Is the Gay Rights Movement Moving?
Timothy Patrick McCarthy is a Lecturer on History and Literature, Adjunct Lecturer on Public Policy, and Director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He also teaches in the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
A historian of social movements, Dr. McCarthy graduated with honors from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, where he completed his dissertation under the direction of Eric Foner. Dr. McCarthy's research agenda focuses on the relationship between human rights and social movements in three main areas: race relations and civil rights; LGBT politics, policy, and advocacy; and modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
McCarthy has published two books, The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition (New Press, 2003) and Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (New Press, 2006), and his third book, Protest Nation: The Radical Roots of Modern America, is forthcoming from the New Press in 2010.
An outspoken and respected leader in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, Dr. McCarthy was a founding member of Barack Obama's National LGBT Leadership Council, serves on the Board of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, and, in 2009, delivered Harvard's prestigious Nicholas Papadopoulos Lecture, entitled "Stonewall's Children: Life, Loss, and Love after Liberation." He lectures widely on topics ranging from history and literature to politics and human rights.
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. (SPLICE)
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.
Recorded on: July 1, 2009
The community is thrilled by recent progress, but frustration still lingers, says Tim McCarthy, founding member of
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