America without closets

Torie Osborn

November 18, 1993|By Torie Osborn

TO OUTWARD appearances, the gay and lesbian rights movement is in trouble.

We suffered a bitter defeat in the White House and on Capitol Hill over the military ban on homosexuals; then, in a painful and ironic twist, the administration asked the Supreme Court to block a lower-court order lifting the ban.

The far right continues to step up local attacks: Voters in three cities considered anti-gay ballot measures earlier this month, and as many as 10 states are gearing up for Colorado-style referendums next year to ban local gay rights laws.

And internal organizational ferment, including my own decision to step down as head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, has been taken as a sign that the movement is in disarray.

But these widely publicized storm clouds conceal a much

brighter outlook.

Lesbian and gay Americans have never had a better chance to become a mainstream political movement -- if we can come up with the right strategy.

The stage has been set by precisely those events that have led people to conclude that we're in trouble. For this once hidden minority, widespread visibility is the absolute condition for all progress.

And with every front-page event -- the battle over the military ban, the huge march on Washington last April -- the denial blanketing the very existence of gay men and lesbians is being thrown off forever.

Poll after poll shows that Americans' tolerance on these issues correlates with personally knowing someone who is gay. And every day, more and more people do.

A vast new migration into the mainstream is taking place, from out of the closets of regular middle- and working-class lesbian and gay Americans.

How is the gay rights movement to take advantage of this growing visibility?

For 20 years, the movement has been almost entirely reactive, careening from event to event -- a court victory here, an electoral loss there. Now we need to unify as never before, working across organizational lines and consolidating resources to develop a national plan of action -- that gay agenda we've been accused of promoting.

That's why I left the day-to-day management of the task force: to work with others to develop a broad political vision for the movement.

We need state-of-the-art market research to design winning messages. We need think tanks and national media strategies to counter the disinformation efforts of the right, now sugar-coating its hate agenda with mainstream language like the battle cry "no special rights."

Never has it been more apparent that gay and lesbian people lack the most basic civil rights than in the case of Sharon Bottoms of Virginia, who lost custody of her child solely on the basis of her sexual orientation.

A powerful grass-roots political structure must be built to support local and national efforts, using voter-identification techniques borrowed from electoral campaigns and high-tech communications tactics to organize, educate and mobilize the huge numbers of newly "out" gay men and lesbians, as well as the thousands of local organizations flourishing across the country.

Gay men and lesbians must also take the time to work on overcoming our own activist culture's aversion to power, success and leadership.

This fear, born of being marginalized and ostracized, diminishes our potential by promoting narrow, purist thinking as well as destructive attacks on leaders and organizations. The politics of protest must become the politics of taking power, or we will be outsiders forever.

Our journey through the agony of AIDS, and through the self-loathing of the closet and out the door, has forged a new and potent force -- based on a belief in the courage of community, a rage at systemic injustice and a new spirit of hopefulness.

When it is fully articulated, it can be a gift to mainstream America as well as ourselves.

It can help reinvigorate this country and its vision of a truly pluralist democracy.

Torie Osborn is a columnist for The Advocate, the national gay news magazine, and author of the forthcoming "Coming Home to America."

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