The DREAM Act and the Failure of White Gay/Lesbian Progressives

This week the U.S. Senate voted on two landmark pieces of legislation: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) and the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young people who came to this country as children.  The repeal of DADT succeeded, while the DREAM Act failed to pass. Gay and lesbian activists and their allies who fought for the repeal of DADT are understandably elated with the overturning of the 17-year-old ban.  But, so far at least, white gay and lesbian progressives have failed to see the DREAM Act as part of the same struggle for human rights.

May Day Immigration Marches, Los Angeles
Creative Commons License photo credit: Salina Canizales

Don’t get me wrong, leading gay and lesbian organizations, such as NGLTF have mentioned both the DREAM Act and DADT – but as separate, single issues.   In separate press releases this week, Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) came out in favor of the repeal of DADT and the DREAM Act.    In contrast, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest (and predominantly white) gay rights organization, has had a lot to say on DADT, but has had very little to say about the DREAM Act.  White gay bloggers like Dan Savage and Joe.My.God. have mentioned the DREAM Act along with DADT, as they have been updating their readers about the lame-duck session of Congress.    The Advocate, a magazine popular with white gays and lesbians, has tons of coverage about the repeal of DADT, but has had only one piece about the immigration (in November) but nothing to date in the archive about the DREAM Act, except as the scheduling of that vote threatened to affect repeal of DADT.  And, perhaps most disappointing for me to see personally as a church-going lesbian, the moderator for my denomination issued a press release that heralded the triumph of this single issue.

What’s the matter with single issue politics?  Isn’t this simply a pragmatic strategy for getting things done in the current political climate?  I don’t think so.  And, neither does Urvashi Vaid.  In a recent speech at the CUNY Graduate Center, Vaid, a longtime activist working at the intersections of LGBT rights and racial justice articulated the dilemma of single-issue gay politics this way:

The key structural reason why neither branch of the LGBT movements has operationalized its stated intersectional politics, is quite simple: the default definition for what “Gay” means has been set by, and remains dominated by, the ideas and experiences of those in our communities who are white and this really has not changed in more than fifty years. Issues, identities, problems that are not “purely” gay – read as affecting white gay men and women – are always defined as not the concern of “our” LGBT movement – they are dismissed as “non-gay” issues, as divisive, as the issues that some ‘other movement’ is more suited to champion. We have our hands full we are told. We need to single-mindedly focus on one thing.

This is an argument that many LGBT liberationists and gay-equality focused activists have made to each other and bought wholesale for decade– without malice, without prejudice – just because there has been an unquestioned assumption that this narrow focus works, that we are getting results because we are making a “gay rights” argument, that this is smart and successful political strategy.

My contention is that it is exactly this narrow and limited focus that is not only causing us to stall in our progress towards formal equality, it is leading us to abandon or ignore large parts of our own communities, with the consequence of making us a weaker movement. The gay-rights focus was historically needed but is a vestigial burden we need to shed. It leads to an unsuccessful political strategy where we try to win on one issue at a time, it narrows our imagination and vision, it does not serve large numbers of our own people, and it feeds the perception that we are generally privileged and powerful, and not in need of civil equality.

What this means right now, at this critical juncture when the repeal of DADT has passed and the DREAM Act hasn’t, is that gay and lesbian activists should be calling for the passage of the DREAM Act and other (even broader) immigration reforms.   I’ve yet to hear one white gay or lesbian activist stand up and say, “Let’s use this momentum from the DADT victory to see the passage of the DREAM Act.”  Not one.   As Vaid said, by focusing on one, single issue at a time, we’re narrowing our imagination and our vision.

Instead of this broadening of vision and building toward a common goal, among white gays and lesbians  there’s a kind of collective “oh, well, the Brown people didn’t get their bill, quelle sad, but we got ours – so let’s celebrate!”  What white gay and lesbian progressives fail to understand is that among those young people hoping to achieve citizenship through the (very restrictive) DREAM Act are gay and lesbian teens.  It’s not that DADT and the DREAM Act are separate issues, they’re part of the same struggle.     It’s just that white gays and lesbians don’t see that.  I hope that changes.

DreamAct: Immigration Reform & Call to Action (Updated)

The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act would enable the children of immigrants to apply to become permanent residents and put them on the path to citizenship (you may have noticed the poll up now in our banner).   Under the DREAM Act, young people who meet a number of requirements, including: arriving in the U.S. before their 16th birthday, living here for at least five consecutive years, have a high school diploma or GED, and demonstrate “good moral character,” which in this context means no criminal justice involvement, would be eligible to apply for citizenship.  There’s more detailed information from the National Immigration Law Center here (pdf).  The fact is, tens of thousands of children grow up in this country as de facto citizens but then are blocked from pursuing their dreams of a college education or military service because of their de jure legal status.   It diminishes everyone when these hard-working young people are not allowed to pursue their dreams, or worse yet, forced to leave the country.

It’s a form of discrimination based on racial and legal distinctions that are without merit.   And, as with other forms of discrimination, blocking educational attainment and deporting people who want to make a contribution to society as a whole makes no sense.  Ju tells of his experience growing up in the U.S.:

I was born in South Korea, and I came to the United States when I was twelve years old. At first, I had a tough time learning English and I had a difficult time to adapt American culture due to lack of support from the Asian community. Therefore, I never knew what it means to be living in a strong Asian community where people help one another, build strong relationships, and live a fulfill life within a secure family. And unfortunately, I’ve experienced racism, classism, segregation, and discrimination from the privileged people. Yes indeed, Asian Americans have been oppressed and marginalized by the dominant society. Furthermore, we have been treated as minority and perceived as second class citizens.

There are many more stories like Ju’s at the Dream ACTIVST.   If you want to take some action, you can sign the Dream Act 2009 Petition.

Another young person’s story that has been circulating around various social networking sites and forwarded through email recently, is that of Rigoberto Padilla.  Padilla is a student in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and he is currently facing deportation.    Last winter, he was arrested by the Chicago Police for a minor driving violation. While in police custody, his undocumented status was discovered by ICE officials, who charged him with entering the United States without authorization in 1994 as a six-year-old child. Even though his misdemeanor is not a deportable offense, his deportation is now set for December 16, 2009 – less than two weeks from now.

Faculty at the UIC where Padilla is a student are organizing to stop Padilla’s deportation are asking everyone to sign an online petition requesting an administrative closure of his case.  The online petition automatically sends faxes to the offices of Janet Napolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security), John Morton (Director of I.C.E.), Senator Richard Durbin and Senator Roland Burris.

Although the Dream ACT has enjoyed bipartisan support, it was originally introduced into the Senate in June 2002 by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) was also a supporter, the bill has faced a number of legislative set backs.  It is currently listed as “open” and, ironically enough, also under the purview of Senator Durbin (D-IL).   If you want to do something to stop the deportation of Rigoberto Padilla and to help the thousands of other young ‘dreamers’ you can contact  Sen. Durbin at D.C. office: (202) 224-2152 or his Chicago office:(312) 353-4952,  or, you can contact him using this online form.

Update as of 12/11/09 from the organizers: “We have great news. With your support, we have been able to stop the deportation of UIC student Rigo Padilla.  Yesterday, he was granted a one-year deferment by the Department of Homeland Security. This was accomplished through the efforts of local and national elected officials, Chicago City Council, Berwyn City Council, community groups, UIC administration, faculty and students, university professors nationwide, media and the general public who expressed their support for Rigo and the plight of all undocumented students nationally. The campaign generated 1,159 faculty petitions and over 18,000 individual petitions to DHS Director Janet Napolitano, ICE Director John Morton, Sen. Richard Durbin and Sen. Roland Burris.”