We have come a long way in the 50 years since the first gay rights demonstration was held in front of the White House in 1965. That was four years before Stonewall, which many credit as the start of the modern gay rights movement.
In those years I was more involved in the Civil Rights movement and the women’s rights movement during the 1970s than fighting for gay rights. I had yet to come out when Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings were already fighting and demonstrating in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. Many believe the first major U.S. protest for LGBT equality took place in Philadelphia in front of Independence Hall on July 4, 1965. That protest was coordinated by Philadelphia resident Barbara Gittings and Washingtonian Frank Kameny, now considered by many the mother and father of the gay rights movement. That demonstration brought activists from multiple cities together who openly identified as gay and called for equality. Kameny was an interesting character, and I use that word in a complimentary way. It was wonderful to see him honored for his life’s work by John Berry — then director of the United States Office of Personnel Management.
Since those early demonstrations and the Stonewall Riots in New York the fight for the human and civil rights of the LGBT community has moved forward faster than anyone would have predicted. In June the Supreme Court will likely rule marriage equality is a constitutional right. Yet, in many states, a gay person can be married one day and fired from their job or denied housing the next.
To remedy this, a bill is being readied for introduction in the Congress. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) announced his plan to push a broad and comprehensive LGBT Non-Discrimination Act. At an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress, Merkley said he will work with advocates and congressional partners in 2015 to draft and pass such legislation. The bill as discussed would be very close to the bill first introduced in 1974 by then Congresswoman Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.). The problems it will encounter are most likely the same as that first bill and it will see the same fate. In the current Republican Congress unless there is a radical change of heart it will have zero chance of passing. Along with the Republicans who will vote against it are a slew of Democrats who are still afraid of their own shadow when it comes to speaking out for LGBT rights.
So my prediction is we will still need modern-day activists to take to the streets. But to have any success they will need to be backed up by an army of supporters who will work the halls of Congress, one office at a time, to convince members that passing this bill is the right thing to do. One recent event that gives me some hope was seeing how the business community stepped up to the plate with regard to the recent Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed by Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence. They forced him to backtrack and then sign a second bill at least enacting some form of protection from discrimination for the LGBT community. Many said too little too late, but it was a step forward.
To win the remaining battles after marriage equality, our community will need to harness that same energy and support from the business community on Capitol Hill that we saw in Indiana. We will need Tim Cook of Apple and the CEO of Walmart to walk the halls of Congress with us. We need to convince the National Chamber of Commerce to stand up alongside the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which said discrimination of any kind is bad for business. We need NASCAR and the NCAA to stand with the Human Rights Campaign and our other national organizations and go with them to every office on Capitol Hill to lobby for a comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill.
The National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and all its chapters must live up to what they were intended to be when they were formed and demonstrate the clout our businesses and our allied businesses can bring to bear. They need to make the ask of those big businesses that say they support us and bring together all their lobbyists to join in this fight. That is the vision I had more than 10 years ago when I wrote a column in this newspaper suggesting the need for an LGBT chamber. Working together we can complete the fight Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny began 50 years ago.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.