Where's our Sharpton? When gays are insulted in the media, we don't have that one eloquent defender who can mow down our opponents on the national airwaves. Why don't we have a spokesperson of our own?
Gen. Peter Pace, who called homosexuality "immoral" and likened it to adultery, retains his post as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff months after his comments ran in the Chicago Tribune. The nation's conscience is elsewhere, and justice is a pipe dream.
What gives? Presumably if General Pace had labeled mixed-race couples "immoral" or picked on any other minority in the country-Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics--he wouldn't still be running our country's largest employer, the U.S. Armed Forces.
So where is our Al Sharpton the knight in armor who swoops in, takes on the mantle of gay outrage, and lashes out until our aggressor is slain? Where is our spokesperson with the political clout and media muscle to face down the establishment?
Granted the two situations aren't completely For starters, General Pace is a than Don Imus. "You're not going to get a Republican president removing the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on this issue--please," says professor Kenneth Sherrill, director of the Center for Sexuality and Public Policy at Hunter College in New York City. "You've got to be honest about who is running the government."
Also, homophobia simply does not elicit the outrage that racism and sexism do in this country. "It's a measure of how little support we have that [Pace] can make a statement like that and people running for president of the United States have to ponder whether or not to distance themselves from it," says Sherrill, referring to the fact that U.S. senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both initially ducked the question of whether they agreed with the general.
Nonetheless, the comparison reveals telling differences between the history of the LGBT civil rights experience and that of African-Americans. Gays and lesbians did learn to leverage the media quite powerfully in the '60s and '70s, says David Eisenbach, professor of media and politics at New York City's Columbia University and author of Gay Power, a book about gays and the media. The Gay Action Alliance staged protests and disrupted tapings of television shows until the hosts agreed to talk with them about gay issues to help dispel stereotypes of gays. "That was tremendously successful in a short period of time," says Eisenbach. "And they didn't have to create a mass movement, which would have been impossible in the 1970s--or even today, where gays are such a tiny percentage of the population."
But most of the leaders of this initiative, such as Morty Manford, Marty Robinson, and Frank Kameny were lost to AIDS in the '80s and '90s. "Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are still prominent leaders. They are still the celebrity leaders," explains Eisenbach. "[Thanks to AIDS], that generation got wiped out for the gay rights movement. No successor generation reached the level of celebrity and attention that both of these figures did."
Besides, Sharpton is a bit of an anomaly. He has political cachet because he has run for the U.S. Senate, mayor of New York City, and president of the United States. But because he's not an elected figure, he is not beholden to the voting public. "Sharpton is a national political figure--that's a part of how he developed this constituency in the press," says Hunter College's Sherrill. "Barney Frank is every bit as witty and gives good quote and so on, but he is somewhat constrained by the office he holds. Sharpton ... there's very little to constrain him in that regard."
The fact that African-Americans have former presidential candidates who can command a national stage illustrates yet another glaring difference--from the standpoint of numbers and sheer political clout, blacks are way ahead of the LGBT movement in terms of fielding candidates. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People estimates that more than 9,500 blacks hold elected office nationwide, while the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund counts only 370 openly gay people in elected office.
Perhaps even more telling, no openly gay person has ever won a statewide elected office--such as governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, or attorney general--without being an incumbent. Ed Flanagan was reelected as Vermont state auditor in 1996 afar he had come out in office.
Sherrill points out that African-American political power was jump-started by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which created majority black congressional districts. "You can't draw district lines that are majority gay the way you can draw district lines that are majority black," he says, noting that it takes a population density of about 750,000 people to form a congressional district. "Gay people are everywhere and are the majority nowhere."
But some observers see the gay movement's differences as strengths. Jeff Edwards, an associate professor at Chicago's Roosevelt University who specializes in political movements, questioned whether gays and lesbians should even wish for a single spokesperson.
"The reason we don't have such a leader is assumed to be a bad thing," says Edwards, "but I think our movement has been heavily influenced by feminism. The single-leader model is a patriarchal idea that some great person can give us direction as opposed to our collectively working through things, trying to avoid some person's emerging and having more power than the rest of us."
The diffuse nature of the LGBT movement also discourages the rise of a central power figure, Edwards observes. Much of gay organizing happens at the grassroots state and local levels--a reflection of the fact that until recently the U.S. Congress largely left the states to decide what rights, privileges, and protections should be denied or afforded to LGBT people.
This democratic approach to organizing has some allure, but the question remains: Does it get the job done? After all, General Pace is still drawing a paycheck and Don Imus is not.
Edwards questions the significance of Imus's downfall. "Don Imus is gone, but the larger culture of the mass media remains unchanged," he says, adding that if Pace had been removed, the culture of the military would still essentially remain the same.
"If Peter Pace is gone and you put in someone else who just knows how to hold his tongue at the right time, it doesn't really affect the average gay and lesbian [or] questioning person in the military," says Edwards. "There is ongoing grassroots work being done on the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. And I think that's the work that's going to produce actual change in the military."
One thing everybody agrees on when asked why the LGBT movement has not produced a dominant media voice: Spokespeople are usually drafted, created, and maintained by the media, not the movement.
For Hunter College's Sherrill, the fact that Sharpton emerged as the figure who saved the day with Imus may be more of a comment on his media skills than it is the state of any movement.
"People were probably sitting around newsrooms and saying, 'We need a quote from Al Sharpton on this,' because of his reputation for giving colorful newsworthy quotes," Sherrfll says. "I think it's a question of who's in the Rolodexes. I'm sure that the Urban League, the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund--they all had press releases, they all had people available, but reporters wanted the Sharpton quote."
Edwards adds ease of access to the mix. It's no accident, he reminds, that both Sharpton and Larry Kramer--who became the de facto AIDS spokesman for gays in the '90s--live in New York City, the news capital of the nation.
Columbia's Eisenbach equates the media's spokesperson fixation to a love affair with Hollywood narratives. "They need a likable figure who is charismatic fighting against the forces of evil. The media needs a clean story line just like in the movies," says Eisenbach, adding that there was a civil rights movement long before Martin Luther King Jr. entered the picture.
Another point of consensus among our sources: Sharpton shouldn't get all the credit for taking Imus down. In the end, the aging shock jock's fate was probably sealed by converging forces. Sharpton wasn't the actual rainmaker--he just brought some thunder to the storm.
"This was also a women's issue. Lots of women were really angered by this," says Sherrill. "You shouldn't underestimate the impact of women in the media organizations saying to their bosses, 'This is enough!'"
At this point, Eisenbach notes, the public voice of the gay population belongs not to politicos but to celebrities like Rosie O'Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres. "They are the prominent gay heroes, if you will, who have mass appeal," he says. "Particularly in Rosie's case, she has used it to make a very profound statement about gay rights and the legitimacy of gay life and family life. But as far as an Al Sharpton equivalent? No."
THE ADVOCATE POLL
Do LGBT people need a dedicated spokesperson to advocate for them?
Sign on to The Advocate's Web site beginning May 22 to cast your vote and leave your comments. Result will appear in the July 17 issue.
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|Title Annotation:||PRIDE 2007: activism|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jun 19, 2007|
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