Whether on Gay Marriage or Environmentalism, We Must Move Forward

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With yesterday's momentous announcement by President Obama that he does, in fact, believe gay and lesbian citizens should be allowed to marry and enjoy equal rights and protection under the law, it seemed like a good time to revisit the strategic lessons I highlighted in a post last December about why environmentalists should learn from gay rights activists.

But first, I want to pause to congratulate everyone that has worked and fought hard to help push (or pull) society towards this moment, this place in history in which a sitting President of the United States can proudly state his belief in full and equal rights to marriage for gay people. It is, to use a phrase from Vice President Joe Biden, a big f*cking deal.

Our friends at the Sierra Club issued a statement that placed the issue of gay marriage into its proper context as a human right:

"The Sierra Club applauds the courage and conviction President Barack Obama displayed today in supporting the basic human right of same sex couples to marry. Our 1.4 million members and supporters include people of every sexual orientation, and they are all as entitled to marry the person they choose as they are to the clean air, water, and beautiful landscapes they fight to protect."

Well said.

And while this is still a time to celebrate for many Americans, as someone that can't help but analyze and think of things in how they relate to the issue of sustainability and environmentalism, I couldn't help but think, "how did we get here?"

At the time I wrote my post in December, activists were making news by protesting and challenging the Republicans presidential primary candidates. If you recall, the national media was obsessed with covering that primary process, so it seemed like every bus stop rally, stump speech and town hall event that the Republican candidates attended was being covered, which meant there were a lot of cameras and microphones around to pick up anything controversial or news-worthy that may have been said. Taking advantage of an eager news media desperate for something entertaining to happen, gay rights activists used these events to bring attention to the anti-gay, anti-equality positions of these Republican candidates. They asked pointed questions, staged showy protests and even glitter bombed the candidates. But why? Clearly they knew that these people they were protesting were not going to change their minds. So why spend so much time and effort protesting your opposition, when it was President Obama sitting in the White House?

Here's what I wrote about the different forms of protest and the media coverage they generated:

With YouTube and social media, these moments spread throughout the interwebs and eventually make headlines in mainstream publications. And as Dan Savage wrote on Monday, it's working.

The reason I'm thinking about this and sharing it here on TreeHugger is because every time I see one of these, I can't help but wonder, why is there not a similar video of a passionate teen or war vet or any potential voter challenging these Republicans about climate change? Or clean air? Or water safety? Or high speed rail? Or clean energy? Or anything related to environmental issues?

...

Putting pressure on Obama is a worthwhile goal, but with so much media attention on the Republican campaign trail, it seems we're missing opportunities to get our issue back into the media spotlight.

To be clear, none of this is meant to take away from the people courageously speaking up about gay rights. I think those are important issues. Rather, it is to highlight how effective they have been in keeping their issue in the mix and getting their questions answered. Those of us in the climate and sustainability movements have a lot to learn from the gay rights movement."

A lot has been said about why President Obama made his announcement yesterday and what the political calculation was that led to that decision. I won't go into my thoughts on that specifically, but what I will say is that whatever the calculation was, whatever the motive to make this move at this particular time, it was made possible by gay rights activists spending almost four years of Obama's presidency taking actions that collectively have created an political environment within which Obama was able to take this historic step.

Had they not pressured Obama to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, yesterday may not have happened. Had they not challenged the parade of Republican presidential candidates on their bigotry, yesterday wouldn't have happened. By spotlighting the anti-gay views of his opposition, gay rights activists gave President Obama an opportunity to show how he is different. They gave him an opportunity to contrast the inclusiveness, the progressiveness and the modernity of the Democratic party with the exclusionary, regressive Republicans.

We must do the same. The sustainability movement must continue to pressure our opposition in order to highlight their regressive thinking. Whether it is Big Oil, Big Coal or Big Gas not wanting the US to progress to a cleaner energy future or Big Agriculture not wanting consumers to learn about the ugly side of industrial food production or Wall Street and Big Business not wanting to consider a smarter form of economics that considers externalized costs of industry, the battlegrounds in the environmental movement are often this same fight between progress and the status quo.

In this context, isn't it fitting that the Obama reelection campaign has selected "Forward" as a theme? That is what we all want, isn't it? To moving things forward, to improve our lives, bit by bit. It's hard. It's often slow and sometimes we do take steps backward, but day by day, year by year, we all want to keep things moving. To keep progressing so that someday our reality may match the future that we know is needed.

Tags: Activism | Barack Obama | longreads