May 03, 2013

The Power of Finding Common Ground

For those invested in equality for LGBT people, last night's election had several primary story lines – races and issues that loomed large on Twitter and our personal networks but that were not always front and center in the mainstream coverage. We bit our nails and sought out the latest returns until the historic results became clear:

  • Tammy Baldwin became the first out Senator ever;
  • Marriage equality won popular votes in Maine and Maryland, and is currently leading in Washington state, the first time ever that same-sex couples won the right to marry at the polls;
  • An effort to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota was defeated at the polls;
  • A pro-marriage equality Justice of the Iowa Courts was reelected despite being targeted by anti-LGBT forces;
  • The nation reelected a President who endorsed marriage equality, LGBT students' rights, and LGBT-inclusive bullying-prevention legislation; repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell and refused to defend the "Defense of Marriage Act"; led federal agencies that have sought to act in the interest of LGBT people, particularly youth; and appointed LGBT people, including GLSEN's founding Executive Director Kevin Jennings, to a remarkable number of positions in his administration.

These victories for equality – whatever one thinks of the results of the Presidential election – underscore changing attitudes toward LGBT issues in our society that are the result of decades of hard work to change laws, to reach hearts and minds, and to integrate the lives and needs of LGBT people into policy and practice in this country wherever possible. And all of that change was possible only because of coalition-building and years of effort to build strong partnerships for equality and justice across communities and lines of difference. If you’ve made it this far, I ask you to pause for a moment and reread that previous sentence. That idea can become a cliché, stripped of meaning from overuse. But this election and the internal debates now looming for the Republican Party underscore powerfully what those concepts – coalition-building and partnership – really mean. This was brought home for me powerfully this morning when I heard a conservative commentator respond to the suggestion that the Republican Party might need to rethink its approach to an increasingly diverse electorate in order to build a new majority. Current Republican strategy has its roots in the late 1960s, when a young Pat Buchanan suggested to Richard Nixon that the party could divide the country in half and win by retaining the “larger half.” In other words, no need to broaden your base, just create a sharp, dividing line, and motivate those who agree with you by any means necessary. Asked if the party might need to do more to bring new communities into its base, the commentator replied: "Ideas trump all. When you broaden the base, you weaken the foundation. You begin to lose sight of what you stand for." His comment efficiently killed a discussion of alternative Republican approaches to advancing conservative ideas. In a way, he succinctly articulated the polar opposite of a coalition and partnership-based approach: a commitment to ideological purity over the kind of strategic clarity that powers great coalitions and effective partnerships. An approach that says "This is what you must each believe and act on" rather than "this is what we intend to accomplish together and let’s agree on how we will work together to achieve that goal." For twenty years, GLSEN has stood firmly for a coalition and partnership based approach to the long, hard work of change. Sometimes we have sought power from others in alliance, sometimes we brought our own power to bear on a common goal. Always, we have tried to do the listening and thinking and negotiating required to bring people and organizations together on common ground for a common purpose. Our mission statement articulates GLSEN's commitment to valuing difference itself for the contribution it makes to a diverse and healthy society. Last night we saw the incredible power of difference assembled for a common purpose to drive victories for equality and justice. The power to bring us closer to the day when each member of every school community learns to respect and accept all people regardless of sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity. It is our youth who still struggle, in the hallways and classrooms where they spend their days, for the very basic tenet of equality – respect. That is why GLSEN has made passage of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and Student Non-Discrimination Act a priority. I am hopeful that the historic nature of yesterday’s election will help bring passage of these important bills closer to reality, and help ensure safe environments for every student to thrive.  

Eliza Byard

About Eliza Byard

Dr. Eliza Byard is the Executive Director of GLSEN - the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

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