‘Don’t Let Them Jesse Jackson You.’

(By Jeremy Levine, and x-posted from Social Science Lite.)

In last week’s New York Times, Jeremy Peters wrote a thought-provoking article about the lack of visible leadership in the gay rights movement. While Peters is generally fast and loose (read: weak) with his historical analysis, his general point seems accurate: there really isn’t any national spokesperson for gay rights. Sure, Harvey Milk has become somewhat of a household name as of late, but we’d be naive to think that he had any national presence before Gus Van Sant’s award-winning biopic. Not to belittle Milk’s achievements, but let’s be real, he was only a city supervisor.

In the Times article, Peters compares the leadership dynamics of the contemporary gay rights movement with those of past movements for civil rights. According to Peters, social movements of yesteryear were generally associated with a single national leader: Frederick Douglass was the face of the abolitionist movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. defined the Civil Rights Movement, and Betty Freidan epitomized the modern women’s movement. The point here is not that social movements were in fact lead by individuals, but that the general American public looked to these leaders as surrogates for their respective constituencies. Put another way, the media knew exactly who to call for soundbites.

There is no such prominent figure in today’s battles for gay rights. No leader to turn to for direction. No individual to call on for an official statement of purpose or a list of goals. But, is this a bad thing? As usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates offered his own insightful commentary, reflecting on the gay rights movement’s lack of visible leadership:

“And for that, I think my gay brethren should be thankful. There’s nothing like media anointing someone as your spokesperson. Don’t let them Jesse Jackson you. No disrespect to Jesse. But the notion that one person, in these individualized times, should speak for whole populations is crazy. I think, ultimately, this will be for the best.”

Ta-Nehisi makes a really astute point here. It would be problematic, and perhaps detrimental, for the gay community to define themselves through a single national spokesperson. Associating your movement with a single leader means associating yourself with all of his or her faults, inconsistencies, and contradictions. When an individual represents an entire movement, all of their flaws reflect back on the movement, whether movement participants like it or not.

But there’s another layer of concern here that also deserves analysis. Minority populations are particularly susceptible to criticisms that highlight negative aspects of individuals as indicative of the whole group. Single acts of transgression or immaturity become evidence, or proof, of the cultural inferiority of entire populations. When a black man commits murder, he’s making his entire race look bad, contributing to existing stereotypes. But when a white man commits murder, his act is an individual transgression, rather than a group characteristic. Take acts of domestic terrorism, like this past month’s murder of George Tiller. Or Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. No one argued that these actions exemplified a characteristic of an entire racial group, as if domestic terrorism is some sort of a white male trait.

Herein lies the structure of oppression in America. With minority populations, individual-level flaws are interpreted as group-level deficiencies. This common logical fallacy fosters and legitimizes racism and other forms of discrimination. By contrast, when, say, a white male commits some sort of atrocity, his actions are seen as aberrations rather than the norm.

That is not to say that the gay rights movement is better off without formal leadership. Indeed, sustainable social movements require strong leadership and efficient organization. But these leaders don’t need to be the go-to voice when the media is looking for a comment. Sure, a movement needs strong leaders, but maybe they should stay behind the scenes. Maybe the message of the movement would be more powerful if defined by a collective identity, rather than a single national leader.

Still, anointing a national spokesperson may be inevitable. If this happens, the gay rights movement may want to take Ta-Nehisi Coates’ advice, and resist getting Jesse Jackson-ed. No disrespect to Jesse, of course.

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8 thoughts on “‘Don’t Let Them Jesse Jackson You.’

  1. Molly July 6, 2009 at 4:33 pm Reply

    yes; it would be nothing but complicated to promote a figure-head–what the movement is going for is normalcy and relatability, and trying to stay as far away from minstrel shows and caricatures as possible…

  2. G.D. July 6, 2009 at 8:27 pm Reply

    I agree with you, especially because of the way news outlets tend to let the least moderate voices of a group bellow at each other because they think it makes for better television/storytelling. The net result is that people unfamiliar with, say, feminism end up thinking the Dworkinite view is emblematic of the larger movement.

    But I wonder if eschewing the “leader/spokesman” model doesn’t do a disservice for the same reason Molly mentions: part of what gays and lesbians need is someone relatable enough and high profile enough to help “normalize” gay life in a way that wins over the persuadables.

    • Jeremy July 6, 2009 at 9:05 pm Reply

      Interesting–in this respect, another apt title for the post could have been “Don’t Let Them Perez Hilton You,” since, well, Perez tends to reinforce more negative stereotypes than he breaks.

      That said, we could find ourselves in a position in which we are looking for the most “respectable” spokesperson that may be seen more as an appeaser and less as a social justice crusader. Because then we’d invariably get into a debate about what would normalize gay lifestyles–is it a lipstick lesbian that can pass for straight, or a more butch lesbian that pushes what “normal” is? I guess it’s the former if we want to reach the persuadables, but I also bet a lot of activists in the community wouldn’t be cool with that strategy.

      It seems like the best way to normalize this might be to NOT have a national spokesperson, right? Think about it: Michael Richards makes a racial slur, and what does he do? Who does he go to for his apology? Well, Al Sharpton’s radio show of course. If we make a slur against, whites or euro-ethnics, where do we go? Who do we apologize to? I can’t really think of anyone, probably because euro-ethnicities and whiteness are so normalized in America. This very structure–Al’s very presence–reinforces that this group isn’t part of the mainstream. They’re separate, not normal. Leadership is important in social movements, but a single national spokesperson…I’m not so sure.

      • G.D. July 7, 2009 at 12:55 pm Reply

        Great points, all.

        So what we need then is probably the Ellen DeGeneres/early Bill Cosby model.

        • Molly July 7, 2009 at 1:35 pm Reply

          I had my money on Wanda Sykes until the White House Correspondent’s Dinner…

  3. Jessica July 7, 2009 at 7:42 am Reply

    I’m surprised that Betty Friedan was identified as the icon for the women’s liberation movement- I would have thought Gloria Steinem.
    And to what extent did Malcolm X rival Martin Luther King, Jr. for figurehead of the black civil rights movement? I guess what I’m saying is maybe those past movements weren’t as monolithic as they appear from several decades on.
    Either way, I definitely agree with the idea that we don’t want a single spokesperson because that person’s individual flaws get associated with the movement. Dan Savage is sometimes the media’s go-to guy for a gay perspective, and his statements about black voters and Prop 8 were definitely problematic. I don’t want the public to believe that he speaks for all queers when he says that.

  4. Jessica July 7, 2009 at 7:44 am Reply

    Oh- just read the NYT article and saw they did mention Steinem.

    • Jeremy July 7, 2009 at 8:38 am Reply

      Yeah – Peters mentioned her, but I failed to. My bad.

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