LIBERAL VS. RADICAL

09.21.14 10:45 AM ET

Is Caring About Climate Change an Essential Part of LGBT Identity?

To the radical LGBT activists most likely to march in New York City on Sunday, caring about global warming expresses solidarity with the oppressed. But what about the mainstream gays?

On Sunday, a gaggle of queer folks will be joining the “People’s Climate March,” a rally in New York City projected to attract more than 100,000 attendees. Unfortunately, those who could help the cause the most are the least likely to show up.

Marching under banners such as “Queers for the Climate,” LGBT climate activists are, first and foremost, agitating for action on climate change. But they are also saying something about what LGBT activism should be about, and saying something quite different from the (current) gay mainstream. The question is whether they can make an impact.

Since the beginning of the contemporary LGBT movement—1969 by most accounts; 1950 if you go back to the founding of the first gay rights organization—activists have roughly divided into two camps. The first is basically liberal and seeks to win incremental victories, gain equal rights, and more or less assimilate into the mainstream of American society. Think same-sex marriage, #loveislove, and other messages that LGBT people are basically just like everyone else and should be treated the same.

The second group is more radical. It doesn’t want to assimilate into the mainstream, it wants to transform it. Think sexual liberation, 1970s groups like the Gay Liberation Front, and slogans like “Smash the church/Smash the state.” Not exactly family values. It’s this second group that sees LGBT liberation as intersecting with other liberation struggles, those based on eradicating racism, classism, sexism—and climate change.

Often the two groups’ agendas overlap, but sometimes they conflict. Mainstream gays support same-sex marriage, but some radical queers oppose it, for example, on the grounds that it wrongly assigns rights based on a narrow type of “acceptable” lifestyle choice. Mainstream gays want Pride parades to play well in Peoria, with large corporate floats and photogenic participants. Radical queers want Pride parades to be about pride in all its forms, including the Dykes on Bikes, Leather men, drag queens, and other folks who tend to terrify your grandma. The result? Each group buries its head in its hands: The queers can’t stand the Prudential float, the assimilationists can’t stand the Daddies in leather.

To a “mainstream gay,” having a group called Queers for the Climate may make little sense. I mean, there’s no harm in it. But other than perhaps getting someone’s phone number at the climate march, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for it, either.

To a “radical queer,” on the other hand, caring about climate change is an essential part of queer identity. It expresses solidarity with the oppressed—which in this case may include almost everyone—opposition to the one percenters who got us into this mess, and a righteous indignation nourished by decades of LGBT activist experience.

As Joseph Huff-Hannon, one of Queers for the Climate’s organizers, wrote, “While governments and corporations refused to acknowledge the severity of the AIDS crisis—an eerie parallel to the response to date on climate change—we educated the masses, told our stories, harnessed the media, raised money.”

The trouble is that while the radically minded queers may be more inspired to march in the People’s Climate March, they may be the least likely to convince others.

Let’s remember the context here. The data on climate change is sobering—not just the conclusive, not actually in any doubt scientific data but the polling data, as well. As I wrote in these pages two years ago, the “vast right-wing conspiracy to lie about climate change has worked.” Billions of energy industry dollars have created a whole network of phony think tanks and “experts” who have clouded the air on the nature of anthropogenic climate change.

The results have been strikingly partisan. Fewer than half of Republicans understand that humans are changing the climate, while more than two-thirds of Democrats do. This split is caused by many factors: conservative media, conservative values (addressing climate change will take—gasp!—regulation), and conservative religion, to name a few.

Somewhere in there is what activists call the “movable middle.” These are the swing voters, Reagan Democrats, soccer moms, Panera moms—the people who are neither left nor right and who often determine elections. And they are who must be persuaded, if climate change action is to become a reality.

They are also the people whom the mainstream LGBT movement focus-grouped and message-tested ad nauseam before adopting messaging frames that worked so well in the marriage battle. As an activist, I was media trained several times, taught to avoid rights-language and favor love-language, to make moderate cases rather than extreme ones, to tell my story rather than chant slogans.

These tactics worked for me and for the movement. It sounds banal to say so, but if you go looking for common ground, you can often find it.

If you’re willing to play the game, that is. But to many intersectionally minded queer folks, that game is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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In other words, precisely the tactics that could be most helpful in moving the country toward meaningful action on climate change—fine-tuning a mainstream message, ascertaining the movable middle—are the least likely to appeal to intersectionally minded justice activists marching in something called the “People’s Climate March.”

Meanwhile, the mainstream gays, the establishment types who spent those corporate-donated dollars on market testing and focus groups, are sitting this one out.

The liberal-radical conundrum is not new. John Lennon sang about it in 1968: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” Translation: What plays to the base is not what plays to the middle.

To be sure, all of these dichotomies are imperfect. Actually, Queers for the Climate has been highly media savvy, with its hilarious “Save the Straights” T-shirts and even more hilarious YouTube satire of trying to get Fire Island gays to care about climate change. And I’m sure plenty of mainstream gays will be marching on Sunday, even if they leave their rainbow flags at home. (For the record, I’ll be there too—on an ark, of all places, together with other progressive faith leaders coordinated by the organization FaithSource. Wave hello.)

But the People’s Climate March, even in its very name, points to the liberal-radical split that is part of any social change movement. Climate change is already a universal problem. The question is when enough people will see it that way.