Of Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin, and old wineskin

A reader weighs in on Barney Frank, Obama, the Democratic party and the past and future of gay civil rights. It’s worth a read:

In thinking about the events of the past week – and especially Barney Frank’s sudden and extremely transparent political volte face – I am reminded of certain parallels to Stonewall. My husband and I have been talking a lot about Stonewall recently, both of us having just finished David Carter’s excellent history of that watershed event.

I believe we may have arrived at another turning point. It is still early days, but I sense there has been a shift in the mood of a significant and highly vocal segment of our community as we have made the unpleasant and highly painful realization that we have – once again – simply been strung along by the Democratic party. There’s a reason that “con man” stands for confidence – for the con artist trades on people’s willingness to believe the lies they are told, to place their confidence in the swindler.

During the years leading up to Stonewall, Mattachine did the hard work of laying the foundation for the gay rights movement. They carefully cultivated relationships with politicians (who seldom reciprocated) and were careful to avoid rocking the boat too much. Mattachine knew well the hatred and ignorance that was out there, and they feared it. Their fear dictated their actions and their approach: cultivate a meek, unthreatening image, avoid confrontations with the authorities at all cost, and gradually build acceptance over time. Mattachine did achieve some successes, but it was a limited vehicle at best. The Stonewall riots horrified Mattachine and they did their best to try to pacify the community and stop the rioting. Within a matter of weeks after the riot, they had virtually ceased to exist. As Carter eloquently points out, the old wineskin was incapable of containing the new wine. Mattachine’s successor organizations – the Gay Liberation Front and especially the Gay Activist Alliance – succeeded where Mattachine had failed, and for the simple fact that the new activist organizations refused to allow their fears to dictate their actions. By taking an in-your-face approach, choosing confrontation and “zaps” over accomodation, and nurturing the nascient lesbian and gay identity, GAA became the model for successful gay activism.

By making such a crass and transparently political calculation, Barney Frank has committed the same mistake that Mattachine made. He has overvalued his relationship with the Democratic power establishment over his relationship with our community – and in so doing, he has forgotten his roots. Had he spoken up for our community by giving voice to the pain that ordinary gay couples feel over DOMA, we would have rallied around him as a natural leader. But by defending Obama’s indefensible legal brief, he has placed himself at odds with his own community. He will not lose everyone’s support – our community is not monolithic – but at this very moment in history, Barney Frank was handed a rare opportunity to rise to the occasion and become a truly great leader. Instead, he has revealed himself as just another crass politician.

The old wineskin is incapable of containing the new wine.

Just as the community turned away from Mattachine after Stonewall, so we will choose other leaders if they will not reliably stand up for us. It will first happen silently, in people’s hearts, then it will loudly explode in the blogosphere.

Homophobic hatred and ignorance cannot be overcome by avoidance or compromise. It must be confronted. Although the road difficult and painful, and paved with many setbacks, we will ultimately prevail. We always have. We did not get to this point as a movement by patiently waiting for supposedly “friendly” politicians to honor their campaign promises. During our great strides forward – Stonewall, the civil rights ordinances of the 70s and 80s, AIDS activism, and now gay marriage – our self-appointed “leaders” have all-too-often been found in the rear, urging us to slow down, be patient, swallow our anger and our pride, and not rock the boat. We have seldom, if ever, gotten anywhere by listening to such counsel, or by worrying about the potential for a backlash.

New wineskins for new wine.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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