June 27, 2016 at 6:57 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
House floor sit-in recalls early days of LGBT activism
activism, gay news, Washington Blade

On left, activists participate in civil disobedience at the Food and Drug Administration in 1988 to demand better AIDS medications. On right, Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) joins a sit in on the House floor to protest inaction on gun control. (Washington Blade photo of FDA protest by Doug Hinckle; image of congressional sit-in courtesy C-Span)

Feeling the aftershocks of a tragedy affecting the LGBT community, activists facing daunting odds held a demonstration aimed at disrupting government proceedings in an effort to make change.

That introduction could have been used for any number of news stories on actions conducted by ACT UP during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s or GetEQUAL at the start of the Obama administration urging action on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

Last week, the actors weren’t grassroots LGBT activists but Democratic lawmakers staging a 25-hour sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House to urge action on gun safety legislation. The demonstration, enacted by lawmakers wearing rainbow-colored pins, took place after a mass shooting in which the target was a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and the overwhelming number of the 49 people killed were LGBT.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) proceeded with business on the floor and lawmakers never got the votes they were seeking on background checks and “no fly, no buy” gun legislation, but the demonstration made national headlines and rallied a large segment of the American population frustrated with inaction after endless mass shootings and casualties.

The same could be said for LGBT grassroots activists, whose demonstrations weren’t immediately followed by results. But after time passed, the Food & Drug Administration released HIV medications at an accelerated pace, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed and President Obama signed an executive order barring anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who’s gay and one of the lawmakers who planned the demonstration, acknowledged an attack on LGBT people was the impetus for the action, but said what generally was in his mind was the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.

“That was a gay club and very clearly targeted because it was a gay club,” Cicilline said. “So, I think it was a conversion of both a hate crime and domestic terrorism, and I think it was just the most recent and most horrific example of this epidemic of gun violence in our country, and many of us really feel very strongly that there’s got to be a response. It cannot be that we have another mass shooting and that we get up, have a moment of silence and we devote exactly one-minute of silence, nothing else, as our response to this kind of violence.”

Leading the sit-in was Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who in the 1960s participated in civil disobedience to advocate for civil rights laws and spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. The appearance of Lewis leading the sit-in imparted to the demonstration a sense of morality from the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Despite the similarities of the House floor sit-in to LGBT activism, LGBT movement leaders who participated in activism over the course of recent decades had different reactions to the demonstration.

Peter Staley, a New York-based gay rights activist who participated in ACT UP demonstrations in the 1980s, endorsed the House floor sit-in and called it a pivotal moment in efforts to enact gun safety legislation.

“The House sit-in, led by one of my personal heroes, John Lewis, was a watershed moment,” Staley said. “It represented the end of fear by the Democratic Party toward the NRA. They had finally had enough, and are realizing that voters have had enough as well.”

Heather Cronk, outgoing co-director of the LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL, lauded the willingness of congressional Democrats “to take bold action on an urgent issue,” but wasn’t on board with the goals of the sit-in.

“The House sit-in wasn’t about gay safety — it was about a few moderate and conservative approaches to gun control, some of which actually make LGBTQ folks less safe,” Cronk said. “The ‘no fly, no buy’ bill, especially, is a deeply racist approach to gun control that has zero data-driven correlation to keeping people safe.”

Cronk said “rather than taking a bold stand for a bad bill,” she’d like to see congressional Democrats reassess their strategy over the break and “put together a more progressive approach to gun control.”

“If they’re willing to shift their strategy while holding on to their tactics, I think there’s a powerful opportunity for real change,” Cronk said.

Larry Kramer, a gay playwright and longtime HIV/AIDS activist who founded ACT UP, derided the Blade’s inquiry about whether he felt the demonstration was effective, calling it “a very dumb question.”

“Any action that gets as much worldwide and front-page attention as this one did is hugely effective,” Kramer said. “Both the cons and the pros can take from it what each will but it’s brought the issue out in the open, where it belongs, for the argument to be fought.”

Kramer similarly rejected a question about whether the House floor sit-in was appropriate in the aftermath of mass shootings at a gay nightclub with LGBT victims.

“Your use of the word ‘appropriate’ is particularly annoying to me,” Kramer said. “The whole point about ACT UP was that we didn’t give a flying fuck what those against us thought of us. You do not get more with honey than with vinegar, and at the height of our successes, we were right. I wish there were more and bigger and louder ACT UPs going into high gear now. We are always going to have enemies. We must never cease fighting back.”

If lawmakers are becoming more like LGBT activists in their pursuit of gun safety legislation, LGBT advocates are becoming more like gun safety supporters in the aftermath of Orlando. Major LGBT groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, have pledged to support gun safety measures as part of their agenda going forward.

Cicilline, who’s long advocated for gun control and has introduced an assault weapons ban in Congress, said he thinks efforts from LGBT advocates will be effective in making change.

The Orlando shooting “was a very painful experience” for LGBT people, Cicilline said, because of “the kind of sanctuary and sense of empowerment and protection that came from spending time in a place like Pulse, and what the refuge meant to us when we were younger and just coming out.”

“All of us understand the very special significance of that place to our community, and I think having more partners and more allies in this fight for responsible gun safety will absolutely accelerate the progress we make in this area,” Cicilline said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • The AIDS crises helped galvanize the community more than anything. Despite Stonewall, many people just had no real interest in fighting for our rights before AIDS hit the scene. They accepted the status quo.
    People had no choice as their lives were on the line and backlashes over the stigma and fear of the disease gave us little choice.

  • I’d love a more progressive approach as much as the next Democrat, but there’s no way to get a far left bill passed in this current do nothing Congress. I’d rather pass something imperfect but would still keep guns out of the hands of terrorists than do nothing at all. Those activists calling for something more ideologically pure have yet to come up with a realistic way to get it passed.

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