The civil rights movement is one that has evolved since its inception to represent many differing groups struggling for equality and constantly expanding the study of sociology. The most recent group to enter the civil rights struggle are gay, lesbian, bi and transgendered (LGBT) individuals. These groups, like many before them, seek equal representation in the eyes of the law, especially with regards to marriage. This sample essay discusses Craig Rimmerman’s book about gay and lesbian movements and the factors that pertain to the success or failure of civil rights movements and is only one of the many features offered by Ultius.
Craig Rimmerman’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Movements: Assimilation or Liberation
Civil rights are the rights shared by all; at least they should be. In the history of the United States, minorities and women have had to fight hard to claim these rights. The purpose of civil rights activism is to reach a plateau where people agree, and wherein the reason to discriminate is no longer valid. The most modern iteration of the civil rights movement is the rights of members of the LGBT community. Craig Rimmerman’s book, The Gay and Lesbian Movements: Assimilation or Liberation, is a historic account of the issues involved in the LGBT civil rights movement. He surveys the scope of the issues raised and the reactions of government. He chronicles the shifts in strategy for LGBT activists from assimilation to liberation, detailing the different paths activists have taken. Although he does an excellent job of chronicling the history of the movement citing its successes and failures, the work leaves you wanting analysis. In cases of civil rights, years of protesting and legal maneuvering ultimately has been successful for women and blacks, and Rimmerman maintains optimism that the same will hold true for the LGBT movement.
Government role in the fight for gay rights
The role of government in any civil rights movement question is of great interest. The balance between paternalism and representation comes into play when moral issues are asked of the government. They appear to be quick to condemn and slow to release. Civil rights movements revolve around the same general grievance: inequality. For women and blacks, the discrimination was based on gender and race, never ability. The government was an antagonist to previous civil rights movements , specifically the black activist movements of the 1960s, but was similarly unsupportive for women’s struggle to gain voting rights. This follows from our government’s paternalistic view of its purpose and belief that its job is to protect the institutions of our country against perceived negative impact. However, our government is supposed to be representative of the people. We have Federal and state governments, broken into three branches, with constitutions defining what citizens can, can’t, and should do. Theoretically, the purpose of our government is the preservation of our natural rights. The problem with granting rights is there will always be a question why some get them while others don’t. These questions are cumbersome, requiring the government to answer for a great many things and has been particularly poignant in the age that questions who has the right to marry.
Strategies for gay rights
Like civil rights movements of the past the LGBT has had to make decisions on how it would act. In their pursuit of equal rights, LGBT activists appear to be taking the best of what they learned from other civil rights successes. There are two basic strategies that the LGBT movement pursues:
These strategies are sometimes employed independently of one another and sometimes together.
Assimilation is the idea that LGBT people would fold into the mainstream. This is the quieter, gentler way and the rationale for the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. This is similar to Rimmerman’s quiet advocacy for a dual approach of assimilation and liberation,
“A dual organizing strategy, one that builds on the best of the assimilationist perspective, but one that also considers the possibilities for more radical, liberationist, structural, social and policy change” (Rimmerman, 147).
What is effective in the movement is both its willingness to compromise as well as its deliberate challenging of the government in their own institutions. Because there was a strong social stigma against homosexuality, many LGBT people were very quiet about their sexual orientation. This was the attempt to assimilate. Assimilation was also the compromise following the decision by the Vermont Supreme Court to allow for civil unions.
Homosexuality is not new phenomenon. Unlike other groups pursuing equal rights like women and blacks, one cannot always easily tell that an individual is homosexual from their outward appearance. This breeds fear, suspicion and discrimination, the most pressing problem LGBT individuals face. A series of events chronicled by Rimmerman shifted the momentum from assimilation to the desire for liberation:
- The resurgence of the idea of homosexuality as a mental disorder
- The belief that homosexuals could be cured through conversion or reparative therapy
- Government levied anti-sodomy legislation and the enforcement of such legislation
Recent developments, however, have challenged the legality of this legislation and organized events like the gay pride parade have taken bold steps from assimilation to liberation wherein gay Americans would be treated the same as all Americans in the eyes of the law. “Don’t ask Don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage act are also critical policies that motivated the LGBT movement to expand from assimilation to liberation.
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Government Policy Fails regarding gay rights
Similar to the struggles for black rights and women’s right to vote, the government committed three major policy fails fanning the passion of the LGBT activists:
1. HIV/AIDS policy
In 1984 when AIDS was discovered President Ronald Reagan called it the “gay cancer”. Moralists and Christian rights claimed it was a divine disease punishing morally abhorrent behavior. There was no funding, public support or public education, and those with AIDS were largely abandoned. After persistence and outrage refocused attention upon the growing HIV epidemic, today the transmission rate is much lower and the life spans of those in treatment for HIV/AIDS are longer. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called on a year of no new infections.
2. Don’t ask don’t tell
President Bill Clinton enacting “Don’t ask Don’t tell” was a compromise in the issue of gay soldiers serving in the military. It was the result of a fight President Clinton could not win. Clinton enraged LGBT supporters who were optimistic and generous. Regardless, they fought on. Under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, LGBT military members were required to serve in secrecy, the ultimate form of assimilation. The military itself could not determine that serving openly gay would have any negative effect on unit cohesion. If there was an adjustment period, then it would eventually work out. Deliberate pressing of the executive branch challenged the notions that unit cohesion was sufficient to justify the ban which was not finally lifted until 2012 by President Obama. Not surprisingly, the military adapted when units were desegregated.
3. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)
While AIDS policy and “Don’t ask Don’t Tell” are examples of executive branch policy motivating the shift from assimilation to liberation, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was a congressional act, and the most significant legislative action discriminating against LGBT Americans. It was a milestone in the prevention of gay marriage and is backed by archaic religious tenets. DOMA states and is contradictory due to:
- It was up to the states to determine the legality of same-sex unions
- These unions were not given recognition on the federal level
- It is the states who grant marriages, and always has been
- Marriage entitles the couple to many federal rights
While the federal government hedged the issue by placing it in the hands of the states, they further complicated matters by creating discrepancies between federal and state offered rights. There is clearly no reason by LGBT individuals should not have the right to marry and this legislative action further moved the LGBT movement toward liberation and they took their fight to the courts and the states directly.
Taking gay rights to the states
The hallmark decision beginning the national trend of states addressing same-sex marriages was Baker v. Vermont (1999). For the first time, a state supreme court ordered a legislature to create a substantially similar form of legal union for same sex couples because the legitimate state interest in protecting the marital contract was the protection of children. Thus were born civil unions. Other important cases include Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), and Romer v. Evans (1996). In Bowers and Romer, federal courts struck down state laws as violating the equal protection of citizens based on discrimination not linked to a legitimate governmental interest. Case law is beginning to amass as the LGBT activists challenge the governments stand in support of discrimination, and the government falls. The most significant case comes out of California where LGBT activist have challenged, “Prop 8”, the public referendum ban on gay marriages. With DOMA, Congress said, “Take it to the states”, so the LGBT movement did. The California Legislature allowed for same sex marriages, then the people by referendum, made them illegal. Federal Courts ruled that Prop 8 was illegal, and now the Supreme Court of the United States has been asked to weigh in. Other states have also begun reforming these policies, mostly through court action, but on election night 2012, three states approved same-sex marriage from the ballot box, the first time same-sex marriage was legalized by public vote.
Craig Rimmerman’s book, The Gay and Lesbian Movements: Assimilation or Liberation, is a good anthology of the history of our most salient civil rights issue. It has inspired an interesting analysis exploring the LGBT civil rights movement taking us on a journey of a rapidly ripening issue facing modern America. He also describes the evolution of the movement from assimilation to liberation and the historical context where those paradigm shifts occurred. However, Rimmerman misses some great opportunities to discuss the incredible and multifaceted approach of the LGBT movements in using both internal governmental entities as well as external public pressure. His book could be broken up into policy areas and branches of government for analysis purposes. Here we’ve evaluated the book with a little bit of both, from the policy perspective and the responses of different branches. The campaign for LGBT rights has performed admirably. At every obstacle, the movement answered, if the executive branch discriminated, they applied political pressure and sued. When Congress discriminated, they took it to the states. The movement looks and acts like any other civil rights movement, but considering the timeframe, the movement has been very successful in its incredibly short 43 years.
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Rimmerman, Craig A.. The Lesbian and Gay Movements: Assimilation or Liberation. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2008. Print.