“Buck up, or stay in the truck.”
These words of wisdom come from the infamous former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. Now, I’d be lying if I said she was my activist idol, but even with all of her “folksy,” colorful language, she does have a point. No one likes a freeloader, no matter what form.
The GLBT community may not have the Hitler mustache-drawing skills of Tea Party protesters, or a leader as valuable and well-respected as Martin Luther King Jr., but it is a movement with a message to send and rights worth fighting for.
Because of this, I’m a little confused when I see apathy within certain segments of the community. A house can’t be built in one day, but it can’t be built at all without people ready to put forth effort. Social movements are no different.
“We always want more people to be engaged,” said Malcolm Lazin, the executive director of the Equality Forum, a GLBT activism group.
Lazin said real progress for the community has been fairly recent, starting in 2000, and continued into the new decade with the – albeit, temporary – overturn of California’s Prop 8 and former President Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“The great challenge of the moment is that we are literally at the tipping point of our civil rights movement,” Lazin said. “When one realizes what it was like in 1965 when the gay pioneers stepped forward, we collectively have a remarkable opportunity to really create change.”
Indeed, many seem to conveniently forget the horrendous treatment of the GLBT community that was really not that long ago. The American Psychiatric Association didn’t finally declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness until 1973.
Only two decades ago, the GLBT community served as a scapegoat for the AIDS crisis. And more surprisingly, it was not until last year that it was recognized as a federal crime to assault someone based on sexual orientation. Color me a cynic, but that’s a bit ridiculous.
Still, Lazin said he feels confident the community will eventually see widespread positive change and equality in society.
“The question isn’t, ‘Will we achieve it?’ It’s ‘When will we achieve it?’” Lazin said. “If people are active, we’re going to achieve it much sooner.”
Lazin pointed to the struggles of the GLBT community in decades past and said there’s a need for continuity of accomplishment in the future.
“The collegiate generation owes a huge debt to the gay pioneers and those before them,” Lazin said. “And I think it requires responsibility of ensuring that the next generation of collegiates will have an even better environment.”
While it’s wonderful that gay youth today may not have to face the same plethora of struggles that past generations did, it comes with an inevitable dilemma known to strike other social movements as well – particularly the feminist movement, in what is now considered by some a “post-feminist era.”
It’s hard to paint a picture of oppression to people in a society that encourages coming out, offers numerous support groups and clubs in schools nationwide and sees legitimate political progress being made on the nightly news.
Sure, they can appreciate the accomplishments, but can they understand them the same way as a gay man who fought his way through crowds during the 1960s’ Stonewall Riots?
“When you look back at 1965, that was a moment in time when every state in the nation made it a crime for people of the same sex to engage in intimacy,” Lazin said. “This gives you a sense of what a tsunami homophobia was.”
The lesson to be learned is that where we’ve been is very much a part of where we are now and will be in the future. It serves not just as another page in a history textbook, but a haunting reminder of the struggles millions lived through to get to the point we’ve reached today.
The future of the gay rights movement will soon be in the hands of generations who may not fully understand the magnitude of the movement, and that prospect can be a little unsettling. The importance of activism cannot be illustrated enough.
“I believe that being an active member in the community is the only way to understand what it is to be part of a community,” Queer Student Union President Nina Melito said. “If you are not active, then you have no right to complain about the fact that you may not have as many rights and freedoms as others.”
This brings me back to where I began this column. I’ve never claimed to be the most “rainbow-friendly” of gay men, and I have my fair share of issues with how the movement has taken shape, but I understand the necessity for activism and making the community known to the world, especially now.
I’m not expecting everyone to rush to pride parades and raise rainbow flags, but to see more youth make their voices known would be refreshing. Without these voices, the movement could potentially dissipate – a result I refuse to let become a reality.
Brandon Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.