Politics, if you please

Dr. Ethel D. Allen at a Philadelphia City Council meeting in 1974 demanding more community participation in a development project. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Editor’s note: The following column was written by Dr. Ethel Allen for PGN’s Pride issue in 1978. We found many of Dr. Allen’s words to be extremely applicable in 2022, so we are rerunning it.

There is an old Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem,” that Black people have known for years, which surfaced when Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin In The Sun” became popular. To quote:

“What happens to a dream deferred?”

This is the refrain of the gay community as it watches the parade of reversals to recently acquired legislated rights. The litany of counties and cities – Dade, St. Paul, Wichita and Eugene – clash around their ears in the cacophonous sound of defeat rather than the dulcet harmonies of success. What does this mean to the gay community, to the overall community as a whole and to the future of our great nation?

We wrote in a recent column about “awareness.” We counseled then that the gay community must develop within itself “a political system.” We further amplify that statement to include “and develop political knowledge.”

Looking back on the history of the drive to promote and secure gay rights legislation, we realize that the political climate was “right.” Politicians who, at other times, would never had remotely considered sponsorship of and/or support of such legislation, began to observe phenomena of “the liberal approach” to traditionally unacceptable matters such as homosexuality.

Riding the last vestages of liberalism, they began to demonstrate their commitment to the “rights of people” by addressing themselves to the matters of equal opportunities in housing, jobs and public accommodations for all people, inclusive of those with varied [sexual orientations]. As viewed in some circles, it enabled people to be free of the oppressive measures and practices of times. Despite some community opposition, gay rights rode the coattails of liberal measures evidenced by liberal legislation. It was assumed by many that a major victory had been won. Few envisioned that victory to be a pyrrhic one.

Politicians seeking election or reelection viewed the tenor of the times and acted in concert with it. The gay community, to some extent, attuned to the possiblities these days presented and the opportunities afforded to them, began to negotiate vote support for legislative support. In this sort of arena, some successes were achieved. In others, the near misses failed to create an atmosphere of despair but instead, buoyed by the victories, gays began to anticipate continued success, and myopically persisted in the current manner.

Having achieved a foothold on the mountain of political participation, there was no apparent effort to entrench themselves by acquiring sufficient knowledge and political skill so as to further their cause and “occupy the territory they had captured before moving on to stake out more.” One might liken the position taken after repeated victories to the activity of the African ostrich –hiding one’s head in the sand – and for much the same reasons.

Following the achievement of successes, small as they might have been, the first tactical error in political activism was made – no followup. That is the prime “tripping” agent of many who are politically unsophisticated. It is the mechanism upon which many seasoned politicians depend, especially if they see the evidence of change as a threat to their power, the base of their ambitions. They may appear to support measures reluctantly, because it is a “propitious” time. Later they will claim “divine intervention” as their reason for reneging on promises, support, or votes. It is part of a not-so-subtle game plan that enables the politico to have a foot in all camps and none in the quagmire. It makes it difficult for those who lack political knowledge to understand what is happening – and thus leaves them unprepared to deal with the aftermath of the situation as it develops – especially if it is unfavorable to them. 

The repeal of the recently passed legislation in those major cities is evidence of a national trend. While most members of the gay community may feel the repressive actions are directed solely against them, I see them as the early indication of what is yet to come – and it is a horror to behold. The portents of today’s actions are much the same as the actions in Germany that preceded the holocaust and the other extremely oppressive measures that were the horror of those historic years.

Just as the times surrounding the ascent of Hitler to the chancellorship of Germany were times of economic peril, inflationary instability and severe emotional stress brought on by the future – so is the climate of today. Increased stresses, especially financially, create a sense of frustration within the individuals most affected. These stresses are manifested frequently in communications to the editors of newspapers and to elected officials and become a catalyst for actions that may occur in the future. Oftentimes a subtle, but not too subtle atmosphere of fear is created, and it is upon this great emotion that people begin to play.

Let us imagine that the vestigial climate in which the gay rights legislation was passed was viewed by some insecure individuals as an assault on their right to be heterosexual. Let us presuppose that they wrongfully envisioned “the gays” as “taking over the country” and creating an atmosphere of free sexual expression for all people. Fear, prejudice and hatred – the basest emotions of man – sprang to the fore and the scapegoat needed to vent frustrations upon was chosen – and as is always the case the most disunited, the least politically knowledgeable, the least sophisticated in human behavior became the victims.

Those who study history and realize that it repeats itself see it occurring. Those who see discrimination, rejection, and repression within the gay community to their own, based on sex and racial origin, can equate it. Those who are politically incapable of making a major impact in the elective arena recognize the reasons why. 

Ask yourself, as a human being, whether you wish to be placed into a situation where your life is prescribed along some predetermined avenues which may require you to perform according to someone else’s expectations, especially when these same expectations may be in conflict with your innate personality and needs. Then ask if your achieving of a freedom which enslaves another class of people is indeed a freedom or merely a transference of your incapacity to someone else.

It is my belief that the repressive movement against “gay rights” legislation will tail off for the time being because another scapegoat – of near similar vulnerability – has taken its place.

You have been had. The actions of the most preceding years indicated that things were changing. Legislation had been passed in city after city. The Congress of the United States was said to be preparing to consider any bills introduced on that level pertaining to the rights of individuals who professed sexual attraction for members of their own sex. 

Everyone, it seemed, had been promising that things would be better for homosexuals, but nobody knew when and nobdy delivered — and you refused to help yourselves.