The U.S. Senate failed to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. And it put the DREAM Act which would give undocumented young people a chance at legalization on hold. If there is a silver lining to be drawn from these twin failures, it is this -- the Senate was evenhanded in its tightfistedness. It didn't give undocumented students what it refused its gay soldiers. Rights. And in its failure, perhaps it unwittingly showed both groups that they are still in the same boat.
One group can reassure itself that at least they are not "illegal." The other can take comfort in the fact that they are at least "normal." But in the eyes of at least 40 senators of the United States Senate they are both pariahs.
This is not the first time this has happened this year. A few months ago, Judge Walker in California and Judge Bolton in Arizona, ruled within days of each other -- the former affirming the rights of same-sex couples and the latter protecting the rights of immigrants. At that time it had felt that perhaps in the midst of the celebrations both groups of activists would find common cause in shared joy. Now, both laws have wound their way to higher courts, both issues still strangely tied at the hip, reticent about acknowledging each other, yet dogging each other's steps.
Perhaps some lessons are learned better in defeat. The debate in the Senate hammers one point home -- times might change, even majorities might change their minds but the rights of minorities in this country never came easy.
It is not an easy lesson to swallow. When you come tantalizingly close to success, when you teeter on the brink of a filibuster, it is easy to turn on your own. LGBT leaders did this to their own community with the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Worried it would not pass if it included transgender rights, its sponsors dropped transgender from its provisions and pushed it through the House in 2007. It still died in the Senate anyway.
Immigrant right advocates, hungry for any kind of half-loaf, have given in to ever harsher enforcement measures. Family reunification too bothersome? Let's drop it from Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Would young men and women legalized through the DREAM Act cost too much? Let's exclude them from federal benefits, from the health insurance exchanges. Now Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R- Texas) says she cannot support the DREAM Act because it would allow those students to petition for family members 13 years later. But enough senators still didn't believe in the DREAM Act, forcing Harry Reid, the majority leader from Nevada, to backpedal and try and buy some more time. What the giveaways do achieve is change the starting point for the next round. Next time around, activists might be forced to start from a shrunken DREAM.
There is suspicion on both sides. Gays fear that when (and if) comprehensive immigration reform again re-surfaces, the first bargaining chip to be given away to win the support of conservatives will be the rights of gay and lesbian partners of American citizens. Kenneth Blackwell, once the Republican candidate for governor of Ohio made that clear. Blackwell is part of an evangelical group pushing for immigration reform. But if same-sex couples are included in any bill, Blackwell said, "that would be a deal-breaker."
The DREAM vote didn't happen. The vote on the repeal of DADT did. But they are sister votes, the ghost of the one that didn't happen haunting the other. There but for the grace of a Senate maneuver go I.
Whenever parallels are drawn between these issues, the reactions are often swift and sharp. Many gay and lesbians in the United States bristle at any comparison of the fight for their rights, whether it's about serving in the military or marriage, with the struggles of the undocumented. They are American. They pay taxes and they want the same rights as other Americans. One reader wrote in response to an earlier column, "All of the rights gays are demanding, illegal immigrants already have." The reader made no mention of the fact (or perhaps was just not aware) that all of the rights the DREAMers are demanding, gays already have.
Urvashi Vaid, the lesbian activist who once headed the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, has often made that point about the need to show up at each other's causes. She said race in the LGBT movement is seen "primarily as an issue of diversity or outreach, not as an issue of equity or fundamental justice that it is our business as a movement to achieve." One person's cause has really become another person's outreach. Let's get a person of color for our board. How about a gay person for our board?
Some though have no option but to show up at both causes. This year, when DREAM activists started sitting in at the offices of senators and marching hundreds of miles, risking arrest and deportation, many were struck by the fact several of them were gay. When five DREAM students got themselves arrested at Sen. John McCain's office in May in an act of civil disobedience, it turned out that three of the DREAMers were gay.
At that time, it seemed like a strange coincidence. But perhaps it was not accidental. Those young men and women were coming out. Doubly.