When the ICLU brought suit on behalf of gay and lesbian clients who want to marry, all hell broke loose. Local gay listservs were filled with intemperate exchanges and accusations, factions lined up for and against—shades of the “bad old days” when the community was more consumed with internal bickering, turf battles and personal agendas than with productive activism.
Just when things were going so well…
Those of you who attended the recent hearing on partner benefits at the Indianapolis City-County Council, or who saw it on television, could take justifiable pride in the presentation by the gay community. Proponents were measured, professional, in possession of facts and figures…in short, impressive. That professionalism was in stark contrast to the testimonies of those who spoke against the measure—they looked, and were, frantic and hateful. The vote may have been foreordained, but in the process of losing the community scored a public relations victory.
Then the ICLU brought suit on behalf of gay and lesbian clients who want to marry, and all hell broke loose. Local gay listservs were filled with intemperate exchanges and accusations, factions lined up for and against—shades of the “bad old days” when the community was more consumed with internal bickering, turf battles and personal agendas than with productive activism.
As an ex-ICLU Executive Director, I would like to weigh in with a few points for consideration:
· The gay community has a number of organizations with different agendas and different purposes. There’s Lambda, the Equal Rights Project of the ICLU, the Human Rights Campaign, the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce… Stonewall Democrats and Log Cabin Republicans are political organizations—created to promote the interests of the gay community within their parties, surely, but also to elect their parties’ candidates. The ICLU is a public interest law firm. Its mission is not political; furthermore, it is required by that mission and by legal ethics to represent clients who come to it with legitimate claims, irrespective of the politics involved. And there are sound legal arguments to be made under the Indiana constitution. This is not a frivolous lawsuit. (If you had a good claim against a company, and you went to a lawyer who told you that he was trying to get business from that company, so you’d have to wait a couple of years to file your lawsuit, you would report that lawyer to the disciplinary commission—and you’d be right.)
· People have expressed legitimate concerns about the timing of the lawsuit. Does it put friends of the community who are running in upcoming elections in an awkward position? Does it create problems at the legislature? These are issues appropriate for discussion and debate. To suggest, however, (as more intemperate elements have done) that the ICLU brought the suit as a fundraising ploy; or to engage in personal attacks; or to have people who were informed months ago that the suit was coming claim that it came as a complete surprise—these tactics are not only counterproductive, they are reprehensible.
This lawsuit will undoubtedly create short-term political problems for the community. But asking for more than the powers-that-be are willing to give is ultimately the price of progress. (When I was a much younger feminist, I benefited greatly from the tactics of the so-called bra-burners—women who didn’t shave their legs, conducted sit-ins, and behaved in other ways that polarized both the general community and other feminists. By the time those of us with more modest demands showed up, positions that would have seemed outrageous before the antics of the wild women seemed absolutely moderate.)
In the long term, gays and lesbians will not achieve equal rights until the general public really understands the legal disabilities imposed by current law. Lawsuits like the current one tell that story, and it is a story that will have to be told and told again. Equal rights will not come because legislators talk to gay lobbyists—they will come either because they are constitutionally required or because public opinion changes.
Even if the same-sex marriage lawsuit is unsuccessful, the long-term interests of the community will have been served by the public discussion of the issues. In the short term, the community needs to approach the upcoming legislative session as it approached the Indianapolis partner benefits debate—with coordination, professionalism and a well-planned strategy.
As a friend of mine recently put it “Individuals don’t create social change. Movements do. And in order to be successful, people involved in those movements need to put aside their differences in service of the overarching goal.”
Maybe this wasn’t the optimum time to file this lawsuit. (Actually, there never will be a good time.) But it is filed. Now, the task at hand is to come together to deal with the politics that will follow.