The Gay-Rights Playbook: How to Fight Climate Change Now

Gay rights photo

How can climate warriors build an unstoppable social movement — and avoid a global catastrophe? Lisa Bennett sees seven lessons from the struggle for marriage equality.

There is little question that the gay-rights movement is the most successful social crusade in recent American history. (The Supreme Court rulings sanctioning same-sex marriage only put the icing on that cake.)

So how can that success inspire the most essential fight of our time — a climate movement big enough to demand that Congress do what’s needed to avoid catastrophe by leveling the playing field for renewable energy?

On the surface, this may seem an odd comparison of very different issues. After all, gay rights is perceived as deeply personal and climate change as inextricably global; gay rights as relevant in the here and now and climate change as a largely future occurrence; and gay rights as having one clear demand — equality — while climate change seems to require that we change everything.

Gay rights and energy photos
In a sense, we are in the pre-Stonewall age of the climate change debate, but we don’t need to be. (AP (2))

Yet consider the similarities: just two decades ago, when people like me came out as gay, we encountered denial, fear, shaming, stereotyping, silencing, and a cultural debate over whether our experience was natural.

Today all the same dynamics are at play around those who “come out” with their concerns about climate change: denial, fear, shaming, and stereotyping that leads, of course, to silencing. And all of this leaves us with little more than a stale debate about whether climate change is natural.

We are, in other words, in the pre-Stonewall age on climate change. But we don’t need to be.

Having researched, written about, and worked in the field of gay rights for nearly a decade (and, more recently, concerned myself with climate change for nearly as long), I see at least seven lessons that climate activists could adapt from the gay rights movement:

Teach people how to talk about it. Gay-rights leaders knew that change would never happen without people speaking their truth in ways that were open, wise, patient, and persistent. Climate leaders need to similarly inspire a psychologically astute “coming out” on climate change — offering people realistic examples of what works, especially in the face of silence.

Cultivate community. The gay-rights movement threw great parties and came together at parades and in community centers to give each other support. They knew, as people concerned about climate change also have cause to know, that challenging issues require a shoulder to lean on.

Have a simple message. “Equality” can fit on a banner, be easily grasped, and represent sweeping changes. “Change everything” might fit on a banner, but is just too big for our psyches to hold.

Tell personal, inclusive stories. Gay activists understood that emotion moves people and that people have to see themselves as part of the story to care. Climate leaders should try to be a little less intellectual and help people see that we’re all in this together.

Shatter stereotypes. When only a few gay stereotypes prevailed, it was easy for the general public to be dismissive — and tempting for people like me to stay quiet because I didn’t fit the mold. That’s why gay leaders held up a diversity of role models. The American public needs to similarly see that the people who want climate action include parents, doctors, religious leaders, teachers, sports heroes, and, yes, more celebrities.

Focus on heartfelt values. Gay activists talked about love, equality, acceptance, family, work, and fairness. People who care about climate action need to similarly invoke the most basic human values we can all get behind.

Be positive! The gay movement had a celebratory spirit, one of pride in self and pride in a community on the right side of history. Climate leaders need to model this spirit, as it is the only one that will ever attract a mass movement.

In short, what needs to be understood is that climate change is deeply personal: it is about my kids’ future, and yours — the Iowa farmer who can’t count on the weather and the New York family whose house was destroyed. It is about now — because this is, without question, the moment for action. And, ultimately, it is about equality: the equal right of every future generation to enjoy all that the natural world provides and the equal responsibility of every one of us to ensure that they can.

Lisa Bennett is co-author of Ecoliterate (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and author of the Harvard University study “Perpetuating Prejudice Against Gay and Lesbian Americans.” She is the former head of the gay and lesbian family project for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Gay rights photoThis piece originally appeared on Reprinted with permission.

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2 Responses to The Gay-Rights Playbook: How to Fight Climate Change Now

  1. Nullius in Verba says:

    It would also be a part of ‘coming out’ to live the low-carbon lifestyle openly.

    If all believers were to declare their refusal to buy anything produced or delivered by burning fossil fuels, as vegans refuse to use animal products, it would go a long way to both convincing the world of your sincerity, and demonstrating its possibility. It would also be a big step toward implementing the changes, by creating a massive market for renewable energy and products made with it, and withdrawing funding from the fossil fuel industry. The higher prices that would need to be paid initially would fund the research and development, the infrastructure build, the monitoring and certification needed. But eventually as prices fall, it would become a more attractive lifestyle even for the unconvinced.

    You don’t need Congress. You have the power to change the world for yourselves. Muster your courage, make your preparations, and declare your determination to live openly as a low-carbon citizen of the future. Don’t live a lie any longer, feeling the shame of burning carbon trying to fit into our high-carbon society, living the life of a shameless carbon-burner. Stand up today, and feel pride in yourself for the rest of your life.

    You can do it. If you truly believe.

  2. Fatoumata says:

    This parallel is absurd. While it’s true that some of the same strategies that work, as a queer person who has faced actual social and legal discrimination as well as violence, harassment, and threats, I can assure you that it is NOTHING like “coming out” against climate change. While some people can be rude/dismissive about your concerns about the environment – as people have been to me when I’ve told them I’m making certain choices for environmental reasons – it is NOTHING like systematic oppression and discrimination. LGBTQ people deal with legal inequalities, hate crimes, abuse from their families, high rates of homelessness and mental illness, etc. – NOT something “people against climate change” suffer from. Please educate yourself about the actual experiences of LGBTQ people before making silly parallels like this. It’s not that I don’t care about the environment – working against climate change is important – but we can’t do it by making ridiculous and ignorant claims about social issues.