Naomi Wolf writes the On Making Change column for the Guardian.
That's My Issue: Gay Rights
Friday, August 24, 2012
It was the Gay Rights Movement in San Francisco - in the mid-seventies - that really imprinted me. It was so powerfully visual; you would see the change from yone year to the next. In the late sixies and early 1970s, one was aware of homosexuals, of course - but even in San Francisco, they lived in the margins. Nothing like militancy was attached to that concept - more like shame or something that mainstream culture just didn't know how to grapple with.
Then Prop 6 came along - and a right-wing spokeswoman made the case that gay teachers were trying to indoctrinate gay kids. By this time I was in middle school, and I was very aware of the active debate around this - and aware thag it sounded nuts, even to a 14-year-old. I saw how gay men and women seemed literally to be coming out of the woodwork (because so many were 'coming out of the closet') because of their outrage about this targeting and this legislative attack.
It triggered a wave of militancy and a wave of what can only be called pride; suddenly the Castro was packed with beautiful young men wearing chaps and leather vests and little else, all milling around in the sunshine in at atmosphere that mingled erotic validation with an emerging excitment of becoming a political force to be reckoned with. It was so powerful to see how, in a very short period of time, a group of people were able to 'wake up' and say no to existing reality, to challenge the dominant debate, to assert their own identities - and to organize.
I was also made aware through that movement of the importance of rhetoric and symbolism in activism, and also the importance of spokespeople. Many activists on the left have an antipathy toward organizing, toward 'hierarchies' and toward spokespeople who are powerful in using the media to advance their message. Indeed they seem reflexively to believe that 'the media uses you' and always corrupts, as does 'hierarchy.'
I saw the opposite in the Gay Rights Movement. I watched people like Harvey Milk and other talented leaders become 'stars' - and use their celebrity to help and support others, and lobby for their own constituencies. I also saw how when gay people organized as a voting bloc, just as how when Chinese immigrants, who were orften very poor, organized as a voting bloc - they became powerhouses in the politics of the city council, and reset the city's agenda to reflect the needs of... gay people and Chinese immigrants.
I saw how fast it was that power drained from old-money, WASPy interests who had run SF forever to these new constituencies. As soon as they organized in voting and electoral groups and as soon as they could run their own candidates accordingly. This made me be as obsessive as I am about the idea of teaching whoever wants change - from the Occupy movement to the Tea Party to anyone anywhere - how to do the same. It is not pie-in-the-sky, not rocket science - the gay lobby and the Chinese lobby 'took over' big chunks of the government of my hometown, and the city - and local democracy - benefited hugely as a result of this representation of otherwise silenced constituencies.
There was a final lesson for me from the gay rights movement - I have been wrestling for a long time over the issue of why sexual freedom is political and in what ways it is important. The insistnce of this group of people that being able to tell the truth about their sexual identity was about something far bigger and more importyant than 'just sex' has been very influential to me as well, and made me see sexual identity and freedom for everyone as being linked to larger revolutionary issues and larger issues of democracy and human rights.
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