Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Do we need a leader? Reflections on Stonewall

This is the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. 40 years! For an historical view of this almost accidental event that changed our world, please see this terrific series by my blog-friend Counterlight: Part I, the mystery of Stonewall, followed by Part II, the Riots, and Part III, who rioted at Stonewall? and most relevant to this discussion Part IV, on the post-Stonewall movement.

Counterlight writes,
What both groups did, together and separately, was create a new confrontational gay politics sharply different from the ever-so-polite accommodation and influence peddling of the old New York Mattachine society. It was a participatory politics in which everyone had a part in the decision-making process and everyone participated in political activity. This was no longer the leadership driven politics of the old New York Mattachine. It was political action that was frequently very loud, angry, vulgar, messy and conflict-ridden, but it was also surprisingly effective and quickly got the attention of city politicos who never before took seriously anything gay.

In contrast to other civil rights movements, there was no clear leader or symbol for the gays: no one who could galvanize the movement or symbolize it like a Martin Luther King Jr or a Betty Friedan. The NY Times agrees with Counterlight,
Even in the movement’s earliest days following the violent uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village 40 years ago this week, no singular leader emerged. Some historians believe this is in part because it was — and still is — difficult for the average American to empathize with the struggles of gay people......
By contrast, the moral authority that leaders like Dr. King, Ms. Friedan and Ms. Steinem could claim — and the fact that Americans did not look at them and imagine their sex lives — made it easier to build respectability with the public.

Another reason for the absence of a nationally prominent gay leader is the highly local nature of the movement. Unlike the civil rights and the feminist movements, the gay movement lacked a galvanizing national issue.

Of course, a generation of potential leaders was decimated by the AIDS/HIV crisis in the 1980s. The TImes goes on,

As the AIDS crisis was contained, gay activists shifted their focus in the late 1990s and early 2000s to laws about discrimination, hate crimes and domestic partnerships. Successes on those issues were due in large part to gay rights groups that rose up at the local level and learned to work with local lawmakers....Activists on the state and local levels were already well in place and found themselves positioned to wage the campaigns for same-sex marriage — as the recent successes in the Northeast have shown.

“They see dispersal as a great thing, that it’s better not to have a concentration or too much attention overinvested in one individual,” said David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written about the civil rights and women’s rights movements.“The speed and breadth of change has been just breathtaking,” he added. “But it’s happened without a Martin Luther King.”

The downside of this is the upset we've seen in the last week and a half, of course. There is a huge variety of opinion in the community, from the more stately "go slow" of the classic gay right groups like HRC, to the scrappy bloggers demanding action. On a conference call on Monday with the White House, everyone is confused about how to deal with the bloggers. Meanwhile, the WHite House is having a "secret celebration" of Stonewall that they haven't told anyone about.
Whether Mr. Obama will address the complaints at Monday’s reception is unclear. One person who received the invitation said the White House was billing the event as a celebration, akin to the festive affairs the administration holds on St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo. Another said the invitation included an offer to bring a guest. “They want people to understand that their partners are welcome,’’ said this person, speaking anonymously because the White House has not announced the event.

The bloggers are stewing at the secrecy and the lack of movement.
To me, this seems to be very similar to the events after Stonewall, when the rabble on the streets, not the professional organizers, finally had enough and said so.

Counterlight notes,
We see in the new leaders that emerged in the weeks and months following the riots a real change, especially in their public image. Gone are the suits and dresses and the anxious politeness.....The suits and the dresses were gone forever, along with the fear and the isolation.

Maybe that's what's happening now, with a new change in our leaderless, evolving movement. We'll see!

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