Given the left’s vision of itself as the tribune of the people, it’s a bitter irony that conservatives have proved so much better at grassroots advocacy. They are likelier to forcefully inform members of Congress of their policy preferences; liberals are more inclined to hold public demonstrations, in which like-minded people gather to reassure each other of their beliefs. Writing or calling your representatives and senators, and organizing others to do so as well, is not inherently exciting and relies on the implicit belief that representative government works as it should. Applauding speakers who denounce the unfairness of a particular situation and rail against the political system is more emotionally satisfying—but very much less effective. After years of pleading with allies to favor the first course over the second, I formulated a rule: if you care deeply about an issue, and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are almost certainly not doing your cause any good.
While our side held rallies, our opponents were flooding Congress with messages. I hoped that this disparity would galvanize LGBT leaders into effective action, but it did not. “You’ve got to get your people to contact us,” lamented one of our strongest allies, Senator Dick Durbin. He said this not because he was wavering in his support but because he knew how the absence of constituent pressure would affect many of our colleagues.
The unwillingness of the LGBT community to act effectively in its own interest manifested itself most dramatically in April 1993, when hundreds of thousands of us gathered in Washington for the community’s third mass demonstration against homophobia. It was called the “March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.”
I was looking forward to the march. On the personal side, it was an opportunity to alleviate the deep regret I felt over letting my fear of exposure keep me away from the first march, in 1979. When I reminisced about that event to Gerry Studds, who was also closeted in 1979, he told me that he had changed the route of his daily jog so that he could at least pass by the Mall, where the march was being held.
At the time of the march, the military ban still awaited congressional action. Seven hundred thousand marchers had come to town, but as Tim McFeeley, the executive director of the leading LGBT organization, the Human Rights Campaign, notes in Creating Change, “Only a few hundred of the marchers bothered to lobby their members of Congress.” To my deep disappointment, the march confirmed my impression that many of my allies preferred undisciplined self-expression to serious participation in the political process. There were eloquent appeals to allow us to serve our country. But their impact was substantially diluted, if not obliterated, by the antics of those McFeeley describes as “foulmouthed entertainers and bizarrely costumed revelers.” One prominent lesbian comedian exulted that there was finally a first lady she would like to “fuck”—her remark was carried live by C-SPAN and widely cheered by the march audience. If Nunn and Dole were watching, they must have been grateful.
I take credit for preventing what would have been an even greater disaster. As I waited behind the stage to be introduced, I was horrified to see nine or ten of the gay soldiers who had been victimized by the ban standing shoulder to shoulder, beginning a rhythmic kick routine, with accompanying campy gestures. Nothing could have been more devastating to our argument that LGBT people would blend comfortably into the military than a photo—or worse, a video—of these guys lined up not to march but to emulate the Rockettes. The soldiers agreed to halt their routine, though not without expressing their anger at me. Not for the last time, I was told I was too culturally restrained to be a gay leader. (In 2011, when I disassociated myself from outrageous, abusive comments made about Senator Scott Brown’s family by the comedian Kathy Griffin, she responded that I was obviously an inhibited straight man pretending to be gay.)
There were obvious parallels between the 1993 gathering and the civil rights movement’s great March on Washington in 1963. But the differences were far greater, and entirely to our disadvantage. A. Philip Randolph, the patriarch of the anti-racist movement, put Bayard Rustin in charge of organizing the march and supervising the speaking program. The result was a series of disciplined, powerful messages calculated to have the maximum beneficial effect. John Lewis reports that he had to submit multiple copies of his speech to Rustin for vetting. In one case he was told that he could not say “the people demand” equality because it would sound too radical. The contrast between that great sober, moving occasion and the antics at our march could not have been greater. If a black comedian had begun to joke about having sex with Jackie Kennedy, he would have been thrown in the Reflecting Pool, not cheered.
In addition to being disappointed in the march, I was disappointed in the ad hoc organization that the LGBT community created to manage our effort—the Campaign for Military Service. The leaders of this group, David Mixner and Tom Stoddard, were talented men with impressive track records. I admired their past work, but I differed sharply with their strategy in this case. (Candor requires a personal note here: Stoddard and I had dated for a few months, but when that ended, we remained friends, and there was no ill feeling on either side—until strategic and tactical differences inevitably took on a personal dimension.)
By the mid-1990s, our progress was not confined to poll numbers. Our legal position was better too. Starting with Wisconsin in 1982 and Massachusetts in 1989, states began including us in their anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, the Defense of Marriage Act did not prove to be a potent wedge. To my knowledge, no Democrat was defeated because of his or her opposition to the bill. The GOP would not initiate another anti-LGBT legislative effort until 2004.
Not for the first time, my political reading of the status of our struggle was more optimistic than that of many in our community. And once again I believe that the subsequent events have validated my view. This was not merely a theoretical debate. It was directly relevant to deciding where we should put most of our energies. If I was correct, then we ought to step up our participation in the political process—we should register to vote, let our representatives know what we wanted them to do, and then, following the classic and still valid political maxim, reward our friends and punish our enemies with votes, contributions, and organizing.
The logic of the opposite opinion—that the “system” was stacked against us and in the control of those determined to keep us unequal—called for direct action instead of electioneering. “You want to play nice with the system,” I was told scornfully. “We know that power never grants rights without struggle, without our making that establishment so uncomfortable that they have to give in.”
Such a preference for demonstrative over electoral politics was often reinforced by a badly flawed reading of the careers of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They did rely on marches, sit-ins, and other forms of physical protest to put moral pressure on their opponents, who claimed to believe in the democratic principles Gandhi and King were invoking against them. And they sought to disturb the status quo so that it would be less socially disruptive for officials to accommodate them than to continue to repress them. But neither of these great leaders chose this route in preference to using the votes of their millions of followers to gain their ends. They engaged in direct action precisely because this was the only method available to them—Indians in the British Empire had no right to vote on their situation, and African Americans in the American South had that right in theory but hardly in practice. Once they gained full access to the ballot box, they sensibly made that their main focus.
When LGBT leaders cited Gandhi and King, I offered my own counterexample—the National Rifle Association’s great success in dominating policy debates about gun control, despite being in a minority on the issue in every national poll I have ever seen. As I enjoyed pointing out, especially to those LGBT activists who decried my lack of “militancy,” I have never seen an NRA public demonstration. They do not have marches. There have been no NRA mock shoot-ins to rival the die-ins staged by AIDS activists. And those liberals who try to comfort themselves with the notion that the NRA wins legislative battles because of their vast campaign contributions are engaged in self-deceptive self-justification. The NRA wins at the ballot box, not in the streets and not by checkbook. The NRA does what I have long begged my LGBT allies to do, at first with mixed results, and more recently with much greater success. They urge all of their adherents to get on the voting rolls. They are diligent to the point of obsession in making sure that elected officials hear from everyone in their constituencies who opposes any limits on guns, especially when a relevant measure is being considered, and then they do an extraordinary job of informing their supporters of how those officials cast their votes.
It was necessary for us to make our presence known publicly when our fight started in the early 1970s, because our anonymity was an obstacle to gaining support. It is impossible to generate sympathy for people who are largely invisible. To return to the comparison to race, African Americans never had to worry that white people didn’t know they were there or that discrimination existed. While racism has done far more damage than homophobia, LGBT teenagers faced a problem that heterosexual African Americans did not: breaking the truth to their parents. No teenager ever had to endure the emotionally fraught task of informing her parents that she was black. Once the public became aware of our existence, however, the situation changed. The case for putting demonstrative politics first became defunct.
Excerpted from “The True Story of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and “Welcome to an Earmark” from Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage by Barney Frank. Copyright © 2015 by Barney Frank. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.