Change Comes From the Middle of the Country

As LGBT Americans simultaneously celebrate the civil rights advancement of electing a black president and mourn our movement's amendment losses, perhaps we can employ the wisdom of Middle America in charting the course for a more perfect union.

By Kerry Eleveld

November 06, 2008

Wednesday morning, I awoke red with anger and blue with sadness even as tears of joy had graced my face for progress the night before.

This week, voters across the nation affirmed a promise that was launched from Middle America. Barack Obama, half black, half white, raised by grandparents who hailed from the heartland, became the president-elect of a country beleaguered by partisan, socioeconomic, and racial divisions that have haunted our nation for decades and escalated to a crescendo in the last eight years.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” President-elect Obama told a rapt crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park, “who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

Yet even as one prejudice fell to the will of the people on Election Day, LGBT Americans awoke the next morning to reports from the West to the South that all but confirmed one thing: We are most certainly second-class citizens in our own country. Even the voters of California -- a state that legislatively approved same-sex marriage rights twice and judicially issued the single most gay-affirming court ruling to date -- appear to have concluded that gay and lesbian partners don’t deserve the equal right to commit their love to each other. While I do not agree with the notion that I am undeserving of the same rights provided to other citizens by the Constitution, I cannot escape the reality that a majority of my fellow citizens still feel exactly that way. So perhaps it is time to reevaluate our movement’s approach with an eye to the area of our country that just supplied us with the single biggest civil rights advancement in a century.

Midwesterners are a practical people. They don’t have that feel-good “it’s all about the journey” vibe of West Coasters, nor do they possess the soothing subtleties of Southerners, and they’re a tad shy of the bottom-line brashness of Northeasterners. Function is more important than form to a Midwesterner, but they value the ethos of hard work, decency, and fairness above all else.

So when out Illinois state representative Greg Harris introduced a marriage bill in February 2007 and then realized he didn’t have the votes to pass it, he didn’t rest on his laurels. Instead, he turned around and introduced a civil unions bill that same month. Why? “We knew it was going to take a few years to pass marriage, and real people need real protections today,” says Rick Garcia of Equality Illinois. They also wanted to capitalize immediately on the commitments of state legislators who had rejected marriage but privately pledged their support for a lesser union.

Not surprisingly, our new president’s approach to LGBT concerns largely mirrors the Illinois gay community’s practical handling of them. When I interviewed Senator Obama in April 2008 and pushed him on his lack of support for full marriage protections, he indicated that his position was informed by what he thought was strategically possible at this moment in time.

“I’m the product of a mixed marriage that would have been illegal in 12 states when I was born,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that had I been an adviser to Dr. King back then, I would have told him to lead with repealing an anti-miscegenation law, because it just might not have been the best strategy in terms of moving broader equality forward.”

When I nudged him further by suggesting that the LGBT community was looking for leadership in the vein of John F. Kennedy, who was the first white national political figure to frame racism as a moral question for the country, Senator Obama answered, “But he didn’t overturn anti-miscegenation. Right?” Point taken. Instead of pushing a federal mandate to repeal the ban on interracial marriages that still existed in many states, President Kennedy introduced a basic civil rights bill in 1963.

The success of the LGBT movement in Illinois also parallels in some ways the steps of Barack Obama’s rise to power in that state. Sure, his political career originated from the urban center of Chicago. But when he launched his statewide bid for the U.S. Senate, his immediate support from downstate politicians representing predominately white areas was striking. “I saw all these Caucasian state senators stepping up and endorsing him right out of the box. These are not people who are used to taking political risks,” says gay activist Art Johnston, a founder of Equality Illinois and president of its board.

Similarly, Representative Harris told me that even though hi