Practical Lessons from the Gay Rights Movement

So, I listened to this really interesting podcast yesterday, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to share it and invite you to listen, too.  (Listen to it here:  https://www.npr.org/2019/04/03/709567750/radically-normal-how-gay-rights-activists-changed-the-minds-of-their-opponents).  

It’s about gay rights, and it discusses the fact that, in the United States, there has been a relatively rapid change in both perception of and legislation toward gay rights. We went from the Defense of Marriage Act act in 1996 to nationwide marriage equality in 2015, with a concomment shift in a majority of people’s views about whether or not they supported gay marriage.

No one has a great explanation for why and how attitudes shifted so quickly, especially when oppressive attitudes continue to be so pervasive when it comes to sexism and racism; there is no simple formula to apply more broadly.

The last part of the podcast discusses different strategies oppressed groups might choose to use when attempting to make societal change, and the argument of the podcast is that the successful strategy gay rights activists used was a focus on marriage equality as a means of legitimizing “who people love.“

The person being interviewed talked about how there were many in the gay community who felt that this was a form of selling out, trying to buy into structures that were oppressive and unwelcoming rather than rejecting them and seeking to create new structures entirely.  The question is framed as a choice of pragmatism over ideology.

I don’t really have a larger point to make here except that I think the issues that the podcast wrestles with continue to be really important for a variety of issues today—most notably, like I already mentioned, racism and sexism.

For myself, I also think about the ecological movement. In my own thinking, I have tended to want to focus more on ideology: the idea that animals have inherent value and therefore must be treated well and with respect; the idea that the environment has intrinsic value and therefore should not be exploited and must be protected. However, the reality is that often the arguments that are most persuasive to people are those that describe animals and the environment with an emphasis on their benefit to humanity: we find drugs that are helpful to us in the rainforest; pollution can be toxic to the people who live in polluted areas; we need to protect what we have now for the sake of our children and their health and well-being.

I know this is a better strategy, but still I find myself bristling a bit.

The point that that is made in the podcast is that often it is not enough for one interest group to try to go it alone, you need allies; and in order to build allies, you have to build connections and help people to see things as being in their own interest. I agree that that is true, and I also think we would all benefit more from expanding our perspective and being able to see and care about the needs of another just for their own sake, not because it benefits me in someway.

If trends continue, bias against the LGBTQ community will actually be all but banished in nine years. That’s amazing to think about, and certainly something to celebrate; in the meantime, I hope that we can continue to work on dismantling other kinds of bias, and creating a world that is more just, inclusive, and welcoming to everyone.

Listen to the podcast; it’s really interesting!

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