How are GLBT activists getting along? Don’t Ask.

Federal Judge Virginia Phillips today issued an injunction banning the military’s enforcement of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell globally.   The decision is all over the news, of course.  Judge Phillips was responding to a suit filed by the Log Cabin Republicans six years ago.

Of course, what a district court giveth, a higher court can take away.  Right now, however, we can see the strategic dilemmas inherent in pursuing social change through the courts.  We can also see the diverse and sloppy coalitions that make up social protest movements in the United States.

While the Log Cabin Republicans endorsed John McCain for President in 2008, most GLBT organizations (and activists) worked for–and helped to fund–Barack Obama’s candidacy.  President Obama’s (limited) efforts to advance GLBT causes have disappointed many of them, most recently, when the Senate refused to incorporate a ban on Don’t Ask in its authorization bill.

In a long and controversial article in, Ambreen Ali reports on what she describes as a widening rift within the GLBT movement over how to end Don’t Ask.  The Human Rights Campaign, a large group pursuing multiple issues, had led the lobbying effort in the Senate.  Others, including the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, claimed the HRC didn’t push hard enough, letting its allies, including President Obama, off the hook on critical issues.  They argued for putting more direct pressure on purported allies who were willing to put Don’t Ask on the back burner, and for cultivating a more visible public profile.  Some, including Dan Choi, tried to stoke activism and visibility by taking dramatic action, including a hunger strike.  (Choi, left, a West Point graduate, served as an infantry officer in Iraq, and was discharged after coming out on the Rachel Maddow show.)

Such disputes within social movements are common.  Movements are diverse and sloppy coalitions, filled with people who agree on some issues, and disagree on others–including ultimate goals and the best ways to pursue them.   Harsh threats and exceptional opportunities encourage them to cooperate, but internal disputes are constant.

In this case, the HRC has a broad agenda to protect, while the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network is organized exclusively around open service in the military.  The HRC has to worry about husbanding resources and maintaining access and credibility with allies in Congress.  The Servicemembers are more willing to do whatever it takes to win on this issue now.  The HRC claims to have done the best it could with the current Congress and the current climate–and this may be true–but we can understand why the Servicemembers are frustrated and cynical.

Meanwhile, by taking the initiative, Judge Phillips has changed the game.  The Obama administration now has to work to prevent change–rather than to make it.   Alternatively, it could let the policy disappear without fighting too hard.  The HRC can move to focus on other elements of its agenda.  And the Log Cabin Republicans can claim some vindication, while continuing their uphill struggle to recruit gays and lesbians to the Republican Party and promoting tolerance within the Party.

Because Court-initiated change isn’t dependent upon winning battles in the legislature or public opinion, it virtually ensures backlash protest.   Watch for the backlash within the Republican Party.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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