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November 4, 2005

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Volume 33
Issue 44

 
 
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Lesbian Notions by Libby Post
Where Is Our Martin Luther King?
A Gay male dinner companion asked me recently, "Where's our Martin Luther King? I want someone to lead me, someone I can get behind," he said. "Why don't we have a national leader like that?"

I have to admit I was a little dumbfounded. Maybe my mental blank was the result of being around the Lesbian and Gay leadership block a few times and knowing firsthand the pitfalls of actually being in that hot seat. Or maybe I knew that we would never allow ourselves a charismatic leader who would bring all of us to the promised land of equal rights and responsibilities. We're too diverse a community and would never agree on who it should be - or even if we should have one in the first place.

Snapping out of my mental reverie, I looked at my dinner companion and gave him my party line: We all need to be leaders in our own right - whether it's writing a letter or organizing a protest, it's up to each and every one of us to make change. What happens at the state and national levels is vitally important, but just as crucial is the grassroots activity where individual Lesbians and Gays build relationships and break down barriers in our own back yards.

He didn't buy it. He wanted a national icon. Truth be told, the closest we've ever come to that icon is Harvey Milk in the late '70s, and he suffered the same fate as Dr. King.

I'm sure there are many folks like my dinner companion out in the community - millions who feel overwhelmed by the spotlight given to homophobia by a White House that embraces the politics of the radical Christian right as its own. Many of us yearn for a brilliant point of light that can lead us out of this desolation, a person whose vision and charisma rise above the din, demanding that prejudice be replaced with pride.

But the diversity and factionalism - and sometimes jealousy, and even apathy - that keeps leadership from rising to the top is nothing new to our community.

Out of the watershed of activity that resulted from the 1987 Lesbian and Gay March on Washington was a short-lived but incredibly well-done journal called OutLook: National Lesbian and Gay Quarterly. In the summer 1988 issue there was a perceptive article titled "Why Gay Leaders Don't Last: The First Ten Years After Stonewall." Its author, David Jernigan, depicted a nascent movement born of antiwar, left-wing activism - much as the women's movement was - that confronted the dominant culture and took pains not to mimic it. So, in a real sense, being or supporting a leader was seen as a paradigm of the patriarchy and was not valued. Grassroots, collective advocacy and process that led to mutual decision-making were.

Even the Gay papers of the day didn't recognize the leaders visible in the movement at the time. According to Jernigan, "A significant segment of the Gay and Lesbian press - notably Boston's Gay Community News - was ready to attack any visible and reasonably forceful Gay or Lesbian leaders for taking the bribe from the patriarchal society, and it gave little positive press to visible leaders of either sex."

Thirty-six years later, while the majority of us no longer see leadership as a "bribe from the patriarchy," we still have trouble reconciling ourselves to each other. In some respects, we eat our leadership. We may never know what really happened within the Human Rights Campaign that led to Cheryl Jacques' short-lived tenure as its president. "A difference in management philosophy," as cited by HRC's board upon Jacques' exit, reads more like an internal power struggle to me. Jacques was a woman with vision, who understood organizational development and LGBT politics, who was moving HRC forward, and in a heartbeat she was gone.

But perhaps Jacques herself sums it up best on her website (www.cheryljacques.org): "The struggle for Gay civil rights is at a crossroads in America, and even within the GLBT community there are differences of opinion about how the struggle for equality should proceed. While many committed leaders are continuing the long march toward full equality, including equal marriage rights, others are arguing that we have gone too far, too fast, and that we should wait for society to catch up."

With the LGBT political road diverging in the wood like this, it's no wonder we have no singular leader - by taking one strategic path, he or she would be assailed by those walking another. And so, my dear dinner companion, there lies the rub and the reason.



Libby Post is the founding chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda and a political commentator on public radio, on the Web, and in print media. She can be reached care of this publication or at LesbianNotions@qsyndicate.com.

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