First the marginalized come forward. Then their families, friends, and allies join.
But in all civil rights movements, it is when the unlikely allies step forward that a tipping point is reached.
On June 18, Fordham’s Be the Evidence Project (BTEP) held “What a Tipping Point Looks Like: LGBTQ Rights and Future,” featuring Kate Kendell, attorney and executive director the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The talk was the latest installment of BTEP’s town hall speaker series.
In terms of rights and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, Kendell said, the country has reached that tipping point.
“Every civil rights movement has had the same trajectory,” Kendell said. “No marginalized group can do it by itself, because it’s not big enough. You need allies. But the moment that’s critical to the tipping point is when you get unlikely allies—the people you didn’t expect to show up for you.”
For the LGBT community, she said, those people showed up in the form of President Obama, who voiced his support of LGBT rights prior to the November election, and Ted Olson, who along with David Boies made a federal constitutional challenge to California’s Proposition 8.
“That’s how we hit the tipping point… People understood our humanity,” she said. “I’ve never seen, nor could I have imagined the time that we’re in right now—this sort of ‘best of times’ place for the LGBT community.”
Contributing to the “best of times” was the fact that while Kendell was presenting her talk at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, 230 miles away the United States Supreme Court was deliberating the constitutionality of Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which restricts federal marriage recognition and benefits to opposite-sex couples.
Kendell said she is optimistic for LGBT rights and advocacy. But she cautioned that even a favorable outcome for the LGBT community does not mean that advocacy is no longer needed.
“There’s no doubt we’re in a ‘best of times’ moment, but we’re still very much in a difficult time, especially for those who are poor, of color, or live in a rural area,” she said. “The tipping point is not the same as the end. There’s a long, long descent before you come to the end.
“I hope that every ally—unlikely or not—will look around and say, ‘Who’s not with us? Who’s being left behind?’ and then show up for the rest of the community. Because we’re only here now because other people looked around and said that same thing for us.”
Responding to Kendell’s talk was a panel of social workers, mental health professionals, and LGBT advocates, including:
- Tina Maschi, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) and founder and executive director of BTEP;
- Jo Rees, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at Long Island University, Brooklyn;
- Eileen Klein, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at Ramapo College;
- Derek Brown, Ph.D., assistant dean of admissions at GSS; and
- Jacwynne Danee Sergeant, an M.S.W. student at GSS researching LGBT youth and mental health.
The panelists remarked that setbacks along the way have made efforts to advocate for the LGBT community seem, at times, an endless struggle.
“It was only in 1973 that psychiatry considered homosexuality a mental illness,” Klein said. “So as much as it seems like things are moving fast, it also sometimes seems like things are plodding along. There are many bumps in the road.”
But when progress seems slow, it is important to remember that small efforts count as much as large ones, Maschi said.
“There are macro-level interventions, such as developing laws and policies sensitive to LGBT and other socially-disadvantaged groups, but the power of micro-interventions on a personal level should not be underestimated,” she said.
“The way we communicate with one another while working toward a larger change does make a difference, and to me that is something achievable, that’s something we can start doing right now.”
BTEP, run out of the Graduate School of Social Service, is intended to create awareness of human rights and social justice issues through research, advocacy, and education. Its town hall speaker series highlights important social issues in order to bring them to the awareness of the University and local community.
Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to more than 15,100 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, a campus in West Harrison, N.Y., the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y., and the London Centre at Heythrop College, University of London, in the United Kingdom.