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Bring back the coffee klatch. (last word).

When New York State passed a gay and lesbian civil rights bill in December, after 31 years of struggle, I was shocked at how little attention that milestone generated among the highly informed urban gay people I work and socialize with. Although transgender activism, who had fought unsuccessfully for trans inclusion in the bill, shared their opinions passionately, there was almost no public discussion--or apparent notice, even--among informed gay New Yorkers before and after the bill was passed.

Of course, that sort of political apathy isn't limited to gay people. But it was the gay rights movement that was on my mind as I read sociologist Nina Eliasoph's book Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. In it Eliasoph debunks the conventional view that Americans don't know or understand how politics influences their individual lives. Instead, she argues, part of the reason people aren't talking about political issues is that American society doesn't encourage active dialogue. There are few public spaces in which people are actively encouraged to debate, form opinions, and discuss issues of common concern. Creating more public conversation depends on creating more settings that encourage discussion, Eliasoph says.

Reading this book made me think about the steep decline in lively, public conversation about gay and transgender politics within the gay community. It's especially troubling considering that gay rights advocates do have venues to debate in. I was struck by the weakness of public debate at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference in November. Creating Change is the largest annual gathering of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender activists; 2,300 people attended this past year. The 2002 conference addressed the ongoing challenges of creating a progressive GLBT movement that works to eradicate racism both inside our communities and in the broader society. Yet the challenge of how the gay rights movement as a whole could work on racism was nearly overshadowed by a vigorous campaign by attendees to get NGLTF's board to come out in opposition to war on Iraq. Every war involving the United States' racially and class-skewed volunteer army raises issues of racial and economic bias, but racism goes deeper than this war--it goes to the heart of our movement's goals. So why didn't this forum, built for information sharing and discussion, produce engagement and debate on this complex issue?

The low value we seem to place on debate must be addressed on multiple levels. For one, we do need more everyday public forums to talk about the next wave of GLBT community challenges. Debate shouldn't be something just for activists or something kept for special occasions. It needs to be a part of daily life for everyone. If we can create inclusive, participatory opportunities for public discussion, we can turn avoidance into engagement.

Second, we need to consider the impact of the shrinking GLBT media on political awareness within our communities. This includes a consideration of whether the media we have adequately cover GLBT politics with the range, depth of analysis, and perspective that our communities deserve. Web sites, columns, and op-eds are not substitutes for a more aggressive, public-spirited GLBT journalism.

Finally, we need to change the culture surrounding political talk. The absence of argument and public talk is intimately connected to people's fear of confrontation. Central to valuing public dialogue is the willingness to believe that the freedom we fight for in our movement must also extend to the freedom to disagree with each other. A new culture of political conversation must not only tolerate fundamental disagreement but also nurture it.

What I am not willing to settle for is this foggy, muddled silence--where the talk is all about consumption and not about politics.
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Article Details
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Author:Vaid, Urvashi
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 4, 2003
Words:617
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