Equality Matters and the new gay activism

Yesterday came news of Equality Matters, a new creation of Media Matters for America, the liberal media watchdog founded by gay conservative-turned-liberal journalist David Brock in 2004. Equality Matters, the Times reported, will be “a ‘communications war room for gay equality’ in an effort to win the movement’s next and biggest battle: for a right to same-sex marriage.” Richard Socarides, the former Clinton aide and current Obama critic and TV pundit who will head the group, writes on its website, “The goal of Equality Matters is to leverage our expertise in media and communications, and politics and policy, to support those who share this belief [in ‘full gay equality’] and help create an environment where policymakers, the courts, the media and the public at large understand that gay rights are human rights.” Kerry Eleveld, the outgoing White House correspondent for the Advocate, will edit the group’s website.

This is a really noteworthy development. In a later post, I’ll write more about the light that history can shed on Equality Matters and its challenge to GLAAD in the realm of gay media activism. Right now, I want to consider why this challenge is emerging now, and in the way it is.

The launch of Equality Matters confirms, I think, a significant shift underway in the structure of gay activism. This shift dates to the moment when, in the wake of California voters’ passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, young people and the Join the Impact movement organized massive, nationwide protests largely over Facebook and other social media. But it has not exactly taken the shape many predicted at that time: a shift toward technologically-enhanced and -enabled grassroots power labeled, famously, “Stonewall 2.0″ or “Gay Activism 4.0″ by Rex Wockner.

To be sure, frustration with both the status quo and established gay organizations, particularly the HRC, has persisted, even intensified. This has been especially so online, on blogs including Pam’s House Blend and AmericaBlog Gay. The October 2009 National Equality March was arguably an extension of that initial “Join the Impact” moment; possibly, the “It Gets Better” phenomenon is as well.

Ted Olson, Chad Griffin, David Boies, and plaintiff Jeff Zarrillo at AFER's May 27, 2009 press conference (screengrab from live webcast)

Ted Olson, Chad Griffin, David Boies, and plaintiff Jeff Zarrillo at AFER's May 27, 2009 press conference (screengrab from live webcast)

However, the most notable new activist-esque enterprises to emerge from this environment have included an additional feature not forecast in the heady days of Stonewall 2.0: deep-pocketed founders or supporters. The American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), created in 2009 to sponsor the Ted Olson-David Boies federal court challenge to Prop 8, is backed by Hollywood power players Rob Reiner and Bruce Cohen. The direct action group GetEqual is bankrolled by Progressive Insurance heir Jonathan Lewis. Fight Back New York, the PAC established this year to oust state legislators who opposed marriage equality, is funded by Tim Gill and others. And now, Equality Matters will draw from the largesse of Media Matters’ liberal donors.

Socarides himself addresses this context–sort of–in his initial statement on the Equality Matters website:

Another important factor in the evolution of where we are today is the democratizing impact that “new media” and the Internet have had on the equality movement. […] Partially as an outgrowth of all this information, new gay rights groups like Get Equal and Fight Back New York, formed just this year, were able to demonstrate that you could get results by being tough on friend and foe alike (a fact almost no one in Washington seems to get).

It’s a bit submerged in this account, but it seems evident that the democratizing power of new media and the discontent with established gay organizations among the LGBT grassroots have also made it much easier for gay, lesbian, and allied elites to challenge these established organizations while giving their efforts a grassroots, insurgent cast. Many existing gay organizations lack the credibility to stand in the way of well-off donors who decide to create new activist initiatives and hire legal, political, and media experts to staff them. Social media allow these new groups to offer, at minimum, the appearance of accessibility and transparency—like us on Facebook! read our tweets! embed our videos! And widespread anger with the status quo provides them a ready base of support.

Still missing, however, is anything approximating an actual grassroots alternative to organizations like the HRC and GLAAD.

Also missing, significantly, is any hint of real substantive differences with these organizations’ agendas. As Socarides’ statement above suggests, most of the loud discontent voiced over the last two years has focused on matters of style and strategy: a need for a more aggressive stance, greater pressure on allies, less compromise, immediate progress, and (sometimes) more direct action. But these preferred approaches still serve a similar agenda: open military service, employment non-discrimination, and marriage equality. These new, vocal challenges to the gay organizational establishment have not, so far, done much to broaden or diversify its agenda, as queer and radical critics have long sought. The Times article ends with a quote from David Brock: “We believe the big battle is full equality, which is gay marriage.” Indeed, if anything, the agenda of these new groups is more narrowly focused on the important, but ultimately limited, military-employment-marriage trifecta.

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