Former Democratic congressman and gay rights advocate Barney Frank warned Thursday that modern activists are doing it wrong and need to seek real reform rather than just rallying in the streets with their friends.
“I was part of a very successful effort, and I hold it out as a model for the political mobilization of the LGBT community,” Frank told a crowd during the The Atlantic LGBT Summit. “They didn’t do it by marching, they didn’t do it by demonstrating, there weren’t any marryings.”
Frank is the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out as gay. His rise as a prominent gay rights leaders started in the dark. He recalls trying to stay out of the limelight when he first entered politics in 1972. Over time, he became more vocal and used the political process to advance gay rights.
“What they did was very thoughtful and successful lobbying of the legislators,” Frank recalled. “They mobilized people and went to see their legislators.”
Now, with his success, he warns the activists of today are misguided. He argues that in the early days, their best successes came from talking with those who make the laws. Sometimes it was just a matter of letting politicians know there were gay constituents in their district.
“It was a street fight, not a street rally, it wasn’t us meeting together and congratulating ourselves,” Frank noted. “If you are out there demonstrating your commitment in a way that makes you feel reinforced and happy and cheerful and among friends, you are probably not helping.”
Frank notes protest and demonstrations can help mobilize people. He warns, though, that demonstrations cannot be the be all of activism. The problem is that many modern movements relay solely on protests. Black Lives Matter, the current gay rights movement, Occupy Wall Street and drug activists among many who more often disregard other, often more critical means of making their views a reality.
The discussion didn’t come without resistance. A member of the audience challenged Frank on how marginalized groups often cannot engage in the political process. Certain people don’t have the means, skills and time to engage with their elected representatives or to influence politics. Frank dismissed the complaint, saying actual engagement is much easier than protesting.
“It takes much less time, effort and energy to communicate with your representatives than it does to go to a demonstration or a march,” Frank replied. “You can see them in their districts, so I reject the notion it’s harder to express your views to your representatives.”
Frank noted several ways people can express their views to their representatives. Writing letters or emails and getting a group to visit them, he asserts, are all more cost and time effective than most types of protests.
“Marches and demonstrations are good things if they help mobilize people,” Frank also noted. “The fact is, decisions are made by the people who have power, and we want a strategy to influence them.”
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