Big Think Interview With Tim McCarthy
Topic: After the rebellion
Tim McCarthy: The most important thing about the Stonewall riots or rebellion depending on which terminology you use is that it creates an origin myth. It gives gay people, LGBT people, an origin myth and all social movements need to understand and to acknowledge and identify their point of origin and so for us it’s Stonewall.
One of the things that I think this does is it gives us a kind of collective sense of identity that we all come from where the spirit of rebellion emerged in this place that we can identify. It’s tangible. We can see it. We visited it. We visited it over the weekend here on the 40th anniversary and so it’s a place that we all know even if we weren’t all there. But the other flip side of that - the problem with that- is that it then makes it seem as if history is divided into everything that happened before Stonewall and everything that happened afterwards as if history is kind of neatly divided according to this sort of point of origin. I think that one of the things that that’s done frankly in the public imagination and in the LGBT community as it understands its history is that it diminishes the efforts, often quiet, often invisible, often full of real struggle of what really did happen before this explosive origin of the modern gay rights movement or gay liberation.
There were decades, if not centuries, of struggles that LGBT people even if they weren’t called lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender at that time but they went through to establish and live lives of dignity against forces of great oppression and discrimination. In particular the couple of decades before the late ‘60s, the ‘40s and ‘50s and early 60’s was a period of great mobilization, a great organizing of the establishment of our first newspapers and our print culture, the establishment of founding offers as far as our political organizations, the first even public protest, the republic protest against discrimination in federal employment and in federal agencies and in the military long before the folks rose up at Stonewall in June of 1969.
So one of the things that I seek to do as a historian, and there are many historians who had written about this - ohn D'Amelio and George Chauncey, Estelle Freedman, many, many historians and scholars who have written about this history but it has not taken hold yet I don’t think in the broad public imagination not even within the LGBT community and certainly beyond it. This history is not known. One of the things that I’ve been talking about recently to my students and to my colleagues is that, you know, before the all of the media attention around the 40th anniversary of Stonewall that has gotten some political attention too recently with Obama inviting activists and leaders to the White House is that you know you would ask 6 months ago if you’ve taken a public opinion poll of certainly young LGBT folks. I’m not sure what the percentage would be of those who would have known Stonewall, what Stonewall was, when it happened, and that there was an anniversary and I think that that’s a troubling reality, who knows.
We haven’t done that opinion poll but my sense would be that you know not a considerable majority would have even known what that history is and if you compare that say to African-American young folks right, my black students at Harvard who all of them know what the Montgomery boy… bus boycott was. All of them know what Brown versus Board of Education was, right? And they also know Plessy versus Ferguson and which Brown versus Board of Education overturned. So they know their history. In fact, it would be hard for us to find any student at Harvard University who doesn’t know what the Montgomery bus boycott was or the Brown versus Board of Education decision and the impact that it had and the origin that it created or established for the civil rights movement and I think the LGBT movement and its scholars and it’s intellectuals and it’s activists need to do a better job of establishing that history and to…and integrating it into the broad public imagination. Moments like the anniversary of Stonewall give us that opportunity.
Question: Where are we now when it comes to gay rights?
Tim McCarthy: We are at a very exciting place. It’s one of almost exuberant confusion. I think that on the one hand we’re thrilled by the progress that had taken place and that has taken place quite frankly in a very short period of time. I mean I’m a historian so I always take the long view of things and when you think about the kind of progress that’s been made for LGBT people just in the last 5 or 10 years, much less over the course of the last 40 since Stonewall, it’s astonishing the amount of progress that’s been made. When you compare to the black civil rights struggle the amount of progress that we’ve made has been quite accelerated in comparison to the long black freedom struggle that dates back to on this continent to the arrival of the first slaves in 1619. We talk about 4 centuries of black freedom struggle. We’re talking about 4 decades of a queer freedom struggle, you know, puts it in perspective and constantly trying to use comparisons when they are useful lot make that point and so on the one hand we’re thrilled and there’s been enormous progress on whole range of fronts but you know there is still some frustration.
When we think about the insidious prejudices and discriminations that Harvey Milk and folks were fighting against 30 years ago and then you think about probate and the Arkansas ballot initiative which banned single adoption and was really energized the movement behind the passage of that ballot initiative was really deeply rooted in the same kinds of prejudices and the same kinds of discriminations. The equation of homosexuality with pedophilia which is something that we are still battling against that kind of stigma that if you let us near your children were going to molest them which is absurd and so those kinds of things endure and so I think there is a great frustration on the other hand in our community that progress hasn’t come further that there is still those stigmas and those prejudices against us and that we are still battling in the political arena that we’re still, you know, sort of 15 years after Bill Clinton took on, Don't Ask, Don't Tell and signed the Defense of Marriage Act that were still in many ways at ground zero where we were 15 or so years ago and I think there is a one hand acceleration over the progress and we have to acknowledge how much progress had been made but in the other hand I think there is real frustration which you’ve seen in recent weeks with the president, the new president, and with his Justice Department and the brief that they put forward defending the law, the defense of marriage at law which is still on the books.
Question: Will anything change?
Tim McCarthy: It’s not going to happen overnight. One of the things that I think is happening we should understand that no President of the United States has ever been at the forefront of social transformation. When you think about Abraham Lincoln…Abraham Lincoln when he came into office was cautiously anti-slavery and he was a colonizationist and he expressed very openly and also privately white supremises the youth. He didn’t think the black folks and white folks could live together in the same country and get along with one another and this had been the long view of presidents dating back even to, you know, certainly Jefferson even in some ways Washington and others. There was deep belief among presidents in the 19th century and the late 18th century. The black folks and white folks weren’t meant to get along. They weren’t meant to live side by side on terms of equality despite the nation’s founding promises and so Lincoln had to come along and Lincoln was pushed by black folk, he was pushed by Frederick Douglass, he was pushed by Harry Tomlin, he was pushed by Martin Delaney to have troops fly for the union cause, to pay them properly, to emancipate the slaves and ultimately to come up with a new vision for the country to change his thinking such the black folks and the white folks could live in a bioracial democracy. That took him some time, same thing with Franklin Roosevelt with the labor movement. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t come into office thinking that unions and people have the right to collectively bargain and that unions should be part of our social, political and economic fabric. He had to move to get to that position.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was celebrated as the president who signed the voting rights act and the civil rights act certainly very important to that story and that history had to be moved I mean LBJ was someone who was known to use the N word in close chambers when he was bargaining in the Senate. This was a man who was from Texas, who was from Burrow, Texas and he had to be moved on the issue of civil rights. None of these men ever made it to the point, the endpoint in their lives many cases because Lincoln obviously was shot, Roosevelt died in office and then Lyndon Johnson stepping down because of the Vietnam conflict but all of these president moved from one place politically to another, more enlightened and more progressive place but all three of those presidents were moved by social movements and the same is going to be true with President Obama. President Obama is not the leader of our social movement. He may sign legislation that will be a culmination of and a victory for our movement but Barack Obama is not our leader as an LBGT community, he is an ally. He needs to become a better ally but I have faith based on what I saw on the campaign and what I know of his essential decency and progressive principles. I have faith that his administration is going to be the best administration for LBGT rights that we ever had in American history before it’s all over.
Topic: The Arkansas dilemma
Tim McCarthy: I think a much more troubling result of this election was the ballot initiative in Arkansas. You know, I was speaking with some gay friends of mine and this was a ballot initiative that they are basically forbade or now forbade by law single people from adopting children in Arkansas so they have to be married in a traditional marriage in order to be able to adopt children. And this was something that for me was very troubling.
It was troubling for a host of reasons. One is the energy as I’ve mentioned before. The energy behind the passage of this ballot initiative by pro-family groups and conservative groups in Arkansas used this equation of homosexuality and pedophilia to drive people to the polls, to vote in favor of denying single people and that means gay and lesbian people because gay and lesbian people can’t be by law in Arkansas part of a traditional marriage. So effectively denies them the right to adopt children. So that any gay or lesbian person in the state of Arkansas has now been denied the right to adopt and raise children. These include foster children who are languishing in foster homes. You can imagine what the state of foster care must be a state like and a depressed state like Arkansas it’s not good in any state certainly I’m sure is not very good in Arkansas either.
This to me is a very troubling step backwards. It brings up all of those kind of historic statements that we’re still dealing with and fighting against the LBGT community. So for me that ballot initiative in Arkansas was far more insidious and far more, for me, a sign that we have not made enough progress and that we may in fact be taking a step backward.
Then the Prop 8 vote because at the end of the day the probate vote was the gay marriage resolution was closer this time around than it had been previously in California. There’s been movement in the direction of progress in the issue of marriage.
Question: What about gay marriage?
Tim McCarthy: The issue of marriage is a very sticky one. I personally though I relish my right to get married to my partner if I so choose in Massachusetts and looks like that’s going to also happen in New York very soon. It certainly happened all throughout New England with the exception of Rhode Island. I relish that right. I’m happy to have it. I’m grateful to people who struggled to earn that right in the states where we’ve earned it.
But I don’t think that the marriage issue strategically is the best thing to put at the forefront of our movement and I think there has been among some members in the LBGT movement an over emphasis on marriage. I think that there are two problems with that. One is that marriage is the most sacred of institutions, right? I mean, culturally speaking. In the public imagination most people despite the fact that we have 50% divorce rate among straight married couples we raise marriage to a pedestal that we don’t raise any other kind of relationship to and. I think there are a lot of reasons for that historically but when you seek to become kind of fully integrated and have the full rights of marriage you’re going to, you know, it’s like kicking a bee’s nest or kicking a hornet’s nest and that’s what the LGBT community has done. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t kick hornet’s nest I think that, you know, none of us would be anywhere if we didn’t kick a few hornet’s nest. But at the end of the day we have to understand that when you kick a hornet’s nest there are going to be hornets, right, and you are going to get stung. I sounded like a Southerner right now. I feel I should be on a porch somewhere drinking you know mead tulips but at the end of the day we’re going to get stung and we have been stung and we’ve been stung in California. We haven’t been stung elsewhere but in the end of the day and not to beat the metaphor of Death to much, at the end of the day I think that we have asked for a fight that we have now gotten, right? And some of us are upset that that fight has resulted in some punches and some black eyes and California is one of them.
So I think strategically marriage might not be the only fight we want to have. I think we want to pick some fights that we know we can win so that we can store up some energy for the big fights and marriage is definitely a big fight.
The other piece of this is that within the LGBT community marriage is not, I would argue, the most important issue for the broadest range of LGBT people but for a lot of folks employment nondiscrimination is more important than marriage. For a lot of folks adoption rights are more important than marriage. For a lot of folks universal health care is more important than marriage. For a lot of folks there are a lot of things that are more important than marriage. I think by focusing or over emphasizing marriage as the sort of, you know, gem in the crown of gay rights or LGBT rights we are alienating a broad staff of folks within our community. Homeless trans youth are not principally interested in getting married. They are more interested in being, making sure that they are protected against, you know, all sorts of street violence and all sorts of discrimination and so forth. There are folks in communities of color and in poor communities all over the country for whom marriage is something that middle class white people who live in the suburb want. So I do think that by overemphasizing marriage and by fixating on Prop 8 we do more to break the bonds that we should be strengthening in our community. I don’t think that marriage is a winning issue when one our goals is to create as broad and multicultural and multi class in LBGT community moving forward politically in social.
Question: Why hasn’t Obama overturned DADT?
Tim McCarthy: Well I think that he has not signed an executive order to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell because he wants to do all these legislatively. I think the right is beating them. The conservatives and the folks who used to dominate the republican or the Republican Party itself is beaten down and there’s all sorts of internal discussions going on right now about how to bring back the Republican Party. Who was the leader of the Republican Party? Will the Republican Party bounce back in time for the next midterm elections or the next presidential elections and, you know, that’s a conversation they could have. I’m not particularly interested in helping them figure that out.
But you know at the end of the day the one thing we can be sure will bring them back from their sickness or their death or whatever you want to say about them is an executive order for President Obama getting rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell or an executive order over, you know, over ruling DOMA, right? If President Obama can be tagged as an activist chief executive, right, like the activist judges in Massachusetts who gave me the right to marry my partner in the common law, right, if he can be tagged that way a narrative of activism and of homosexual agenda can be pinned to him and it can help resuscitate the right. That’s not something the LBGT movement needs right now, that’s not something Obama administration needs right now. That the only people that need that right now are the Republican Party and the right wing pro-family folks who hate homosexuals and that’s not a gift I’m interested in giving them and so I admire the president even though I too an impatient and I too am frustrated and I wish that he would say things publicly that he doesn’t seem willing to say.
He has spent almost no political capital on our community since he took office. I know he has a lot to do and I respect that. I want him to get to doing all those things that need to be done, ending wars, resuscitating the economy and getting universal health care. All those things are important to me too and all those things are important to me than gay marriage honestly. If you were to tell me right now that you would take away my right to get married in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but you would end both Iraq war and the Afghanistan War and bring universal health care to the United States, I would give up my right to marry yesterday and, you know, I shouldn’t have to make that choice right?
If the president can spend his political capital wisely and get the Senate and the House of Representative to legislatively get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell with the blessing of the senior brass in the military during the time of war and he can make a national security argument as well as the civil rights argument to do that and he can do the same thing for Defense of Marriage Act and get that repealed legislatively then we have much more political capital as a community if we can wait for that. I don’t want us to wait indefinitely and I don’t think that we should necessarily have patience if we were in the movement, we should continue to push him to be more vocal to get Congress to move on these things because he can do that, right? He got Congress to move on climate change last week he could get Congress to move on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. It seems to me that what he is trying to do is he is trying to lay a strong foundation and a strong groundwork with a whole range of groups including Congress and what Don't Ask, Don't Tell with the senior brass of the military to be able to do this legislatively so it has more weight and it has more capital and it doesn’t you know kick the hornet’s nest again with an executive order that is seen as advancing this gay agenda against, you know, all those people in America really love traditional families.
Topic: Hip hop in the classroom
Tim McCarthy: Hip hip’s huge. It’s very important. It’s important as a kind of youth expression, principally or originally within the African-American community, urban communities in New York and LA and others. But this is a cultural form, right, a type of music but also a type of protest and mode of protest that has been very important to the shaping of the current generation of young activist, particularly within the African-American community. But then much more broadly within other communities of color and white communities and certainly there’s a huge audience for hip hop among white folks. I happen to be one of those people. I grew up on it and was shaped by it. I think it’s important to study. It’s important to study anything that has any major cultural influence. It would be like, you know, not studying the bible or not studying. Not to equate hip hop with the bible but in terms of the sort of major influence that these things have it will be like not studying television or rock and roll. We study televisions and rock and roll because they shape the cultures in which they emerge and hip hop is no different than that.
Hip hop also offers us an interesting lens to understand the evolution or devolution some might argue of politics and protests among urban youth and among and within the black community. Obviously hip hop has created enormous political tensions in our broad culture in terms of trying to police lyrics and censor certain kinds of music and certain kinds of artist, the things that are advocated as part of protest: shooting police or rising up against the man or whatever happens to be within hip hop. There is all sorts of sort of articulations of protest that have really riled folks over the years but it also has created I think a way for us to understand the tensions within generations in the black community. You know, the use of the N word. And we have a corollary you know tension within the gay community over the word queer. It’s not the same thing but I think there it provides a point of comparison which is instructive and important. But older generations of black community doesn’t want to listen to the N word and certainly doesn’t want it’s children and grandchildren using a word that was used to describe them as a way to mark them as different and therefore subject to discrimination and exclusion and segregation. The same thing can be said of the word queer. Older LGBT folks, you know, who are from the Stonewall generation who understand that struggle and what that word meant to them are very concerned about the use of that word among young people and among people my age even in the younger generations of the LGBT community. And so I think, you know, we’re far afield from your original question about hip hop.
But I think anytime you have a kind of form of cultural expression particularly a form of cultural expression that emanates from youth, that emanates from the bottom, that emanates from the margin. It’s important for us to understand its dimensions and also to understand its influence. Right now one could never argue that in 2009 hip hop is a marginal art form. We can debate all along whether or not hip hop died with Tupac or what have you. I joke with my students that they take my course because it’s American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac and we look at all sorts of protest from the founding fathers all the way to now and I always joke when I start my Tupac lecture. I say, “You know, you all are taking this course because you think that hip hop started with Tupac. I’m teaching this course because I think hip hop died with Tupac.” And they all groan and they’re very angry and I often wear a Yankees jerseys or Yankees hats because I’m from the East Coast. I create this sort of tension in the room which is sort of a fake tension like they understand that I’m joking. But I do think that they’re hungry for it. They are hungry to understand how this form that shaped the way that they understand the world and the kind of music they listen to and the ways that they protest or seek to protest. They are interested in knowing how it fits in to this longer tradition and so I like it.
Question: How is technology changing the way social movements operate?
Tim McCarthy: The best-selling autobiographies of the 19th century were slave narratives, were narratives were written by or written for fugitive slaves, telling their stories of their escape from slavery to freedom. And so this book looks at all these different this print culture and these different technologies and media, to look at how they constituted an alternative political space where people blacks and women and radicals and people who would never be elected, or could be elected, to public office had a political voice, and that they shaped the politics of the culture within which they lived. And this social movement, I argue, was engineered by this print culture in a way that preserved the radicalism, that preserved the democratic and multiracial spirit, that ultimately gave the country its flavor after the formal abolition of slavery during the Civil War and the aftermath of the Civil War.
And, you know, you can extend that all the way to today, right? You know, the radio profoundly shaped the way that people related to, for instance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was literally, through his fireside chats on the radio, in their rooms. I remember my grandparents, who were very poor recent immigrants who came to this country and who would tell stories about what it was like to have him in their living room through these chats on the radio. So that transformed, very, very radically I would argue, the relationship between citizens and their president and their elected officials, particularly Roosevelt.
And then obviously TV and cable news and the advent of photographs in journalism, which goes back to the 19th century all of these technologies have shaped our culture and our politics and also have in many ways driven our social movements. And that continues to be true of the new media today: the netroots movement, the twittering, the Twitter revolution and other things. I think that, you know, blogs as places for a much more vibrant and diverse form of political expression is also really important.
Question: What is the downside of these new ways of communicating?
Tim McCarthy: The one thing that I would say as a word of caution. Media drives politics and I think that there's a more complicated and symbiotic relationship, obviously. The one thing that I would sort of caution is that I do think that the new online or virtual kind of political culture does have its limitations. Certainly the swiftness with which we understand and have information and share information is a great advantage, that we just know more and we know it quicker. We see more and we see it quicker. We're able to document our own witness. But the other thing that it does, and I think that this is crucial, is that it takes away, or it robs us in some sense, of the space that we share physically, right? If we imagine ourselves as part of a community, that's powerful and that's important to have those kinds of virtual or imagined connections to other people.
But it's also important to be in the basement of a church, working out what you're going to do at the protest, to see each other, to hug each other, to hold hands and sing songs like they did in the civil rights movement, right? To be physically in the same space like those young queer activists were at Stonewall in June of 1969, right? The gathering of physical momentum as an engine for protest I think is very important, to be face to face with somebody. You can only do so much virtually and online. You can do a lot, and I think it's certainly given us advances that we have to take into consideration.
I think one of the reasons why you know, to bring it back into the realm of mainstream politics one of the reasons why Barack Obama was so successful was because he like Howard Dean but to a much greater and more sophisticated effect marshaled and mastered the new media technologies as a way to generate political momentum and political interest.
And the same is true of social movements as well. But I do worry, though and the Obama campaign's a perfect example you know, there were people that I worked with for over a year in the Obama campaign that I didn't meet until the inauguration, or that I didn't meet until the election. Well, David Plouffe, who I met at Harvard this spring. But, you know, obviously David Plouffe was someone who was in my world, and I in his, for many -- much more him in mine than I in his but we were part of each other's worlds virtually for two years or a year and half. And that was great, but I met him for the first time in April, which was fine. He's a good guy. I like spending time with him, and I do think that there's something about this kind of new media technology that robs us of that.
And when we think about the great successes of the civil rights movement and of the labor movement and of the women's movement and the abolitionist movement and all the great social movements that have transformed this nation and other nations, a lot of them were the results of meetings, of coming together in common spaces and organizing together, of having fights face to face, of holding one another accountable by saying "are you going to be there?" And you saw this in the campaign. And as much as, you know, a lot of it took place virtually, you know, we also went up to New Hampshire every weekend and we knocked on doors, and we stood in the middle of intersections with Obama signs, and we called people, right? And we used a lot of the old-fashioned tools of community and political organizing that had worked for many, many years. And so I think we need to not just in our rush to the future, in our sort of exuberance about all of this new media in the 21st century, I hope that we don't forget that there are some good old-fashioned community organizing strategies that got Barack Obama to a place that he could even think about running for president and having the kind of online campaign that was so, so successful and that has, quite frankly, redefined politics.
Question: Do you believe there’s a generational divide?
Tim McCarthy: I think that there are certainly tensions. There is certainly some skepticism. And I think, you know, there are some young folks who wish the old folks would quit talking about back in the day. But that's true of all young people when they talk to old people, right? It's not just true of our community; it's true of all communities. But one thing that I think is important to understand is that there have been -- there are generations in our community, right? And thank God for that, right?
One of the things that's so tragic about the LGBT community is that we have a generation many of whom were lost to the AIDS crisis. And so, unlike a lot of communities, I think something that's very specific to our community is that we have the Stonewall generation that was there, that participated in the protests, that were part of that early uprising of gay liberation, the early feeling of liberation that came out of that movement. And then there was a period of time where we lost a lot of our brothers and sisters, especially our brothers, to AIDS. And there is a pain there, and there are scars there that will never go away, nor should they.
And so this idea that we're all just kind of free, and all this progress has been made, and that the young people in this generation that are coming up now have no worries, right? The fact of the matter is that there are actually rising STD rates and rising HIV infection rates in certain segments of this generation, certainly among young men of color. Young men in the African-American and Latino communities there are rising HIV rates among members of this generation. There are all sorts of considerations and struggles that this generation has to work with, and so and the progress that's been made will yield its own struggles, right? I mean, you know, it's one thing to struggle to earn the right to marry. It's another thing to struggle to make your marriage work, right? Then once we have the right to marry, then we've got to actually marry each other and make it work. And that's not easy, right? Nobody who's ever been married will ever tell you that.
I mean, what's the biggest crisis of the the worst thing that's happened as a result of the Goodrich decision in Massachusetts is that the Goodriches got divorced, right? You know, and I feel badly for them, but at the end of the day, like that court ruling was named after a lesbian couple that were heralded as heroines of our movement, and they should have been. They were very, very important. But they're now divorced, right? So that's its own struggle, is to figure out how to make families, how to make our families work, how to marry each other and love each other and stay true to each other.
And that's a human struggle, right? That's a human struggle that transcends all histories and all communities, and it's one that this generation is going to have to struggle with in a way that other generations have never had to because they didn't have the right to. But these rights also will bring out their own struggles. I mean, I see this all the time. And you know so I think we all need to be more alert to the differences that we experience and give witness to based on where we are in history. But I think we also have to understand that you know what? We all have struggles, and as a result we are all struggling people, and that that should be able to elicit a certain kind of empathy that can sustain us more strongly and more deeply that it currently does.
A conversation with the director of Harvard’s Human Rights and Social Movements Program.
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