What the Progressive Movement Can Learn from Indiana and Arkansas' Retreat on LGBT Discrimination

Last Wednesday night, I went to listen to former Congressman Barnie Frank speak in Redwood City, California. Much of the conversation (hosted by a local radio host) centered around the evolution of LGBT rights and politics since a young Frank was elected to the Massachusetts legislature. I say evolution and not revolution, because of the way the pragmatic thinkers in the movement by and large won out over agitators, which Frank made clear.

Frank answered critics he angered by opposing then-San Francisco-Mayor Gavin Newsom's move to order the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004 with a simple question: "what happened?" Indeed, those marriages were invalidated by the California Supreme Court - the same court, Frank pointed out, which later found marriage to be a right under the state Constitution (until Prop 8 was passed, that is).

Frank's was a different critic of Newsom than many other Democrats - who primarily objected to Newsom's move's political ramifications, believing that the move may have cost John Kerry the presidency. I have never given that political slide much credence, but Frank's policy criticism made more sense.

Frank further articulated that progressives too often think that change can simply be wished into existence, and he related this to the experience during health care reform. While Newsom was hailed as a hero even though his move ended up nothing more than symbolism, but Democrats in Congress and President Obama was vilified for actually delivering on health care reform simply because it wasn't single payer or any number of other liberal ideological agenda checklist items. But change cannot be wished into existence. In reality, change takes setting long term goals, making strategy to achieve them, and, the one element too often missing from our politics, patience.

What Frank was talking about, though he never used the term, is pragmatism.

The larger LGBT rights movement has followed that path of deliberate, strategic thinking to get to the point where Republican governors and legislatures are forced to reverse their discriminatory state laws in record time. Last week, GOP governors of Indiana and Arkansas were humiliated by having to change their fresh laws allowing for private accommodation discrimination based on business owners' religious dogma. Big business - across the ideological spectrum (from the NCAA to Salesforce to Walmart to Nascar) - brought the hammer down, and the Republicans in those states caved under threat of economic damage.

The big business community isn't exactly best friends with the progressive movement. That they came out so forcefully and unequivocally against these laws proves two things: first, the LGBT rights movement has finally gone mainstream; but secondly and more to the point of this article, deliberate and pragmatic strategy-making over the past 40 years brought us here.

This is not to say that there is ever a wrong time to do what is right. I also firmly believe that the demand for full and equal rights for all should always be at the core of our movement. Where pragmatists and ideologues differ is not often on the goal but the path to get us there. The LGBT rights movement is filled with protests and outside demands for action - but it is just as filled with baby steps towards equality.

Harvey Milk, perhaps modern America's most recognizable face of the LGBT right movement's infancy, was known for his battle cry of "I'm here to recruit you!" What's just as important to understand, however, is just what it is he sought to recruit the LGBT community and our straight allies for. Milk didn't run for president. Instead he did what was possible then: won a seat in the San Francisco City Council - on his fourth try no less. Milk also championed California's campaign against the Briggs initiative, which brought together the improbable political alliance of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to oppose the California initiative that would have banned gay and gay-friend individuals from teaching in our public schools.

On election night in 1978, the Briggs Initiative lost by nearly 20 points, stunning political observers and gay rights activists alike.

Throughout the history of California and of other states, the LGBT community has known steps - sometimes painfully slow steps. California legalized same-sex sex in 1976, for example, but it wasn't until last year that we banned "gay panic" and "trans panic" defenses in murder trial - and we remain the first and only state in the union to have done so. In between all that came employment and housing nondiscrimination, including in school curricula material on the contribution of LGBT Californians, nondiscrimination in public accommodations, and even marriage equality.

And throughout it all continues everyday struggles and triumphs waged to come out, be ourselves, and face down social dogma even when they have been legally obliterated.

Every time LGBT people have been attacked in the public arena, we have responded that we are not seeking some form of radical new rights but merely the ability to live as equal citizens in the land of the free - whether in civil society or while serving in the armed forces of the United States. We have convinced one lawmaker at a time, one business at a time, one family member at a time. We refused to pick up our marbles and go home or give up on the political process - even when that process, just a mere decade ago, was by and large against us.

That today discrimination against LGBT Americans is so frowned upon in corporate America that they rebuked their favorite political allies over it is a result of that long struggle and those baby steps. Yes, it is also a generational sea change, but it's more than that. It's the movement's collective belief in the ability of small changes to add up to big differences. It's the conviction that we will not reject the progress that is possible today even as we keep working to make more progress possible tomorrow.

This hasn't been a uniform theme of the LGBT rights movement, however. At times, we have in fact allowed our agitation to substitute for our strategic judgment. It is, after all, because of the intransigence of the privileged LGBT establishment in San Francisco and New York killing a federal employment nondiscrimination bill in 2007 that it remains legal to fire people for being gay in more than half of our states.

The activists renounced federal legislation sponsored by Congressman Frank that would extend federal nondiscrimination protections to sexual orientation, but not gender identity (because the votes weren't in Congress for that). It is because of that ideological stridency of people who were well protected by their state laws that allowed them to tell millions of gay Americans in Alabama and Arkansas that they couldn't be protected because votes did not exist for a trans-inclusive ENDA. Not only did they reject a chance to make progress, they branded Congressman Frank and the nation's oldest LGBT lobby group, Human Rights Campaign, heretics.

Thankfully though, these events have been few and far between. The same activists who were running on fumes and killed an ENDA that could now have been federal law for almost a decade also berated President Obama for not supporting marriage equality soon enough, and charged that the president never had any intention of repealing the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy. But the President did, legally repealing it forever, and became the first sitting US president in history to declare support for marriage equality. The screeching voices for the most part became irrelevant.

They became irrelevant because their tactics didn't work. Pragmatic strategies did. Making the changes we can now worked, and patience paid off. ALL of that had to happen before corporate America swiftly beat back their political debtors on LGBT nondiscrimination.

I hope the progressive movement learns this lesson. We should never fear to demand progress, but we must never reject progress simply because we view it as insufficient. We cannot call ourselves progressives if we impede progress, even in the name of "more" progress. We need to cease beginning every sentence in defense of progressive expansion of health care or of banking regulations with "Well it isn't perfect but..."

We shouldn't be afraid of compromise when it means progress. We should be weary of those among us who claim such ideological purity that they cannot fully and enthusiastically advocate for practical progress.

Today, there are too many people claiming ideological purity taking up the "progressive" mantle in click-baiting blogs and thrill-seeking media. We should be weary of those who seek to establish their progressive bona-fides by slamming the best progressive ever to occupy the oval office, for their efforts, even when sincere, only ultimately results in the preservation status quo.

Let's start asking ourselves not only what we want to see our country become but how we get there - and know that chaining yourself to the White House fence just won't cut it.

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