Election 2012: The country comes out

Guest post by Beth Zemsky, former board co-chair of the Task Force

Election Day 2012 was a momentous day. In my adopted home state of Minnesota, we fought back two regressive constitutional amendments, an anti-marriage-equality amendment and one calling for voter ID. We also turned both chambers of our state Legislature blue again for the first time in decades.

Around the country there were equally surprising, even stunning, progressive results. Marriage equality measures passed in Maine, Maryland and Washington state. A record of 20 women, including the nation’s first out lesbian, will serve in the U.S. Senate. Maryland passed its version of the Dream Act, two states legalized marijuana, and California passed increased funding for an educational system starved by decades of tax cuts. The list goes on. And, oh yes, we also re-elected President Obama. As one colleague tweeted, “I never let myself imagine the results we actually got.”

Nov. 6 was an amazing day for LGBT people and others who have been targeted and excluded by the supremacy of the Right. We came up to the edge of turning the clock back to the 1950s, which only would have lead us to have to fight again for what we had already won. Instead, we moved our movement forward.

While I was surprised by the scope of our victories, particularly given the vitriol of the campaign and the Right’s delusional projections of massive victory on every measure, I was not surprised about our capability to produce these results. Days like Nov. 6, and the campaigns that we just waged, are possible because of the intentionality of movement building that many of us have been engaged in for decades — even during those moments when it felt like our movements were moving nowhere. This election, and all the organizing leading up to it, is a good reminder of what my colleague Urvashi Vaid has said, “The thing about movements is that they move.”

Beth Zemsky stands with Task Force staff members as Task Force Faith Director Rev. Rebecca Voelkel speaks at the victory rally in Minnesota.

Early on the morning of Nov. 7, when the results on Minnesota and Washington state’s marriage votes finally came, a commentator on MSNBC said, “Tonight the country came out.” As a lesbian, this statement poignantly stuck me. Not just for the personal validation that 30 years ago seemed inconceivable in my lifetime, but also for how apt a metaphor the complicated psychological and social process of “coming out” is for this movement moment. If this is the nation’s coming out moment, then as someone who has worked in the LGBT movement for over 30 years as a psychotherapist, organizer and movement builder, I want to share something I know about coming out.

When I was 18, I began to feel that something was deeply off about the way I perceived and understood myself. Yes, there were the pieces of the now familiar story of attraction for someone new who had come into my life. But, it was more than that. I remember having the sense that God, or whoever or whatever had wired me, had left off the connection between heart, head and body. The stirrings of the possibility of first love amplified the sense of disconnection and the need to transform my life. I then spent the next period of my life finding a way to lay down new internal and external connections to transform myself into someone who was fully able to have deep relationships that were grounded in my deepest held values and dedicated to authentic love, connection, and commitment.

Although many of us LGBT folks don’t always talk about the experience of coming out this way, I think that this process is at the root of it for many of us — driven by the passion and desire to live into a place of authentic relationships, we take the risk of losing everything we have, and everything we thought we were, to come out for the potential of another way of living. Coming out requires the courage to let go of what is known, and our narrative about ourselves, to step into a place of transformation and expansiveness we did not think was possible. It will take the same kind of courage and the same kind of stepping into a new narrative for the country to really come out. Part of our job is to help build that courage and the conditions for this new narrative to take root.

If the nation has just come out, what then does this transformational movement moment mean for our broad movement for dignity, self-determination, peace, sustainability, racial and economic justice? This election was a moment during which we could see right in front of our eyes the possibility of the long entrenched political narrative shifting: From radical individualism i.e., “you are on your own” towards “we are in this together and everyone matters;” from “people not like “us” are to be feared and excluded” towards the politics of inclusion and the acknowledgement that there is more than one-way to be an American; from the limited definition and interpretation of “family values” towards a broader understanding of the importance of love, commitment, and the interdependence of our communities. Even if at this point all we are seeing is a slight shift in the dominant narrative, we need to remember that even a small tremor in the right place during a seismic event can knock a structure off its foundation.

For the past decade (or so) many people, including my colleague Dave Mann of the Grassroots Policy Project and I, have been writing, talking and training organizers towards creating days like Nov. 6 — days in which we concretely begin to see the shift in power and policies that we have hoped for. But elections are not movements.

This kind of election, and our break-through results, happened because we are in a movement moment that has been coming and ardently worked for, not just during this election cycle, but for decades. When we are in a movement moment, victories that seemed impossible become possible. They become possible when the hard work of building of deep coalitional infrastructure, and the creation of a narrative that helps create a shift in how people see themselves and the world, come together with good organizing. In addition, just as during a coming out process, these moments become possible when we have the courage to let go of what we thought we knew to step into a new place of agency, power and possibility. In many places in the country this election was a moment when the movement of our movements became more visible. It was an election when good, capable organizing and movement building came together to strategically gear campaigns to help people make voting choices towards creating the kind of world we imagine.

This election was momentous. However, it will only lead to sustainable social change if we seize this moment to build upon our break-through political successes to continue to do intentional movement development. We need to insure that we build a movement in which everyone is in, no one is out, and we leave none of ourselves behind. And, we must remember Paul Wellstone’s mantra that we have to be committed to each other’s welfare because “we all do better when we all do better.”

In short, it is time for us to build a movement based on a new social contract with each other. We need to continue to expose, as Occupy did exquisitely, that the current social contract — i.e., that if we work hard, play the rules, we will get ahead — is nothing more that a myth.

Rather, we need a new social contract with each other based on recognizing the intersections of our complex identities, the interdependence of our lives, and the interconnections of our families, communities and destinies. If we do this, we will ensure that the real winner of this election was the elevation of a politics based on love, inclusion and hope. And, if we do this, then indeed perhaps the country really will come out.

Beth Zemsky MAEd, LICSW is currently a consultant specializing in intercultural organizational development and movement building. She has worked in numerous roles in the LGBT movement since the early 1980s, including a stint as co-chair of the board of directors of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Beth is also the co-author the article “Building Organizations in a Movement Moment” (Social Policy, Summer 2008).