About a hundred years ago, then Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson remained *undecided* on the issue of women’s suffrage. Although he was a dedicated progressive, taught at a women’s college and had two daughters who were suffragists, his opinions were still evolving on whether or not women should be allowed to vote. Giving women the right to vote, it was argued, would lead to federal interference in elections and, *GASP* voting rights for African Americans. Thereafter, Wilson became President of the United States, and his position on women’s voting rights remained ambiguous during his first term.
A parallel can be drawn between then-President Wilson and now-President Obama. Although President Obama’s stance on human rights (more particularly gay marriage) is evolving, one cannot truthfully say that President Obama supports full LGBT equality. In fact, President Obama, in spite of stating during his 2008 campaign that he would sign an Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, has now refused to do so. Further, even though he declared support for ENDA, he failed to fiercely demand it when the House and Senate had “hope” of passing the legislation.
The Suffragists of the Congressional Union (later known as the “National Woman’s Party” [NWP]) began staging petition drives and demonstrations to get President Wilson’s attention and demand he endorse the right of women to vote. At first, these demonstrations were largely met with bemusement and condemnation. In spite of the demonstrations and petitions, Wilson failed to act. The NWP stepped it up a notch and threatened to actively campaign against Wilson and the Democratic Party during the 1916 election. But war broke out in Europe and the issue of peace became more important to many, but not all, of the suffragists, and they in turn supported the re-election of Wilson.
When the United States joined World War I, many thought the demonstrations by the suffragists would come to an end, believing that no one would dare protest a war-time President. However, the NWP continued its demonstrations outside the White House, including chaining themselves to the White House fence. They were met with great hostility from both men and women, many of whom had also been and perhaps were still suffragists. Banners were torn from their hands, they were spit on, insulted and demeaned all because they refused to bow to an establishment which ignored them – or worse, treated them with hostility. They were arrested and often jailed for substantial lengths of time on trumped up charges, but their actions made headlines around the world giving momentum to their cause. The suffragists who were more moderate took advantage of their more radical counterparts and presented themselves as a more obvious alternative. This rebel/reformer approach is discussed in detail in Bill Moyer’s book Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements.
Fast forward again to 2012: Many LGBTQ organizations have also stepped it up notch to demand President Obama take action to protect employees from discrimination. Leading the way in this endeavor is the grassroots organization GetEQUAL, which is best known for protest actions that lead to arrest, including chaining members to the White House fence and blocking Las Vegas Boulevard. Like the suffragists, these more radical activists are facing severe criticism of their tactics from the “more moderate” human rights groups; however, the mantra is slightly changed. No longer is the criticism because of war-time, but because this is an election year for President Obama.
Like Wilson, Obama’s position on LGBT equality is ambiguous in many respects. For example, Obama has clearly stated that he does not support marriage equality, but that he supports equal rights for LGBT people under the law. Some LGBT advocates argue that this is his way of winning the upcoming election, at which point he will “evolve” on the subject of marriage equality, while others see it as mere subterfuge and the President putting his own safekeeping ahead of the safety of the people he represents.
Many LGBT bloggers have condemned the actions being taken by GetEQUAL and others as a childish, fame-seeking approach to activism that will result in the election of Mitt Romney. Some have gone as to declare that our “real enemies” are out there and we should go after those “real enemies.” This attitude assumes that a person who does not support marriage equality and who has failed to take action to protect workers from unfair discriminatory practices is not a “real enemy.” But the assumption goes far further – it assumes that these activists are “going after Obama,” when they are clearly designed to defeat the injustice created when another campaign promise by the LGBT’s “fierce advocate” was broken.
While many remain content to be beaten as long as the blows don’t break the skin, I for one prefer not to be beaten at all. That is not criticism of my reformer friends who are accepting of the blows of the President without question, but it is where I stand within this equation as a rebel.
“When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.” – Martin Luther King Jr.