Marriage equality and family values: the long view

Posted November 4, 2012 by Ian Lekus
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[A shorter version of this post was published by The Ultimate History Project on November 4, 2012]

This coming Election Day may well prove to be a watershed moment in the long civil rights struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in the United States. At the top of the ticket, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney hold starkly different positions regarding marriage equality, non-discrimination legislation, and other issues important to LGBT Americans and their allies. In Wisconsin, Representative Tammy Baldwin is in a neck-and-neck race for the open U.S. Senate seat; if elected, Baldwin would become the first openly LGBT Senator in the nation’s history. Additionally, eight Congressional races feature major-party LGBT candidates, many of whom have the opportunity to become pioneers in one way or another.[1]

Of all the critical elections on November 6, none will reflect the growing support for LGBT rights as dramatically as the four statewide ballot measures on same-sex marriage equality. In Maryland and Washington, voters will decide whether to uphold the civil marriage laws passed earlier this year by the state legislatures and signed by the respective governors.  Maine voters face the choice of whether to reverse their 2009 decision, when 53% of the electorate overturned the civil marriage law similarly passed and signed by the governor there. In Minnesota, a referendum asks voters whether the state constitution should define marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Current polls suggest that marriage equality supporters may well win a historic victory – or several – on Election Day, with narrow but consistent leads in polling in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, while the forecast in Minnesota is far too close to guess. Even a single win will be a first victory at the ballot box for marriage equality advocates, after 32 consecutive electoral defeats on this issue dating back to 1996.

One can point to numerous reasons that this November may be different, from the Maine campaign’s three-year grassroots campaign to talk with as many state residents as possible to President Obama voicing his “evolving” support for marriage equality to the very public endorsement by numerous Washington-based corporations (including Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and Nordstrom) for passing Referendum 74. More generally, national poll after poll shows soaring support for marriage equality, especially though not exclusively among younger Americans.[2] Taking the long historical view, however, whether marriage equality advocates win this Election Day or down the road, they will owe a surprising debt to those very family values advocates who have organized in opposition to LGBT rights for more than thirty years.

Over the last four decades, conservatives – both everyday activists working from the grassroots up and elected officials working from the top down – have successfully placed family values at the heart of American politics. They promised, Robert Self writes, “to protect idealized families from moral harm,” whether from LGBT activists, feminists, or others who sought equal rights or radical reform of political and cultural norms. In so doing, conservative leaders build a triumphant movement that fused resistance to government interference in the private market with resistance to government interference in the private family sphere.[3]

To understand the history of LGBT rights at the ballot box, it is critical to understand these underpinnings of family values politics.  This history dates back to the early 1970s, when Boulder, Colorado residents voted overwhelmingly to recall the city’s 1974 ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation – and soon after, to recall both the mayor and the city councilor who introduced the legislation.  The first major battle, though, of the culture wars over LGBT rights and family values came three years later in Miami, where in 1977, Anita Bryant successfully led the “Save Our Children” campaign to overturn that city’s gay rights law.

Bryant, a singer, evangelical Christian, former Miss Oklahoma, and spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, became the public face of the first campaign against LGBT rights to draw national attention.  She declared that the antidiscrimination ordinance passed in Dade County “condones immorality and discriminated against my children’s rights to grow up in a healthy, decent community.”[4]  In so doing, she reframed the rights question as a matter of protecting her children and families across Florida, rather than the issue of ending the discrimination faced by an often-unpopular minority.

Save Our Children’s television ads played a key role in swaying local opinion, showing images of leather-clad men and drag queens from Gay Freedom Day in San Francisco as a warning of what would happen to Miami if the law was allowed to stand.  Bryant further vowed to defend innocent children, arguing that “the recruitment of our children is absolutely necessary for the survival and growth of homosexuality.”[5]  The poorly organized local LGBT community took for granted that a campaign to guarantee the civil and human rights of a minority group would naturally find sympathy from Miami-Dade’s generally liberal-leaning voters. They had no answer for how Save Our Children defined LGBT people as a threat to the family. Bryant’s crusade won a landslide victory, as nearly 70% of Dade County voters cast their ballots for repealing the ordinance. One of the leaders of the campaign to protect the gay rights law bemoaned that “a referendum is a lousy way to extend or expand the rights of a minority.”[6]

Among those in attendance at Save Our Children’s election night victory rally in June 1977 was California State Senator John Briggs.  The Republican legislator from Fullerton, Orange County (a center of grassroots conservative activism) had his eyes set on winning California’s next gubernatorial election. He decided that Bryant’s success could be replicated in the nation’s most populous state, and in turn, victory in that campaign would propel him to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento.

Briggs dedicated himself to getting a ban on LGBT teachers in California classrooms placed before the state’s voters. It took most of the next year, but Briggs managed to get the 500,000 signatures required to qualify for a ballot initiative.

Briggs knew that the rights-based argument had not only failed in south Florida but in St. Paul, Minnesota, in Wichita, Kansas, and in Eugene, Oregon as well. Voters in all three cities repealed local gay rights laws in spring, and Briggs presumed Save Our Children’s warnings of threats to the family would prove equally convincing in California. In one pamphlet, Briggs linked Proposition 6 to his other major campaign, an initiative to expand the use of the death penalty: “You can act right now to help protect your family from vicious killers and defend your children from homosexual teachers.”[7] His Los Angeles Times op-ed, “Deviants Threaten the American Family,” the state senator described homosexuality as “a direct assault on our most significant social institution, the family … a public harm” that is “antilife as well as antifamily.”[8]

California’s LGBT communities, with a longer and more sophisticated political history of organizing than Miami’s, were determined not to repeat the mistakes that helped Save Our Children win its landslide victory.  Community members went door to door throughout the state to share their stories and give a face to the issue at stake – not only in relatively safe cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, but deep into the conservative rural Central Valley.  Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s openly gay city supervisor, went head-to-head with Briggs in a series of debates.

One critical factor in turning California popular opinion against Proposition 6 was that LGBT activists reframed the issue at stake as a matter of privacy.  Briggs penned an amendment so broadly that teachers could lose their jobs for supporting LGBT rights, or for being presumed to be gay, regardless of their own sexual orientation.

Campaign leaders recognized how this would offend the sensibilities of those conservatives opposed to government interference in everyday life. Their political masterstroke came through lobbying Ronald Reagan with this very point. After a meeting with campaign leaders, the former California governor issued a strong statement opposing Prop 6.  Reagan warned of “the potential of infringing on basic rights of privacy” that the Briggs Initiative would bring, especially if students tried to get their teachers fired by accusing them of homosexuality. The privacy argument, in combination with the statewide grassroots organizing, led 58% of voters to reject the proposal to ban LGBT teachers from California classrooms.[9]

Today’s marriage equality movement clearly builds on the language and tactics of 1960s activists calling for equal rights.  But just as clearly, the movement draws upon the language of family values free from government interference seen in Dade County in 1977. From organizational names (e.g.,Minnesotans United for All Families) to YouTube videos showing four generations of a Maine family sitting around a table, the grandparents wanting to see their lesbian granddaughter and her partner “get married legally – we want for her what we have, a marriage,” the language of protecting families has shifted.[10]

Looking back, the success of Anita Bryant and Save Our Children unequivocally helped enshrine family values at the center of modern conservativism, and eventually at the heart of American politics for decades to come. In turn, however, those victories paved the way for increasing numbers of heterosexual Americans to see the challenges facing LGBT families and to support legal protection for those families through marriage equality. Without a doubt, the most unexpected legacy of the rise of family values politics in the 1970s is the success of today’s movement for marriage equality and protecting LGBT families.

[1] This slate includes two Democratic incumbents, Jared Polis (CO-2) and David Cicilline (RI-1), as well as six challengers.  The LGBT challengers and candidates for open seats include Richard Tisei (MA-6), who is taking on scandal-plagued John Tierney, and if elected would become the first non-incumbent LGBT Republican elected to Congress; Mark Takano (CA-41), who may become the first out LGBT person of color in Congress; and Kyrsten Simena (AZ-9), the first openly bisexual candidate for Congress. The other LGBT Congressional candidates include Mark Pocan (WI-2), campaigning for the seat that Rep. Baldwin is vacating in heavily Democratic Madison, and Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) and Nicole LeFavour (ID-2), Democratic challengers running against incumbents in Republican-leaning districts.

[2] An October 2012 report from the Third Way think tank challenges the conventional wisdom that young Americans are the primary supporters of marriage equality. Analyzing data from 98 reports from 2004 through 2011, based on more than 128,000 responses, the report authors find that support for equal marriage rights has risen 16 percentage points since 2004.  75% of said growth comes from Americans changing their mind, a group that includes people “in every political, religious, and age group.” Whether subsequent data will support this broad-based evolution in popular opinion remains to be seen.  Gregory B. Lewis and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, “The Big Shift: Changing Views on Marriage for Gay Couples,” October 2012,, accessed October 26, 2012.

[3] See Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s (New York: Hill & Wang, 2012), especially pp. 3-14. Quote from p. 4.

[4] Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney, Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America (New York: Simon & Schuster), p. 297.

[5] Clendinen and Nagourney, Out for Good, p. 303.

[6] Clendinen and Nagourney, Out for Good, p. 311.

[7] Clendinen and Nagourney, Out for Good, p. 381.

[8] John V. Briggs, “Deviants Threaten the American Family,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1977, p. H5.

[9] Clendinen and Nagourney, Out for Good, p. 387. The privacy argument also proved critical in Seattle, where voters similarly rejected a measure to repeal the city’s new gay rights law by an even larger margin.

[10] “Yes on 1: Mainers United for Marriage, “The Gardner Family of Machias,”  It should be noted that opponents of same-sex marriage also continue to invoke the threat to “traditional” families and the specter of government interference. For example, see Preserve Marriage Washington’s television ad, “Schools Could Teach, warning that local schools would teach same-sex marriage to elementary school children, as allegedly occurred in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage equality.


LGBT Rights/Human Rights

Posted December 20, 2011 by Ian Lekus
Categories: Uncategorized

Last week, the UN Office of the High Commissioner released the United Nations’ first-ever report on the human rights issues facing lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people around the globe.  That report, unsurprisingly, finds “a pattern of human rights violations,” spanning hate-based murder and violence, torture, criminalization, detention, and discrimination, and that many governments have failed to halt such violations, at the very least. In 76 countries, same-sex sexual conduct remains illegal, and in five of those countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, and Mauritania), the death penalty can be levied against those convinced of homosexual intercourse.

In response to the report’s findings, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner, called for the full repeal of such laws and an end to capital punishment for consensual sex acts; equal age-of-consent laws for homosexual and heterosexual acts; and comprehensive legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Other policy recommendations in the report include that all UN member countries fully investigate, and collect data upon acts of violence targeting LGBT people; train law enforcement to treat LGBT people fairly; introduce anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia public education campaigns in schools and elsewhere; and that asylum laws incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity as a legitimate basis of establishing persecution.   This report follows last June’s U.N. Human Rights Council resolution condemning violence and discrimination against LGBT people, and will be discussed by the Council this coming March.

This report also comes right on the heels of the presidential memorandum issued by the Obama Administration earlier this month outlining the steps that federal agencies should take to promote international LGBT human rights through diplomacy and foreign assistance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the Administration’s position in her dramatic Human Rights Day speech in Geneva.  The State Department agenda of protecting LGBT people overlaps with the UN report in calling for legal reform, documenting of human rights violations, and incorporating LGBT-specific concerns into refugee, asylum, and immigration policies and procedures.       Moreover, the memorandum specifically directs U.S. embassies and agencies to publicly support LGBT rights in general, and LGBT human rights defenders and civil society groups in particular, as well as to work in bilateral relations and through regional, and multilateral forums to institutionalize an end to violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Clinton’s speech anticipated the range of criticisms she knew would follow her speech and the White House memorandum, from her  acknowledgement of the slow & incomplete journey within the United States towards full citizenship for LGBT Americans to declaring that “being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality.”   Historian Jim Downs criticized her speech, arguing that Clinton was providing fuel for conservative politicians such as Texas Governor Rick Perry to reignite the domestic culture wars.  To be sure, the struggling presidential candidate released a statement condemning the White House memorandum as part of the “administration’s war on traditional values.”  But beyond the failure of Perry’s anti-LGBT politicking to capture 2012 voters’ imagination with Karl Rove’s 2004 tactics (witness the backlash to his “Strong” campaign video, which is approaching 700,000 “dislikes” as of this writing, by far the most negative reaction to a video in YouTube history), Downs appears to miss the recent historical context in which Secretary Clinton, the Obama Administration more generally, and the United Nations human rights bodies are intervening.

A clue to that context appears in Vladimir Putin’s recent comments directed at Secretary Clinton.  On the one hand, the Prime Minister dismissed Clinton’s “serious concerns” about potential fraud during recent parliamentary elections in Russia, and alleged that the U.S. State Department was behind the democratic protests taking place on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg.  On the other hand, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, himself drew the connection between Western concerns about both those elections and the anti-LGBT bill introduced in St. Petersburg by Putin’s United Russia Party.  The State Department in particular declared that it was “deeply concerned about the bill,” which would mandate fines of thousands of rubles for any “public act” that promoted homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgender identity, and reiterated Clinton’s declaration that “Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”

In an interview with David Remnick, Putin’s spokesman sneeringly moved between the two topics.  Peskov first declared that “We have special services, and we have all the data about [election monitoring] N.G.O.s being sponsored by foreign states.”  When Remnick pressed the Kremlin spokesman on Putin’s reaction to Western pressure, he responded:

A smile returned to the spokesman’s lips. “Actually, I was coming here in the car listening to the radio,” he said. “Do you know what was the first item on the news? The State Department of the United States expressed its gravest concern about the policy in Russia toward gays!” Peskov was referring to proposed legislation in St. Petersburg that would prohibit “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgenderism to minors.” He was in stitches now. “I thought, What is the State Department of the United States doing? With their national debt! With their collapsing economy! With a leak of industry in the country because everything is in a financial bubble! With a nightmare in Afghanistan! With a nightmare in Iraq! With a nightmare in the global economy! And they have a deep concern about gays in Russia. Ha! Ha! So I was really in a very good mood because of this!”

In Putin’s Russia, LGBT activism represents one strand of the broader democratic civil society struggling to break through the political tundra.  In these responses, we see how Peskov’s homophobic joking slurs American concerns about the state of democracy in Russia, while United Russia’s bill explicitly circumscribes the citizenship of LGBT Russians.

Therein lies the significance of recent U.N. and U.S. moves to guarantee the fundamental human rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people.  Those efforts build upon the political labor of LGBT people and their allies around the world over the past two decades, from grassroots activists to judges, NGOs, and diplomats in both the Global South and North.  More specifically, from the constitutional guarantees banning discrimination in post-apartheid South Africa to marriage equality in Argentina to new protections for LGBT rights in Nepal, a consensus has emerged in the liberal democratic world that LGBT rights are indeed human rights.

In turn, the most egregious abuses — from Russia to the executions of LGBT people in Iran and Saudi Arabia to the proposed “kill-the-gays” bill in Uganda — take place in societies where democratic governance is either severely compromised or  non-existent, and where LGBT people serve as scapegoats for autocratic regimes.  Indeed, the recent Ugandan situation (where American evangelicals — some of whom are no doubt supporting Governor Perry’s presidential bid — have lobbied Kampala to impose the death penalty for homosexuality) appears to have particularly galvanized the U.S. and the U.N. to develop best practices for supporting the human rights of LGBT around the globe.  Nonetheless, although Washington and Geneva are playing catch up with the rest of the liberal democratic world, the grand significance of recent U.S. and U.N. moves is that these two critical players in international human rights now acede to the emerging consensus that liberal democratic governance and institutionalized homophobia and transphobia are structurally incompatible.

A long overdue thank you

Posted October 20, 2010 by Ian Lekus
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Dear Professor….

This email will come out of the blue, but I’ve thought of you a number of times today. Back in the spring of 1989, I took your Freshman Seminar on the reading of fiction. I was, at the time, wholly closeted — I’d come out to myself, right as I finished high school, but through my first year at Cornell, I remained silent about being gay, scared in particular by the juvenile homophobia of the other freshmen in the North Campus suite where I’d assigned temporary housing. Although I found a room of my own, as it were, a safe, single room in Dickson Hall after three or four weeks, I kept my secrets to myself for the rest of freshman year.

There are all sorts of things I remember from your seminar more than two decades later, from my first exposure to Flannery O’Connor & Leo Tolstoy to a stern warning from you about plagiarism (I can assure you of my innocence, although as I teach students about academic integrity and as I prosecute plagiarism myself, I keep in mind your balance of tone and judicious decision making). I also remember the first guy with whom I got involved; I met him in that seminar, as you assigned us to read & critique each other’s papers. That, though, is a story for another day.

But the thing I remember most of all from English 270 is Blue Jeans Day. In a stark contrast to your professorial attire, I remember the blue jeans jacket you wore, expressing your open support for lesbian and gay rights. For a closeted eighteen-year-old, that gesture was an invaluable lifeline, a promise that I was not entirely alone, a hint that, as we might say today, it would get better.

I cracked open the closet door as a sophomore, and by midway through my junior year, I’d come all the way out. Skip forward to 2010, and (notwithstanding the B+ I got in that challenging Freshman Seminar) I’m teaching my own Freshman Seminar at Harvard. Today, wearing purple in support of the queer youth driven to suicide by bullying, I had the distinct sense of paying your kindness forward, for whatever first-year students or whomever else might take some comfort in this act. So I figured the least I could do was to thank you directly as well, for the smallest yet most important of moments more than two decades ago.

With deep gratitude,

Ian Lekus

We, together

Posted October 13, 2010 by Ian Lekus
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Remarks delivered at Memorial Church, Harvard University, October 12, 2010

Queer and Allied Candlelight Vigil

Does it get better?

As we gather tonight, on the twelfth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s passing, in the shadow of many – too many suicides by LGBTQ youth in recent weeks, it is hard not to wonder, sometimes, whether it really does ever get better.

As a historian of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements – the movements for equal rights, the movements for justice, freedom, and liberation – I’m here tonight to tell you that it does get better… when we come together and when we make it better.

Our communities are shrouded in so many myths.

Myths that we have no history. Myths that we are invisible. Myths that we are alone. Many more myths, that we are sick, that we are wrong, that we are victims.

These myths can, quite literally, kill.

While our names, while our categories, our labels change across time and place, across all sorts of lines of difference, those of us who don’t quite fit into the norms of sexuality and gender have found each other. We have found each other for love, for friendship through the decades, through the centuries… we have found each other for joy, for solace … we have come together, in remembrance, in solidarity and in resistance. We have carried on and we have acted up.

We have done so in unexpected ways and unexpected places. We can look back to Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, two African American women in 1860s Hartford, Connecticut, who exchanged passionate, erotic letters for at least a decade. We can look to mid-20th century Mississippi, to the “men like that,” who found each other in the churches, the farms, and the other institutions of the rural South. We can look to all sorts of women, men, and gender non-conformists who built communities together, from elite colleges to the working-class streets of cities, large and small.

We, together.

We, together, made it better.

We mark one painful anniversary tonight. But let me note another, far more joyous anniversary approaching. Next month, on November 11th, we will mark the 60th anniversary of the first meeting of the Mattachine Society – the first meeting of the first enduring gay rights organization in the United States. Nearly a full two decades before the landmark riots at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, the “homophiles” began educating themselves, building social and political networks, challenging discriminatory laws, and demanding inclusion into American society on an equal basis with heterosexual citizens. The homophiles – of the Mattachine Society, of the Daughters of Bilitis – America’s first lesbian rights organization – also sought and found heterosexual allies, in science and law, in politics and religion. Allies like Evelyn Hooker, the pioneering psychologist whose research – in the 1950s – found no difference in social adjustment between heterosexuals and homosexuals. Allies like Willie Brown, the future mayor, who became an outspoken ally of queer San Franciscans before Stonewall, long before Harvey Milk.

In much darker political and cultural times, we were not alone.

We, together, make it better.

With our drastically over-simplified sense of history, we look for individual heroes – individual heroes that stand in for collective movements.

Rosa sat down, Martin marched. Susan B. Anthony brought us women’s voting rights; Rachel Carson birthed environmentalism by writing of silent springs.

Harvey Milk gave us hope.

Heroic though all these women and men might be, they have become larger than life, icons, metaphors. They, not we.

Just next month, we enter the seventh decade of the movement for LGBTQ rights and freedom in America. The seventh decade – isn’t that something? And where’s that in your history textbooks, in your history classes? Where are the mid-1960s pickets at the White House and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall Where are the transgender patrons of Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, who rioted against police harassment, also in the mid-1960s? How about those activists who organized in the 1970s against the lies of Anita Bryant and her kin, against those who cloaked prejudice in the rhetoric of family values – as if we didn’t build our own families?

Just look around at everyone gathered here in the candlelight, and tell me that we don’t have family.

Where are those activists – gay, lesbian, bi, trans, allied – in the 1980s and early 1990s, who came together – from the nation’s capital to small towns in Tennessee – to demand the government fund HIV research, that the health care establishment practice from a place of healing, not injury, and that the media stop spreading misinformation about our communities and our lives.

We, together, made it better.

Audre Lorde* spoke of how the adage that “you can’t fight City Hall is a rumor spread by City Hall.” Well, when you hear about our invisibility, our silence, our being alone, I ask you to think about in whose interest is it for us to be unseen, silent, isolated?

We see a broad range of movements today for LGBTQ rights and freedom – from the battle for marriage equality to transgender campaigns to challenge how we all think about gender. The tensions between equality and inclusion on the one hand, liberation and justice on the other hand are nothing new. They have shaped our movement for sixty years, and they shape so many other movements that stand in solidarity with us. But we stand together, not in spite of our differences, but strengthened by our difference.

We, together, make history.

We, together, make it better.

*Since writing this, I’ve also heard this credited to Saul Alinsky, which is certainly consistent with his work. I haven’t found a definitive attribution yet to either Alinsky or Lorde, or anyone else, but welcome one.

The audio recording can be found here:

Pride and Prejudice along the Unfinished Journey

Posted November 5, 2008 by Ian Lekus
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The Babylon 5 fans amongst you will understand how I’m waking up this morning wanting a t-shirt that reads, “I was there at the dawn of the third age of mankind… and I all I got were my civil rights taken away.”

While Michelle Obama got in trouble for saying something like this, but I’ll be crystal clear: last night was the first night I was ever truly proud to be American.

I spent last night watching with my dear friend from high school friend, Adam (who is the grandson of a pioneering black Congressman), with Adam’s wife, and with a group of their friends who were, other than me, all African American. Watching the crowds celebrating at the White House gates, at Times Square, a world away in Kenya, Adam’s wife compared the events to Bastille Day. U.S. voters have both repudiated the failures of the Bush administration, and in part if not in full, the racist heritage of this nation. It appears those voters have done so by a slightly larger margin than I predicted, with Florida turning blue and North Carolina likely to do so. Obama has captured the highest percentage of the popular vote of any Democrat in 44 years, since Lyndon Johnson’s massive landslide in 1964. We have some great new Senators – notably Kay Hagan in North Carolina – though Al Franken appears to have fallen just a few hundred votes short of toppling Norm Coleman, Alaska appears to have returned an octogenarian convicted felon to the Senate instead of Anchorage’s strong liberal mayor, and I still can’t tell what’s going on in Oregon. In the house, some of the “Better Democrats” pulled out great victories, & a few races (notably in south-central Virginia & near Seattle) are too close to call, but a lot more of the progressive Democrats fell short in their Congressional races.

But the Supreme Court is safe, as is the broader federal judiciary, and John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg can retire without fearing that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. Guantánamo’s days are numbered. This administration and this Congress will bring us an Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and hopefully, and end to the military ban on LGBT servicemembers. If there’s no clear solutions to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, climate change, the global financial crisis, or the HIV/AIDS pandemic, we at least have leadership dedicated to collaborative problem solving rather than arrogant and counterproductive unilateralism.

I can barely put into words the joy and tears of watching Obama’s victory with Adam, his wife, and their friends, as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia came in, and then as the networks all declared the race right at 11pm EST. I’d thought I’d be trading far more calls & text messages with my friends and family, but I was swept away in the emotion of the moment. Watching the rally in Chicago, the joy of the Obama and Biden families mingling so happily together, the beauty of Sasha and Malia Obama on stage with their parents (I loved it when their dad promised them a new puppy), we were overcome. I couldn’t help but think of my father and grandmother, or of how this will be the first election that my nine-year-old niece remembers, and this will be the world that she’ll take for granted. We joked about how President Obama’s photo will be in every federal building, every police station, every government office in the land, and how, like John Kennedy for Catholic Americans, how Obama’s photo will be in so very many African American households for a very long time to come. We traded stories, of personal experiences with racism and the faith to keep fighting for a better world, and toasted all the women and men who struggled against slavery and our own apartheid to make this possible – especially all those whose names we’ll never know. We’re all aware that last night wasn’t an end, but a beginning, an opportunity to seize, a door to walk through. Now the real work begins – but a moment to pause, to celebrate, to dance is definitely in order. Selah.

And yet…

It appears that a thin majority of California voters chose to write marriage apartheid into the state constitution. If I feel kicked in the stomach, and I do, I can barely imagine the pain and grief of those of you out there in the tarnished Golden State, especially those of you whose marriages and whose fundamental civil rights should never, ever been put to a popular vote. I see glimmers of hope in how a majority of white and Latino voters opposed the measure, as did voters with a college education. As a historian, taking the long view, I have deep faith that today’s defeat will be overturned, and will eventually be seen as a gross embarrassment. That does nothing at all to salve the pain today, the injustice and insult, and we will have to attend to our wounds to fight back. My friend Dave has written a scathing, must-read letter to Proposition 8 supporters, which I heartily recommend reading.

My grad school advisor titled his textbook on modern U.S. history, The Unfinished Journey, and I’ve never taken that title so personally as I do this morning. On a night where overall, the arc of the universe bent a little more towards justice, we got left behind. But we will fight back – yes we can, yes we will, and we will win.

“In Your Guts, You Know She’s Nuts”

Posted September 12, 2008 by Ian Lekus
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For those not catching the reference, my subject line is an updated-for-gender version of the line used by Lyndon Johnson’s supporters during the 1964 presidential campaign.  It was their retort to those Barry Goldwater fans who declared, “in your heart you know he’s right.” Goldwater, among other things, made veiled threats of launching a nuclear attack on the Soviets. American voters, in turn, handed Johnson the biggest landslide in U.S. presidential election history.

Driving down to Foxboro last night for the New England Revolution-Chivas USA match, I heard NPR lead off its 6:30pm coverage with the story that in her interview with ABC News, Sarah Palin threatened war with Russia if Russia invaded another country.

I nearly drove off the road, and started yelling at my radio.

Oddly (as in, not oddly at all), the U.S. news is underplaying this story. Canada’s Globe and Mail, on the other hand, reports the story thusly this morning: 

WASHINGTON — The first time a reporter interviewed Sarah Palin on foreign policy, she threatened war with Russia.

In an interview yesterday with ABC News, the newly minted Republican vice-presidential candidate made it clear that she believes Georgia and Ukraine should be brought into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and protected against any future acts of Russian aggression.

“Those democratic nations, I believe, deserve to be in NATO,” the Alaska Governor told interviewer Charles Gibson.

When he asked whether, under the NATO treaty, the United States would have to go to war to protect Georgia if it were attacked again, Ms. Palin replied: “Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you’re going to be expected to be called upon and help …”

…”We have got to make sure that that is the group that can be counted upon to defend one another in a very dangerous world today,” she added, according to a transcript provided by ABC News.

Her bellicosity toward Russia was the biggest chunk in a stew of red-meat foreign policy assertions, which included granting Israel carte blanche to attack Iran if it felt itself under existential threat from that country’s nuclear weapons program…

So, Governor Palin, I have to ask… which U.S. cities are you planning on sacrificing? New York or Washington? Boston, Atlanta, or Chicago? Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle?


The Globe and Mail continues…

“Although Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s running mate is new to issues of global security, she has been extensively briefed in recent days by Mr. McCain’s advisers. Not everything, apparently, got covered.

Ms. Palin did not appear to understand what the Bush Doctrine is. It is generally understood to be the assertion, put forward by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, of the right of the United States to take pre-emptive military action against states that pose a threat to U.S. national security.


When Mr. Gibson explained the doctrine to her, Ms. Palin gave it her full support. She also defended the right of U.S. forces to carry the fight against terrorists into Pakistan, even without the consent of the Pakistani government.

I should point out that the Bush Doctrine, in sanctioning pre-emptive war, violates international law.

“Under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on any one member of NATO “shall be considered an attack against them all.”

As members of NATO, the United States, Canada and most European nations would be expected to render military assistance if Georgia or Ukraine were attacked after being accepted into the alliance.

Such a confrontation would bring about the one situation that the United States and the former Soviet Union most feared, and managed to avoid, throughout the Cold War: a direct military confrontation between the two nuclear powers.

According to the ABC News transcript, Ms. Palin went on to assure viewers that “it doesn’t have to lead to war.” Instead, “economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure … counting on our allies to help us,” might be sufficient to deter Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “desire to control and to control much more than smaller democratic countries.”

Oh good, she’s heard of NATO. Yes, I would expect the NATO alliance to come to the aid of any member that came under attack.

I also think for all the many, many flaws of the Putin regime, he and his advisors have in fact read the NATO treaty. Putin is many things… foolish is not one of them. 

Even accounting for bluster, I have this set of questions for Governor Palin: how do you plan to solve the Iranian nuclear question without Russia’s cooperation? Or the energy crisis, given Russia’s status as a rising energy superpower? 

Over the last 15 years, the U.S. has moved dramatically to enter traditional Russian zones of influence, from the Baltics to the Balkans, even incorporating former Soviet republics into NATO & the EU, and opening military bases in former Soviet bases in the Central Asian republics. If anything, it’s amazing it has taken this long for the Russians to poke back. 

I have no interest in encouraging Russian re-expansion. But of all the complex challenges facing the U.S. and the world more generally, I’m at a loss to point out which of those challenges will be resolved by threatening nuclear war.

Football diplomacy

Posted September 9, 2008 by Ian Lekus
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , ,
This past Saturday, from Abu Dubai to Zagreb, dozens upon dozens of qualifying matches took place in advance of the 2010 World Cup tournament in South Africa. By and large, there were few dramatic results on the pitch – Austria’s 3-1 upset of France at home in Vienna ranked as the biggest upset of the weekend. Two games, though, merit discussion: the U.S. 1-0 win over Cuba in Havana and Turkey’s 2-0 win over Armenia in Yerevan. Neither game’s final score was a surprise, beyond perhaps that the driving rains in Havana and the scrappy play of the hosts kept the U.S. victory to the thinnest of margins. No, the significance of these two matches lies far beyond the soccer action.

The U.S. men’s national soccer team made its first visit to Cuba (a land where beisbol is king, and soccer is barely an afterthought) since 1947, a dozen years before the Revolution. On both sides of the Straits of Florida, players and officials alike went out of their way to de-emphasize the political context of the game — this despite a half-century-old Cold War still raging between Washington and Havana, and the recent defection of seven Cuban soccer players to the U.S. following an Olympic qualifying match in Tampa back in March. 

The U.S. government allowed the team, its staff, and a handful of journalists to attend and broadcast the match, but the travel ban remained in place for U.S. fans who wished to attend the game. Not surprisingly then, ESPN and CNN focused a large part of the coverage on a handful of such fans who circumvented the U.S. travel ban to cheer on the American team (wearing sunglasses, hats, and star-spangled bandanas to obscure their identities), and, more implicitly, challenge the absurdity of U.S.-Cuban relations that remain as deeply frozen in the late 1950s as the American cars still omnipresent on the island’s roads. (I highly recommend the photo gallery from Havana in advance of the game). 

Back in the early 1970s, “ping-pong diplomacy” preceded the thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations. Alas, no U.S. politician has found the courage to risk upsetting the aging anti-fidelistas in South Florida and begin to move U.S.-Cuban relations into the late 20th century, and Saturday’s match is unlikely to do much to spur such change, as much as one might hope otherwise. 

There’s much more reason to be more optimistic about Turkish-Armenian relations in the wake of the game in Yerevan. Turkish President Abdullah Gül accepted the invitation from his counterpart, Serge Sarkisian, to attend the game in person in the Armenian capital – this despite bitter hostilities between the two nations grounded in the World War I-era deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks (and Turkey’s ongoing refusal to accept responsibility for the first genocide of the 20th century). More recently, relations between Ankara and Yerevan have suffered in part due to Armenia’s ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region — Azerbaijan being a close ally of Turkey, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region’s population being predominately Armenian.

Sarkisian invited Gül to Yerevan over the opposition of Armenian nationalists; in turn, many Turkish nationalists expressed their outrage at Gül’s decision to accept the invitation. With Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Turkey is looking to build regional cooperation, and the thawing of Turkish-Armenian relations is critical to any such efforts. The Armenian economy, in turn, would benefit greatly by the opening of the border between the two countries, which has remained closed since 1993.

President Gül, his entourage, and the Turkish media covering the game traveled to the stadium, past Yerevan’s Genocide Museum and the national monument to the victims of 1915. Gül watched the match, behind bullet-proof glass, as the Turkish flag flew over the Armenian national stadium, as local fans almost drowned out the Turkish anthem with their boos, and as Mount Ararat loomed in the distance, towering over Yerevan, just behind the closed border. 

Today, in the week of the soccer match, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Armenia announced that their two nations will open the border, establish diplomatic relations, and otherwise begin normalizing ties. All because of a soccer game? Of course not, but all the same, what Pelé called “the beautiful game” has helped along the dream of a better future in one troubled region of the world.