In truth, that’s an undercount. Right-wing conservatives have been testing their next wave of attacks on LGBT Americans ever since their success last year with Indiana’s “religious freedom” (aka “license to discriminate”) bill in March 2015. But the real wake-up call to their intent dates back to February 2014 in Arizona, where the movement weathered a near miss after then-Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a “religious freedom” bill due to mounting pressure in the final hours of consideration.
So we have effectively been suffering from a strategy deficit outside of securing the freedom to marry for two years now. Even as the movement has made some gains on trans issues in the courts, our major groups have fought these legislative battles one by one without pro-actively putting forth a counter-narrative. Meanwhile the right’s effort in South Dakota appears to be part of a much broader strategy to block trans rights in both state legislatures and the courts.
But what is equally disconcerting, if not more, is the near total absence of grassroots energy to hold both our leadership and our politicians accountable. Just compare the LGBT movement to how other progressive constituencies are engaging in the 2016 debate. DREAM activists committed to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have been waging an intense battle to win over Latino voters, with emotions sometimes boiling over on both sides. Meanwhile alternating high-profile endorsements (and sometimes criticisms) from civil rights leaders and Black Lives Matters activists have dominated the headlines.
It’s been contentious, no doubt. And some worry that the tenor of the debate among these progressive constituencies could split the party come November. But the upside is, it demonstrates real passion—passion on the order of what LGBT activists certainly exhibited during the 2008 campaign.
One departure from the relative lack of engagement came from a brave young soul who took on John Kasich in Michigan. The student identified himself as a gay Democrat, said he "faces discrimination daily and weekly," and then asked Kasich about his views on LGBTQ issues. After Kasich said he was willing to do what he can to fight discrimination and mentioned attending a gay wedding, the student demanded better:
"I don't think that's enough for you to say you've been to a gay wedding."
"Well, we're not changing any laws," Kasich told him. "We're not changing. We're not going to allow discrimination on this."
"So the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality," the student noted. "Does that mean you would go out of your way to protect that right?"
Kasich ended the conversation. "Look, we're not changing any laws," he said. "The court has spoken. That's the end of it."
The LGBT movement needs a whole lot more of these type of no-bullshit interactions with candidates on both sides of the aisle. So if you’re worried about the movement’s direction or lack thereof, it’s time to get vocal. Organize locally. Attend candidate events and make sure they know what you expect to see during their presidency. Let them know how you are hurting, just as the young man did above. But most importantly, make sure they feel your passion for the issues.
No matter who is elected in November, we will have to fight for our priorities. If it’s a Republican, we will need a strategy in the states that has yet to emerge, because progress at the federal level will likely be lost for four years.
If it’s a Democrat, we will need to hold that person accountable early and often if we are to have any hope of passing pro-LGBT legislation rather than relying on the fallback of executive actions. But the only way to do that will be to match the fervor of the DREAMers and BLM activists.
I admire the actions both of those movements are executing and the commitment they are impressing upon the candidates. And despite the LGBT movement’s dramatic gains over the last handful of years, our needs will not make a President Sanders’ or Clinton’s priority list if we don’t demonstrate the type of real grassroots energy that causes headaches for politicians who are preoccupied with other concerns.