State vs. Federal Approaches to LGBT Equality

by: Adam Bink

Fri Sep 18, 2009 at 10:38

There is an interesting debate going on in the LGBT movement around strategy of where to focus resources. It had been coming up more and more around discussions of the usefulness/cost-effectiveness of the National Equality March vs. the Maine campaign to defend marriage equality, but then jumped into high-octane when Cleve Jones, the principal proponent of the March, made a remark in an interview with Bil Browning at the Bilerico Project:

We're trying to change the strategy of the movement. We believe that the strategy that we have followed thus far - which was what made sense at the time and a strategy that was advanced by good, dedicated, hard-working people - is nonetheless a failed strategy. I am tired of fighting state by state, county by county, city by city, for fractions of equality. I am tired of compromises and I am tired of the strategy that divides us from each other. It is time for us to unite across state boundaries in a truly nationwide movement to win full, actual equality, which can only come from the federal government. That's not my opinion. That's a fact. If we want to be equal under the law, we must now - as the great heroes of the Civil Rights movement of 1963 and 1964 showed us - turn our attention to the federal government.

He repeated this on September 14th:

"We are trying to change the strategy," he said. "We are doing this because we are tired with the endless state by state, county by county, city by city hoped for victories that, even when achieved, are incomplete and impermanent.

"It's our perspective that true equality can only come from decisive, unequivocal action from the United States Congress, the United States Supreme Court, and the president of the United States," he said. "We're really engaged in an effort to shift the strategy to open up a new front in this struggle at the federal level."

A few thoughts on this. One is the old adage, that the states are the laboratories of democracy. Toni Broaddus of the Equality Federation (the coalition of state-based LGBT orgs) nails that point in her response open letter to Cleve. If by chance a cautious Senator gets over his or her hand-wringing on anything LGBT, one big reason is because the states have done it first. One of the best predictors of a federal legislator's position on something is where his/her state is on the issues. That means that, however unfortunate, a state has to demonstrate that legalizing same-sex marriage does not cause the man upstairs to rain fire on the populace of Massachusetts as the haters have forecasted, does not force churches to marry couples, does not cause businesses to go bankrupt providing benefits to same-sex partners, etc. before federal action is taken on DOMA. This matters at the Supreme Court level too. It's the equivalent of planting the seeds before expecting the plant to yield fruit. You can't run off to DC expecting fruit to be borne by not investing in a state and local strategy.

Second, his "true equality can only come from federal action/state by state is incomplete" argument rings true enough. My quarrel is with his dismissal of the efforts altogether. It's one thing to make an argument that there needs to be more of an investment in federal efforts, and quite another to say you're tired of "failed" state-focused efforts (which is altogether weird, as Cleve is a Senior Advisor to the Courage Campaign, one of the pioneering groups working largely at the state level). In the first place, state-focused efforts have been somewhat successful. In 21 states and DC, there are LGB employment protections- even for transgender people in 13 states. In six states, same-sex couples have the right to marry, several more (like NJ) are close, and several more (NY and DC) recognize such marriages for couples wishing to reside there. Aside from that, issues like adoption for same-sex couples is considered at the state level, not federally. You have to focus on the states. What do we have on the federal level? Virtually nothing. What will we get without state-based investments? Nothing. Saying you're "tired" of "failed" state-based efforts is unstrategic and frankly offensive to many LGBT individuals and couples living in those places.

Third, two of the main criticisms of the march are that poor planning set it up to fail, and that it's not cost-effective in terms of what it will accomplish. Cleve, in a clever bit of PR jujitsu, is trying to pivot away from that criticism by arguing such critics are following a failed strategy in the first place, so why should you listen to their criticism. It doesn't actually answer a lot of the basic logistical arguments against the march- such as Congress not being in session during the event and serious budget cuts in orgs across the country leading to problems such as no resources for the planned AIDS vigil at the Lincoln Memorial. State or federal strategies aside, there is still a basic failure in how Cleve ran this show, which is announcing on June 7th there will be a march and then going to plan it, leading to the problems I describe above. Arguing critics have a failed strategy doesn't change that valid argument.

Adam Bink :: State vs. Federal Approaches to LGBT Equality

Tags: , , , , (All Tags)
Print Friendly View Send As Email

I think Cleve's heart is in the right place... (4.00 / 1)
I really wanted to go and be a part of the march. I still support everyone who will be there for the march, and I hope our community won't let this latest outbreak of infighting discourage these activists from going to the march and getting more involved with the LGBT civil rights struggle.

Still, I must admit that I was too eager at first to overlook the major flaws in this plan. In retrospect, I can see that Cleve probably didn't pick the best date, as Congress will be out of town, and the Washington (state) and Maine campaigns will be starting their GOTV efforts. It's critical that we help R-71 succeed in WA to protect domestic partnerships (DPs), and that we defeat Question 1 in ME to defend marriage equality there.

I still think the whole equality march can be salvaged, but only if Cleve opens his mind to supporting these important state campaigns. Maybe he can help in organizing caravans to Maine after the DC march?

Yes, Virginia, there are progressives in Nevada.

lol (4.00 / 1)
demonstrate that legalizing same-sex marriage does not cause the man upstairs to rain fire on the populace of Massachusetts as the haters have forecasted, does not force churches to marry couples, does not cause businesses to go bankrupt providing benefits to same-sex partners,

The Canadians were actually hoping  for a rain of fire, if only during winter, this was one of the main selling points. "Allow equal marriages, get wintertime rain of fire!" was a popular topic around the frozen radiators last winter.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

BTW, didnt the California "forests of fire" happen __after__ Prop 8? (4.00 / 1)
If we wanted proof of what the gal upstairs was pissed about ask around Los Angeles, Placer, Monterey and Mariposa counties.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

[ Parent ]
But that also assumes (0.00 / 0)
the reason for such opposition to same-sex marriage is because of religious beliefs.

In fact, I would say the religious defense is a's a nice way of saying "It's not me, it's God"

Reality is, they just plain hate gay people.  

[ Parent ]
The beatings they got as children and the shame instilled from early on. (0.00 / 0)
Makes these poor people, who would get much sympathy if they just stopped trying so desperately to please daddy by castigating anything that would have earned them a belt if they had been found doing it.

What they are really screaming at marchers during the pride parade isn't "You are bad homos!" but instead "I am not a homo daddy! - - - I am not a HOMO DADDY!"

Of course there are also the leaders, who couldn't care less about this one way or the other, they are merely re-stating the foundational principle of their faith: "Whatever I say must be obeyed."


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

[ Parent ]
two problems with his argument (4.00 / 4)
First, Congress won't repeal DOMA until many states have legalized same-sex marriage, in my opinion.

Second, every Prop-8 type initiative that passes is a huge setback to the movement.

So, even if you agree with him that activists should focus more on trying to change federal law than change state law, it's imperative to prevent the California scenario from being repeated in Maine.

If Maine voters reject Prop 1, that could reassure members of Congress. But if "even liberal Maine" passes Prop 1, good luck finding more co-sponsors for repealing the federal DOMA.

Join the Iowa progressive community at Bleeding Heartland.

And that's kind of the real point, I think (0.00 / 0)
all of these approaches are complementary, not exclusive to each other.  Yes, a federal law will just end the thing once and for all, but action at the state level gets you closer to a federal law, not farther away.  

Though, the last time I looked, there weren't many states that still didn't either have prop-8 style laws or some form of civil union.  A few, but not many.  

In the end, I think a legal challenge is going to be the only successful avenue, anyway.  

[ Parent ]
If maine and Iowa can sustain their laws, and fight back the tax exempt church's (0.00 / 0)
political attempt to codify, or re-codify bigotry, that would go a long way to making America safe for non discrimination laws. I for one want to go hard after the Church of Latter Day Bigots. They are a power cult, nothing else. I am sure they can reform, they have certainly changed a lot over the years since they lost their tablets, what with allowing black people to join and all, and saying that 4 wives is too many.

But as their live their days of bigotry, they will need to live their days with criticism, just as they always have.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

[ Parent ]
If Iowa had a vote on it this November (4.00 / 1)
I would have no doubt they'd overturn the law...we luck out that Iowa's constitution amending process is very difficult and thus buys time.

in places like California, where an amendment needs a simple majority, and Maine, where a simple majority of the popular vote can overturn a law, it makes it easier.

Hell, I'd be willing to bet an amendment to ban gay marriage has a 50/50 chance of passing in New York State.

[ Parent ]

Open Left Campaigns



Advanced Search

Powered by: SoapBlox