'Tis the Season

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Friends & Family,

I hope you’re all enjoying happy holidays, and I wish you the best of luck in the coming new year.

Rather than leave this as a template holiday note, I thought I would take the moment to bring attention to an important cause that is, unfortunately, very ineffectively lobbied for. This is admittedly a bit long-winded; if you’d like the condensed version, just read the last three paragraphs.

As somebody with several gay friends, the issue of equal rights for homosexuals has struck me more forcefully than I suspect it strikes many straight people. It’s an issue I’ve been forced to confront time and again, if not directly in conversation then indirectly in passing thoughts. Not everybody has a gay friend (though I suspect there are many who do and don’t know it), and I fear that those who don’t wind up examining the issue through the mainstream media’s portrayal of it, rather than through first hand experience and interaction. I hope that this note can speak to everybody, but I’m especially reaching out to the latter category of people.

Right now, the obvious thing to talk about is Proposition 8, so let’s recap: groups like “No on 8” were filled with passionate individuals who fought fiercely for their cause. But it didn’t work. The aggressive, sometimes-demonizing attitudes that they showed were ineffective, and the result was a giant step backwards.

Now fast-forward to the aftermath of Proposition 8 and all of the media coverage that has ensued. It’s difficult to find debates on television that don’t erupt into shouting matches. But on the few programs whose arguments aren’t won in decibels, I’ve noticed a common recurrence: many activists (on both sides of the issue) have been comparing and contrasting the matter with the Civil Rights movement. I think that most of these sweeping metaphors are flawed, but there is one–a more subtle one–that I’d like to share:

In 1955, a black woman rode on a bus and refused to give up her seat to a white person who wanted it. She was forcibly removed from the bus, handcuffed and arrested. This woman was not Rosa Parks; it was a single, lower-class 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin, and for reasons that had nothing to do with righteousness or legality, her case never went to court. Edgar Nixon, President of the local NAACP, vetted her after her arrest to find that she’d become pregnant with the illegitimate child of a married man. Politically-in-tune Civil Rights activists like Bayard Rustin knew that the case would be lost in the public eye before it had a shot in court, and Mr. Nixon was persuaded to drop it. Nine months later the married, middle-class, Rosa Parks had her encounter, and Mr. Nixon had his empathetic woman. You know how the story ends.

The lesson here is that while Martin Luther King awed us with powerful and lasting rhetoric (the quote in my mind as I write this is “the arc of the moral universe… bends towards justice”), the truth is that Bayard Rustin’s political instincts were just as important as MLK’s eloquence. Political battles cannot be won apolitically, no matter how righteous the cause. Bayard Rustin understood this and was able to convince other powerful Civil Rights activists of it (including MLK). The Civil Rights movement required not just moral righteousness, but also political cleverness to succeed. Groups like “No on 8” lack the latter as much as they possess the former, and this has impeded their progress tremendously. Having your heart in the right place is not enough, and those who lobby for equal rights now would be wise to learn the lessons from those who did then. The good news is, they’re starting to.

There’s a new group called Get to Know Me First. It’s an ad campaign with a more subtle, less divisive, less in-your-face approach to promoting gay rights. Quite simply, it’s an organization of homosexuals asking for voters to get to know who they are before casting judgment. It’s a group that finally preaches to its audience rather than to the choir.

Aggressive politicos seeking swift, quick action may feel that this means is too passive. If you do feel that way, I’d caution you to have a look at history before you settle on your gut reaction. If you want to change legislation with lasting force, you’re going to need to change minds, and minds are changed through inclusion and engagement, not with baseball bats and duct tape.

These guys are the real deal, and if they get funded, I am certain they will have a much more profound impact than the groups that have preceded them. GetToKnowMeFirst.org is certified non-profit, so you can deduct any donations that you make to them this year if you do it by December 31. They’ll be getting some of my money, and if you’re feeling charitable in this gift-giving season and believe in their cause, they could certainly use some of yours, too.

Best wishes and warm regards, Robby

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