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October 5, 2007
In 1994, educators across the country began working to counteract the lack of information about LGBT people in textbooks. The efforts of Missouri high school teacher Rodney Wilson led to the creation of LGBT History Month in October.
This issue marks the beginning of the second year the Gay People’s Chronicle, along with other newspapers across the nation, honor LGBT History Month with a month-long series of articles by and about people, organizations and events that shaped the world and continue to strive for greater equality.
Leaning toward justice
LGBT Americans still have far to go, but we have witnessed a sea change in societal attitudes
In the 1960s, while confronting segregation, discrimination, obstruction of voting rights and physical violence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., often borrowed the words of another pastor, an abolitionist from Boston named Theodore Parker, to inspire and give strength to those in the civil rights movement. In the fight for full equality, both Dr. King and Rev. Parker reminded their flock what I believe is equally true and relevant today as we discuss the gay rights movement in America:
“The arc of the moral universe is long . . . but it bends toward justice.”
You may wonder how I can say that in 2007, when LGBT Americans are still the victims of violent hate crime and discrimination, still unable to serve openly in the armed forces, still unable, in many states, to adopt children, still unable in 49 states to marry, still denied the full and equal rights that citizenship grants and morality demands.
Gay History Month is an appropriate time to step back from our daily struggles and frustrations to assess how much progress we have made in recent years. Despite political setbacks and sadly, still, hate crimes against the LGBT community, young Americans are growing up in ever-more tolerant times.
Ten years ago, Ellen DeGeneres announced she was gay on national television and cynics predicted it would end her career. Earlier this year, she hosted the Academy Awards where a billion viewers around the world were not only entertained by this openly-gay and hugely popular comedian, but then they heard Oscar-winner Melissa Etheridge publicly thank her own wife and their four children.
In 1998, the people of Wisconsin’s Second District elected me, the first out lesbian and the first openly gay non-incumbent, to Congress. I was only 36 years old and had entered college in 1980, a mere seven years after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders.
Today, you can go into almost any bookstore and find aisles of gay and lesbian literature. But one of my friends (now in his mid-sixties) reminded me that when he was in college and beginning to question his own sexual orientation, the only mention of homosexuality came in textbooks next to adjectives such as “deviant,” “aberrant,” and “criminal.”
Right after I graduated from high school, in the summer of 1980, the Democratic Party at its national convention included this one phrase deep in its 38,000-word platform: “All groups must be protected from discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, language, age, sex or sexual orientation.”
Two hundred four years after our Declaration of Independence professed that all men are created equal, the first gay rights plank appeared in a major political party platform.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I grew up in the progressive city of Madison, in the birthplace of “progressivism,” Wisconsin, and I had gone to one of the best public school systems in the country, yet no one had ever uttered the words gay or lesbian in a class. Never mind that there was no gay-straight student alliance or anything remotely like it. There were no openly gay characters on TV. No same-sex partners in advertising. No same sex marriage or civil union announcements in the society pages of the New York Times or any other newspaper. No protections against discrimination for LGBT people in housing or at work. At the time, not so long ago, queer was a curse word and “being queer” was a curse.
No role model ever told me about the Daughters of Bilitis, the Mattachine Society, or Stonewall; Elaine Noble, Frank Kameny, or any of the courageous leaders who shaped our movement or contributed their art, their science, their sweat, and their intellect to this world.
Well into the 20th century, our nation’s and the world’s history was never whole and truthful because the role of LGBT people in shaping that history was, quite simply, “the greatest story never told.”
After graduating from high school, I went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was during my sophomore year at Smith, 1982, that the first Gay Games were held in San Francisco.
Reuters news service reported: “Homosexual athletes and their fans from eight countries and across the United States are streaming into San Francisco for the opening today of what has become known as the Gay Games. Some 1,365 men and women, including 62 Canadians, will compete for nine days in 17 events designed to show the world that homosexuals make as good competitors as anybody else.”
Last year, the seventh Gay Games were held in Chicago, attracting nearly 12,000 sport and cultural participants from around the world. Corporate sponsors included Nike, Walgreens, the New York Times, Gatorade, and Ernst & Young, among others.
On December 28 last year, the Chicago Tribune--not the most liberal newspaper in the country--ran an article entitled “2006 Was the Year of the Queer,” which read, in part: “From the annual gay pride celebrations to hosting the Gay Games, Chicago opened its arms to the community. In July, thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered athletes from all over the world descended on Chicago to participate in the Gay Games. Also, the Center on Halsted, the new LGBT community center in Boystown, broke ground and looks to be on schedule to open by mid-2007.”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
During my junior year at Smith, in 1983, Rep. Gerry Studds announced that he was gay; after being censured by the House for having an affair with a 17-year-old page.
In a speech to his colleagues Studds said: “It is not a simple task for any of us to meet adequately the obligations of either public or private life, let alone both, but these challenges are made substantially more complex when one is, as I am, both an elected public official and gay.”
It was during that same year, my junior year in college, that I began my own process of coming out . . . first to myself, then, gradually and cautiously, to others. But as I approached the end of my undergraduate career and looked to my future, I believed that in order to live my life and my dreams, I’d have to make a choice between pursuing a career in public service, perhaps running for office . . . and living my life in an open and honest way. I did not believe that I could have both.
Now, to some of you, the idea of a society so limited for LGBT people is as foreign as a world without cell phones, iPods, or computers. But for those of you who remember the darkness and loneliness of life in the closet, those memories are still fresh and raw.
In November 1985, a little over a year after I had graduated from college, a small group of elected officials met in West Hollywood, California. The group, predominantly from the coasts and upper midwest, included a few city council members and county board supervisors, a state assemblywoman, and a state senator from Minnesota, Allan Spear. That a dozen or so elected officials would enjoy meeting with each other to discuss their work is not unusual. That they were all openly gay is extraordinary! And the joy of meeting each other and finding support from one another was another milestone for them and for gay liberation (as our movement was then called).
Keep in mind that, at that time, gay people were still stereotyped as drag queens, predators, or sissies. As perceived by society, gay people were pretty much all men, you know. Gay or straight, it was still very much “a man’s world!” Back in the ’80s, AIDS, the “gay plague,” was decimating our community and bolstering a public image of gay men as promiscuous sex fiends.
These elected officials who met in West Hollywood were progressive and multi-dimensional politically. Individually and collectively, they wanted to give a voice to our community and encourage others to come out of the closet and participate in public discourse and the political process.
It was Allan Spear, who said, “Unless you learn and respect the process, you are not going to accomplish what you want to do. You have to use it for your own goals.”
As elected officials, they presented a very different public face of gay men and women. They were patriots who believed in our democracy and knew how to use the political process for the common good. To me and all those who followed them into office, they were courageous and generous role models. I can tell you from personal experience, they threw fabulous dinner parties! And the talk at the table was as nourishing and satisfying as the meal.
I had the honor of attending the second such conference of openly gay and lesbian elected officials in the autumn of 1986, just months after my election to the Dane County, Wisconsin Board of Supervisors. I was 24 years old. There were a total of 14 elected officials in attendance, and combined with those openly gay and lesbian elected officials who were unable to attend, we figure that we numbered less than two dozen world-wide. As a young person seeking a life in public service and wanting to be honest about who I was, the people I met at those early conferences were a godsend. In time, I’ve been fortunate to take some of what they gave me and pass it on.
Let me tell you just one story. During my first term in Congress, I received a letter from an 18-year-old in a small town in southern Illinois--population 4,400. This young man had a passion for politics.
He wrote, “I was president of my graduating class, treasurer of the student council, and a senior board member on a local community service youth group . . . “I was following my dreams,” he told me, “until I realized that I am gay. At that point I gave up.”
Surfing the Internet one day, this young man read an article about my election to Congress. He realized that one could be openly gay and live a life in politics. But, he went on to explain, that wasn’t the real reason he was writing me.
In his letter to me, he wrote, “You not only saved my hopes and dreams, you saved my life. I have never told anyone this . . . I was going to give up, not only on my hopes and dreams, but on my life altogether.”
This young man, whom I’ve since met, is now graduated from college, and involved in politics as an openly gay man.
From that first group of pioneers back in the ’80s has sprung the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute that each year now assists hundreds of individuals enter careers in politics, government, business and advocacy. The Leadership Institute reports well more than 600 openly gay elected and appointed officials on five continents at the local, state, and federal levels.
Being out in our chosen fields, we not only offer hope to other members of the gay community. We offer a new perspective to members of the straight community, many of whom harbor those stereotypes I talked about earlier. Another benefit of coming out is that those of us who are out are perceived as being honest . . . of having integrity.
When I began my political career, no pollster in her right mind would have advised a congressional candidate to come out of the closet. It simply was not viewed as being in our best political interest to share that kind of information.
But we’ve come to learn that, by being “out,” we clearly demonstrate our integrity. We prove that we’re making decisions based on what is right and honest. We shatter the cynicism that people hold about politicians and people in government.
When I ran for the Wisconsin Assembly in 1992, I remember a man who approached me. I thought to myself at the time, “Here comes trouble.” I steeled myself for some ugly words. But he came up to me, right in my face, and said, “Gosh, lady, you sure got guts. If you can be honest about that, you’ll probably be honest about everything.”
I got his vote, along with the votes of many others who probably don’t agree with me on every issue and aren’t even comfortable with the idea of homosexuality--but honesty and integrity carry a lot of weight in an election, and in life.
All of us who are openly gay--not just elected officials or movie stars, but all of us--are living and writing the history of our movement. We are no more--and no less--heroic than the suffragists and abolitionists of the 19th century; and the labor organizers, Freedom Riders, Stonewall demonstrators, and environmentalists of the 20th century.
We are ordinary people, living our lives, and trying as civil rights activist Dorothy Cotton said, to “fix what ain’t right” in our society.
Cotton was a key organizer in the civil rights movement in Alabama in the 1960s. She had, and she inspired others to have, faith that, if they used the tools of our democracy, they could effect change; even when it was their government that was denying them their rights.
Using the tools of our democracy, the Freedom Fighters pushed forward the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. And using the tools of our democracy today, I am proud and gratified to have helped pass this year in the House, a hate crime bill that protects gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons from hate-based violence. And, by the time you read this, I expect the House of Representatives will have passed, for the first time in history, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that says you can’t fire someone because of non-work related factors like sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
We, in the gay rights movement, can learn from Dorothy Cotton and her comrades in the days of the segregated South; and we can learn from another role model of mine, former Wisconsin governor and senator Gaylord Nelson.
He was a man who sat in arguably the most powerful legislative body on earth, the U.S. Senate. He had the foresight to want to protect the environment, but he couldn’t get his Senate colleagues to take his environmental legislation seriously. Nelson recognized that in order to enact environmental protections, he needed to engage the people first.
He founded Earth Day, which served to do two things. First, it inspired people, by the millions, to take direct action to improve their environment.
Second, it inspired people, by the millions, to take their citizenship and civic duty seriously and to urge their senators and House members to enact laws to protect our water, air, and our earth. After the first Earth Day in 1970, those changes began to come rapidly.
LGBT Americans have far to go to achieve full acceptance or full equality, but we have witnessed a sea change in societal attitudes toward gays and lesbians since my own days as a college student. And that change is being driven not in the legislature, but in our workplaces, our schools, our places of worship, and our communities.
All successful movements of change have much in common. They’re not as spontaneous as they may appear. Each involves citizenship training, grassroots organizing, advocacy and, most important, a faith that each of us can make a difference and a faith that our democracy provides us with those tools.
And, yes, they take a long time . . . and sometimes we have to take a few steps back before we can again move forward.
But from the movements for civil rights, for suffrage, for trade unions, for environmental protections, we can learn the strategies and tactics, the patience and forbearance needed to achieve equal rights for LGBT Americans.
Above all, we can be sustained by the knowledge that, indeed, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Representing Wisconsin’s Second Congressional District since 1999, Tammy Baldwin is the first out lesbian and the first openly gay non-incumbent ever elected to Congress.