Idol aspirant Adam Lambert to the appearance, a few years ago, of a blockbuster film chronicling the ups and downs of life as a gay cowboy, this is not the America of 1977, when Harvey Milk made waves by becoming California’s first openly gay elected official. Today both Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, after all, have gay city councilmen.
Philly’s queer community is vibrant, with activists dedicated to a variety of causes. And community life spreads far beyond the Gayborhood.
Nico Amador, a 26-year-old West Philly activist, has supported conscientious objectors to the Iraq War and currently fights casinos. Amador says that the LGBT movement’s focus on marriage equality at times leaves other important issues behind. But while Amador is not personally interested in marriage, he supports the fight. “I see it as a positive thing that I want to support anytime someone is standing up for the expansion of civil rights.”
Dolph Ward Goldenburg, executive director of the William Way Community Center, moved to Philly from Atlanta in 2003, after making a spreadsheet—he admits he’s a “dork”—comparing 12 potential cities.
“Philly was interesting because it seemed to invest time and money in institutions that support community and not just the bar culture.”
But he also says that LGBT activists still have a lot of work to do, noting that poorer queer folks and youth still face oppression on multiple fronts.
Nicholas Deroose, 24, is a sophomore studying journalism at Temple. For Deroose, the web has played a major role in building community and political power. Moving to Philly from Singapore in 2008, he had trouble finding other queer Asians to hang out with. But he joined an LGBT swim team, the Philadelphia Fins, through the web. He went on to found Queer Philadelphia Asians and, again relying on email and social networking sites, took a lead role in organizing last November’s protests against Prop 8.
Pascal Emmer, 29, is also an organizer and volunteer—in his case with Philadelphia ACT-UP. Emmer works at the Transhealth Information Project and is currently conducting a survey to identify the needs of trans prisoners.
“There’s a lot of the predictable discrimination and abuse that you might imagine: daily humiliations, being disciplined for attempting to live according to a particular gender. The placement policy for prisons is based on anatomy, generally birth anatomy.”
Emmer says that physical, sexual and psychological abuse is rampant, and that guards often turn a blind eye.
Problems like that—many of which stay under the radar—call for activism and visibility. And 2009 is a good year for both.
Data shows that people are becoming less homophobic—especially young folks. Plus, because of the economic crisis, people care less about acting on their homophobia. The so-called Reagan Democrats—blue-collar white voters who the Republican Party won over in the past few decades—are prioritizing economic woes over other people’s sexuality.
Research undertaken by SUNY-Albany professor Scott Barclay and Temple’s Daniel Chomsky reached the surprising conclusion that the print media’s support for gay rights have given the public a needed shove on this issue.
And according to polling wunderkind Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, “Both gay marriage and civil unions are becoming more popular with the public, although at a relatively slow rate.”