Guest Opinion: Book details US fight for LGBTQ equality

  • by Kevin Naff
  • Wednesday July 19, 2023
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Kevin Naff. Photo: Courtesy Redwood Publishing
Kevin Naff. Photo: Courtesy Redwood Publishing

The exhilarating days of Obama-era LGBTQ activism have given way to a dangerous complacency that threatens all the unprecedented gains of the past 20 years.

Two decades represents a mere blip in the arc of a civil rights struggle, yet in that span, the LGBTQ community in the United States went from legally second-class status to enjoying near full protection of federal law along with widespread societal acceptance and even full marriage rights.

How did that happen? And could it all be erased? The easy answer to the second question is absolutely yes. The answer to the first is a bit more complex.

In this book, I will take a look back at the last 20 years of LGBTQ advocacy in the United States and how we went from a closeted gay Republican National Committee chair running President George W. Bush's reelection campaign on the backs of our relationships to an out gay military veteran credibly running for president. It's an incredible, unprecedented story of a hated and feared minority rising from the despair of AIDS to conquer our formidable enemies and winning equality under the law. It's also the tale of a determined enemy — the far right — using every legal and political scheme imaginable to keep us down, roll back our progress, and relegate us to second-class status once again. Make no mistake: The forces that worked relentlessly for nearly 50 years to overturn Roe v. Wade are the same that have turned their sights on the Obergefell marriage ruling now that abortion rights are undone. At a time when the LGBTQ movement feels adrift amid scandal and lack of leadership, our enemies are working overtime to put us back in the closet.

But the key to fighting back lies in understanding and replicating our recent history: organizing, raising money, funding supportive candidates, filing the right lawsuits and putting pressure on an array of allies in government, media and pop culture to have our backs. It's my hope that this book serves as a history lesson for young people. They must know their own community's history because it's not taught in schools. The contributions of LGBTQ Americans are rendered invisible in U.S. curricula. And it's getting worse, as some states like Florida are now passing laws criminalizing the teaching of LGBTQ topics in schools. So if our youth don't take it upon themselves to read and learn about our struggles, they will never know what led to this precarious moment. It's a moment when one of our two national parties works to rewrite the fatal atrocities of Jan. 6 as "legitimate political discourse." And a moment when former President Donald Trump's three Supreme Court picks are poised to reorder American society in chilling ways, first by rolling back Roe v. Wade, and then by undoing the historic Obergefell marriage ruling.

This book is mostly about the LGBTQ movement of the past 20 years and its stunning success. It's also a little bit about me, a closeted suburban kid who suffered in silence until he couldn't any longer.

I'm part of a unique generation of gay men old enough to have lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic, but young enough to have avoided the deaths. I didn't know the pain of watching entire friend groups disappear to a mystery illness.

Not a week has gone by in my 20 years at the Washington Blade that I didn't think of the generation of gay men before me who didn't live to see all of this progress. They inspire me. I do this work for them. They did not die in vain. Not just the men who died, but the lesbians who cared for them when no one else would. They are not forgotten; this book is intended as a celebration of their lives. When the government abandoned and ridiculed us, the community organized and the first dollars raised to fight the plague came from gay bars. When the government failed to act, our activists took to the streets, and fought to get drugs approved. The courage of that generation lives in me, and my 20 years at the Blade are a direct result of my wanting to give back to a movement that gave me so much. To speak bold, harsh truth to power in the name of all those whose voices were snuffed out by AIDS. When young people ask me what they should know about the LGBTQ movement, I tell them to learn about AIDS. That's really all you need to know.

AIDS terrified me, coming of age at a time when gays were demonized by politicians and religious leaders as sick, diseased, unnatural, doomed and "other." Raised Catholic, I heard the sermons and grim warnings and wanted nothing to do with being gay. At first. Gradually, I came to terms with the truth and began the slow process of coming out. There were no support groups in school, no out gay public officials and few openly gay or lesbian celebrities. It was a different time, unimaginable to today's youth. (That's a good thing.) Contrary to today's social media-soaked teens and young adults who want the world to know every mundane detail of their lives and expect full understanding and acceptance of every pronouncement, the process in the 1990s was slower. Coming out wasn't a one-time Insta post celebrated by parents and friends. It was a prolonged process, starting with finding a sympathetic friend, moving on to broader friend groups, then a sibling, and finally the parents. I was nearly 30 when I reached that last stage and my parents couldn't have been more supportive. I am one of the lucky ones.

I arrived at the Blade with four opinion articles already written. Themes of anger emerged in my work from that very first letter in the Washington Post. Larry Kramer famously said that anger is the best motivator for activism. That speaks to me. For sure, many of my opinion pieces in the Blade over two decades were motivated by anger — at hypocritical politicians, duplicitous "allies," bigoted religious leaders and closeted traitors. My list of targets is long.

So, why this book? Why now? As I reach 20 years editing the nation's oldest LGBTQ newspaper, the Washington Blade, it's clear the country has traveled at light speed, from George W. Bush's cruel and cynical attacks on marriage equality to the triumphant inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Twenty years in a civil rights struggle is a mere blip, yet the United States has achieved more in that time for LGBTQ equality than I ever imagined I'd live to see. Marriage was never something I envisioned for myself. It's true that sometimes you really do outlive your oppressors and live to see revolutionary change. During those two decades at the Blade, I have been privileged to have a front row seat to some of the most historic moments in the history of the LGBTQ movement. From watching President Obama sign the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," to attending the first White House Pride receptions, to interviewing presidential candidates, to meeting a range of leaders, personal heroes and out celebrities (yes, I really did introduce Laverne Cox to Antonin Scalia) it's been quite a ride.

Kevin Naff is the editor and co-owner of the Washington Blade. This is an excerpt from his book, "How We Won the War for LGBTQ Equality" (Redwood Publishing), which was published earlier this year. Used with permission. For more information or to purchase the book, go to

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