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When a Country Votes on Your Existence: DREAM and DADT

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Today I cannot stop thinking about what it means to live in a country that votes regularly on your basic rights to exist and be equal.

On a gray and cold Saturday in Washington D.C., the Senate voted to expand the possibilities for some and to shut the door on others. I am talking about this Saturday's votes on the DREAM Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The DREAM Act did not pass. The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell did.

This means that LGBT service members will now be able to serve without having to lie about and hide who they are. It means that their careers aren't potentially abruptly ended because someone makes an accusation about them.

This means that young people who were brought to this country as children, who know no other home, and who have built valuable lives and sought education or to serve have been told that they are not welcomed here. They are essentially being told to exit their colleges, be detained, and sent back to whatever country their parents are from.

I have long been involved in efforts around both LGBT equality and immigration rights. They are both important to me. I am a lesbian. I have never served in the armed forces. I was born in the United States. But the affliction of injustice does not matter only when your own status is being assaulted.

In the political world, last November, there was a lot of chatter about the supposed "enthusiasm gap" on the left. I don't argue that many are tired and heartbroken from the reality that has unfolded since that joyous time for the progressive movement in November in 2008 and January in 2009.

But that isn't the full story. That isn't what I see. Do you want to see people taking to the streets? Do you want to see people making calls, organizing, and voting? Do you want to see highly mobilized and engaged electorates that have not given up? Look to the LGBT and Immigration Rights movements.

There are lots of reasons as to why this is. When the echo chamber of talking heads talk about an "enthusiasm gap," they are not looking at these communities. That is exactly what the situation is. Both of these communities have long learned that no party could be simply trusted to have their backs, or even consider their presence and organizing. They were not always invited to the table. They were often used as scapegoats on all sides. Demonized to scare the public, and the first to be dropped from the agenda of larger progressive coalitions.

When you are used to having everything and everyone willing to throw your rights under the bus, you don't lose enthusiasm so quickly. You are used to marathons. You create art in resistance. You build communities. You find a sense of joy, in the midst of so much heartbreak, in continuously fighting for the right to simply be equal.

It does something to you. This existence where time after time, elected officials in suits, or Americans in voting booths, click a button, pull a cord, mark a box, and decide whether or not you are worthy of equality. Whether, very clearly and simply, some other force thinks you have the right to fully exist in this country.

In this lame duck Congressional session, two pieces of progressive legislation were organized around enough that Leadership felt responsible to move forward on them: The DREAM Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Today the Senate decided that LGBT service members are okay to exist, but undocumented youth who have only known this country and who have worked hard are not okay to exist here. And then those Senators all ride warm cars to warm planes or trains and will head home soon to holidays with their families and communities. The people they deem worthy to exist here.

One beautiful thing that rose up in the mess of the Senate's actions is a visible showing of something that has been happening below ground for awhile. LGBT rights groups posted notes on Facebook, about both their joy over the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and also their sadness about The DREAM Act not passing. Many activists are sharing similar sentiments. Gay, straight, born here, documented, or undocumented, if you care about the rights of individuals being denied by policy, you care about both issues.

I've never seen more beautifully committed, passionate and smart activists than in the youth who organized around the DREAM Act. Risking their own well-being for a larger good, they would regularly sit-in in legislative offices, often risking deportation. It wasn't always noted in the mainstream media, but very often, these sit-ins included LGBT Dreamers. The LGBT rights movement is now full of straight allies. Something is going on here.

In this era where the rights of various groups are openly debated and voted upon, as if for the sport of pure political manipulations and calculations, a number of us have noticed the underlying pattern. Some of us are told we are worthy. We belong here. This is fully our country. Others of us are told... hold on.... not so quick... no so much... no. And then we watch as strangers debate if we have the right to love, or live, or serve.

Things are changing in this country. Despite the back and forth of two year cycles of elections. Despite who voted what this particular morning. Those who are told they are not equal are not waiting to sit out the action, after it acts against them. And they are no longer acting alone.

As the great late poet June Jordan -- who wrote the line "We are the ones we've been waiting for" -- would say: "It's On!" If you believe in equality for all: It's on! If you think you can act against any one community and then expect all of us to forget what was done to them: It's on! If you think simply switching majorities in Congress back and forth for a short period of time matters, while my generation grows older and into more power, well: It's on!

We're not done with our work today. We will not celebrate Don't Ask and Don't Tell being repealed without also considering what next we can do to fight for the Dreamers. A new game is emerging. Most of the talking head politico world can't see it yet. But we've got momentum, youth, numbers, time, strategy and collaborative solidarity on our side. It's ain't over yet. It's on!