From The Ground Up

When it comes to educating people on LGBT issues, sometimes politicians don’t cut it.
by Julia Haskins
Some activists believe politicians, including President Obama, do not truly help the LGBT community. Photo by David Shankbone on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Talk of LGBT rights in the world of politics often boils down to a few key buzzwords. More often than not, “marriage equality” is among them—but other LGBT issues matter, too. When politicians don’t answer all their questions, some advocates find other ways to share information and rally for change.

Todd Heywood, a 42-year-old senior reporter in Michigan for The American Independent newspaper, cares about the right to marry, he says. But he chooses to report exclusively on HIV policy, a topic practically ignored in the run for the presidency.

“[People think] I’m only reporting about this because I’m HIV-positive when, in fact, I’m reporting because it’s important,” he says. “People need to know, and I happen to be HIV-positive.”

When it comes to politics, Heywood’s main concern is what the candidates can actually provide for HIV prevention, awareness and treatment. President Barack Obama’s proposed strategies for combating HIV have been weak, Heywood says, but Republican VP hopeful Paul Ryan’s budget would leave no funding for HIV research. Gov. Mitt Romney has also shied away from presenting a plan for HIV care.

“They don’t see these issues as a priority because the vast majority of Americans — as a result of the success of anti-retroviral care — do not see HIV as a threat to them, or a crisis in our country,” Heywood wrote in an email.

Other advocates have found ways to get their messages across outside of politics. Though 71 percent of LGBT voters support Obama for reelection, according to an October Gallup poll, another 22 percent support Romney and a few aren’t loyal to either major party candidate.

Any LGBT people counting on Obama for their rights this election are wasting their time, says Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Chicago-based Gay and Lesbian Liberation Network, a direct-action organization that rallies for progressive causes and against hate and discrimination.

Thayer takes much of his inspiration from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which relied on community-based action rather than waiting around for promised legislation. GLN started up only days before the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was abducted and beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming, after which Thayer saw an outpouring of support for LGBT people.

The non-partisan organization progressed to gain solidarity among other oppressed groups. For example, Thayer supports women who are victims of violence and Muslims and South Asian people who were targets of hate in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He’s lately been inspired by large-scale grassroots efforts like Occupy Wall Street.

“We cannot have true eternal LGBT solidarity if we don’t have that solidarity regardless of the source of the discrimination,” he says.

GLN takes issue with any kind of discrimination and prides itself on community-based efforts to wipe it out. These are battles real people have fought in the name of equality—without the help of politicians. The reliance on the Democratic Party for propelling progressive causes is holding LGBT people back from achieving their own victories, Thayer says.

“Much of the emphasis on supporting the Democrats for civil rights is really a wasted effort,” he says. “The Democratic Party will give us nice rhetoric, but very little in terms of real change.”

Obama’s decision to support marriage equality, imperfectly announced the day after North Carolina voters banned same-sex marriage in the state, came literally a day late for Thayer. The president has hardly delivered on his promise of change, Thayer says.

Thayer might be at the polls tomorrow, but he’ll likely be voting for a third-party candidate—if he even goes. No matter what the outcome of the election, he says, true progress will depend on LGBT people themselves, and not the politicians they elect.

“If you look at issue after issue, the real question this November is not who should you vote for, how should you vote, but how do you actually get civil rights progress?” he says.

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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