Lessons from the Dark Side

The defeat of equal marriage rights in Maine was a gut-wrenching blow to gays and civil libertarians alike. There is something profoundly wrong with having to ask to be treated equally by your government. Equal rights should not be subject to vote—the entire purpose of the Bill of Rights was, in Justice Jackson’s memorable words

“to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

Nevertheless, until that principle is extended to the LGBT community, last month’s election should be an opportunity to consider and evaluate the political options available.

One option—the course of action requiring the least effort—is simply to wait. Every time there is a vote on one of these referenda, those on the side of denying rights to gays and lesbians win by a narrower margin. Poll after poll tells us that most people on the wrong side of history are old; younger voters support gay equality by substantial margins. When my generation dies off, this conflict will be over.

The better option, however, is to take a lesson from the rabid right-wingers who managed to capture the Republican Party in the space of relatively few years. They accomplished that by participating in the party’s grass-roots politics—running for precinct committeeperson, school board, city council. From those relatively humble positions, they were able to support the candidates who agreed with them, and ultimately drive most moderates and a fair number of thoughtful conservatives out of the GOP entirely.

On the same election day that saw same-sex marriage lose in Maine, a number of openly-gay candidates were elected to public office. It is time to take advantage of the willingness of voters to elect gay and lesbian candidates. But in order to do that, GLBT folks have to be willing to get involved at those grass roots.

Let me give an example of what I mean. Here in my own city, I know of at least one openly-gay candidate who intends to go through Democratic party slating, and if slated, to run for our City-County Council. The decision who to slate is made by the party’s precinct committeemen. The most effective tactic the community can use is to encourage as many gay and gay-friendly people as possible to run for precinct committeeperson. I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but in my city, both parties are desperate to fill committeeman slots. Anyone willing to do the grunt work required is very likely to be successful.

Why elect openly gay candidates? Assuming that the people involved are otherwise good candidates—that they will be good public servants who represent all of their constituents—we can expect several outcomes. Let me just suggest two: for one thing, the electorate will see competent people who happen to be gay in positions of authority; that changes attitudes. (If you don’t believe me, think about the impact of Obama’s election in the African-American community!) For another, elected officials can influence legislation and policymaking. If you don’t believe me, look at what has happened to the GOP—and unfortunately, to the rest of us—in the wake of the radical right’s capture of that party. Even when they are unable to pass legislation, they’ve proven adept at preventing it.

And wouldn’t it be satisfying to turn the homophobes’ tactics against them?