The LGBT Rights Heartbreak and the Great Work Ahead

01/19/2009 02:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Too often have I woken up the morning after an election having less rights than I did the night before. If you are a member of the LGBT community, this is a familiar sensation to you. As a lesbian, in 2004 I work up on the morning after the election and felt it was quite certain that my country must hate me. So many states had overwhelmingly voted to rob me of rights. How could that not be hate? I spent years pondering that question and seeking answers. As someone who has dedicated my life to public service, it is hard to orientate my work in a country that I fear may despise my existence, simply based upon whom I love.

This year, the morning after the election, I woke up jubilant, even if only on little sleep. I was in a swing state with friends and had only gotten a few hours of sleep, leaving CNN on in the background to keep reminding me of the amazing reality we had created. Shortly after awakening, however, I got updated news about Proposition 8 in California and how it had passed, robbing gay and lesbian couples of their right to marry. And at once I was jubilant and devastated simultaneously in a way I never had been before, and much too tired to make sense of it all in that moment.

In the days since, I have come back to the question of hate. And whether a vote against a community's rights must be based in hate. This was supposed to be the election where hope won out! But the winning out of hope doesn't happen without first there being lots of interaction with those who we think may hate us -- whoever the "us" is. The winning out of hope comes after conversations with any and everybody, with the belief that maybe they actually don't want to cast a vote that has anything to do with hate or discrimination or fear. The better angels of everyone must be approached and asked to vote for hope and equality, in whatever form hope is on the ballot.

The most of something that felt like hate that I personally experienced lately came in the last few days of this recent election season. The tone had changed. Those who disagreed with me on my candidate choice of Obama, and all that he embodies, were occasionally no longer able to just casually disagree with me. There was hate. I was cussed out. A dog was told to attack me and then sent loose, as I bolted from the yard.

Most of these incidents happened on one particular street on one evening. A rundown little street in a poor white neighborhood with almost more houses foreclosed on than not. Maybe once I would have stretched to call such an area working class, but I am not sure that there were jobs to be had by those there anymore.

I was there with my white woman self, canvassing, my Obama Pride button affixed to my coat, as it always had been. Several white men yelled at me for my support of a "nigger" and then spit on the ground as I wished them a nice day and moved on.

I grew up on streets like that one, in the early parts of my life. I didn't need to wear a rainbow pin in those days, because in towns like mine, everyone already knows such things. Those people yelling at me last week looked like movie extras who played those who yelled at me in my early youth. And when I was homeless and they wanted nothing to do with me, when a Black family was the only one to lend me any warmth in that town, at lot of the words yelled at me then were the same repeated last week.

One man yelled at me so vehemently last week that the woman he was with found me later on the street, three times, to apologize, to say that he was not her blood.

While walking that street, Dorothy Allison came into my mind. I thought of her books, her characters, while I walked up onto those porches to knock on their doors. I thought of my youth and the fear inherent in it. My fighting against the belief that such realities were all I had to choose from.

The sun was setting and no, I didn't feel safe. I wanted to light a cigarette, run back to my car and cry. But I also wanted Barack Obama to be elected the next President of these United States, and so I kept knocking.

Every knock was a moment of PTSD. My jaw would clench as the door cracked open and I announced my purpose. "Hello, I am with the Obama Campaign." I would prepare for the anger, the hate.

Towards the end of the street it took everything I had to will my feet to keep walking. I knocked on one door, after passing the three prior, which had been foreclosed on. A man who looked like many of the others who had just yelled at me opened the door. It was clear he was tired. I told him my purpose. He lit up. He told me proudly that he was for Obama, I gave him information about Obama's speech in town the next day, and the man grew excited.

After a few more houses where they more kindly told me to get off of their property, I was at my final door when another man answered. Beer in hand, covered in tattoos, somewhat young, ripped t-shirt and looking almost too familiar to me. I wanted to take a step backwards as he told me he was voting, and I asked if it was for Barack Obama.

He looked into my eyes with an intensity that I didn't know how to interpret. And then he said, yes, yes he had just last week made that decision that he would support Obama. The adrenaline of fear was released from wherever it had been clenched in me, but my body didn't know what to do with it. I sighed something of relief and thanked him for his support, while telling him the location of his polling place before walking back down that street, still trying not to cry, in the now dark, trying to find my car.

The thing is, really, that is how we won. You cannot stop believing that at the next door, maybe, maybe, despite everything we are told, there was a supporter who deserved to be contacted. I was terrified and tired by that point, and had good reason to be. But if we stopped with where we knew we were safe, without extending the grace of welcome and belief to more, we would not have won. That doesn't, of course, mean that I wouldn't be yelled at and cussed out a few times along the way.

I feel that there's something relevant there to the present state of the movement for LGBT rights. As the community grieves and seeks to blame whomever we felt did not support us enough, data interpretations may make it all too easy to generalize and stereotype on the road to blame. We do need to take stock as a community of what more needs to be done and done better. But categorizing those we think do not support us, and then casting blame and anger at the direction of those groups will get us nowhere.

For every few doors we knock on and are denied, there are more doors up that road where we have to trust we might be greeted with a more positive response. But the only way we ever find that out is by refusing to write off anyone from inclusion in a more progressive and inclusive community. It isn't easy work. And it requires an intense set of grace and compassion to work alongside a passionate spirit of being willing to fight for what is right. But we've seen that it can happen. We've seen it in this country this week. And we've seen the LGBT community be leaders of fierce compassionate organizing before. I have faith in us. In all of us. So even though our hearts are understandably breaking right now, I hope the healing brings us closer together. And our other gains this week only strengthen our resolve that there is the potential of better coalitions to be built. This isn't over yet. We knew that one way or another it wouldn't be. We knew there would still be work to be done, regardless of the outcome of the vote.

There is a quote that I've been unable to get out of my head this week. It is from the brilliant Tony Kushner's Angels in America and I think it speaks well to where we find ourselves now:

You are fabulous, each and every one, and I bless you. More life. The great work begins.