by Randy Shaw on June 5, 2023 (

Historic Gains While Threats Remain

The LGBTQ community has made tremendous political progress in the past two decades. We’ve gone from Democratic Party politicians debating whether to support civil unions to the national legalizing of gay marriage. But LGBTQ progress remains under siege as Republican leaders wage a “culture war” targeting LGBTQ rights.

Kevin Naff, longtime editor of the Washington Blade, has been on the frontline of national LGBTQ struggles. His new book, “How We Won the War for LGBTQ Equality—And How Our Enemies Could Take it All Away” reminds us that activism brought LGBTQ victories and that activism is essential to protect this progress.

Reading Naff’s book is a great way to start Pride Month.

Essays and New Insights

Naff  structures the book around his columns, but prefaces each with his contemporary assessment of what he wrote. He describes it as combining “collected essays with new insights.”

This approach puts positions on gay marriage taken by Barack Obama and other Democrats in the context of its time. Naff does not excuse reactionary positions; for example, he attacks President Bill Clinton for enacting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act” after claiming while running in 1992 that he supported gay rights. But he does not hold Obama’s past positions against him because unlike Clinton his presidency brought enormous progress to the LGBTQ movement.

I wonder how many activists under thirty even know about the huge fight to legalize civil unions. As recently as the early 1990’s civil unions were considered the closest alternative to marriage that the LGBTQ community could politically achieve. Candidate Barack Obama in 2008 backed civil unions while opposing gay marriage. Naff’s current perspectives and past columns show how the political dynamic radically changed.

Naff describes himself as a journalist and not an activist. But he regularly addresses the challenges LGBTQ activists faced trying to win greater rights.

For example, consider the fight to pass ENDA— The Employment Non-Discrimination Act. ENDA was first introduced in 1994. It went nowhere after Republicans won the House that year but was revived when Democrats regained control in 2007. Gender identity protections were added to the legislation, causing a split among Democratic supporters of the initial bill. The Human Rights Campaign was so torn over the strategy that it took no position. This led transgender activists to picket outside the group’s annual dinner.

Naff analyzes the conflict and came down on the right side: transgender protections should be included. But many saw this expansion as killing the measure. Naff described their position as “Isn’t something better than nothing? The United States has a long history of incrementalism. After all, Black men won the right to vote before women did.” He explains why this political assessment was unsound, a position that ultimately prevailed among LGBTQ advocates.

In 2009,  Rep. Barney Frank introduced a transgender-inclusive version of ENDA. He introduced it again in 2011, and it passed the Senate in 2013. But Republicans had regained control of the House and defeated the bill. ENDA has not passed to this day.

Naff’s deep dive into the ENDA fight reflects a core strength of his book: a recognition that passing major national legislation invariably requires compromises that some advocates may resist. His ENDA account reminded me of the campaign around the same time to pass comprehensive immigration reform (which I describe in my book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century).

Some immigrant rights leaders felt accepting a “guest worker” provision was the only way to secure passage. But progressive groups opposed this compromise. The result? Despite massive marches in 2006, comprehensive immigration reform has never been enacted. The issue is less about particular compromises than the steep challenge of passing progressive federal legislation in the post-Reagan era. Naff sympathizes with those in the arena who have to make tough decisions in the face of sideline critics.

Beyond Politics

Naff’s book goes beyond politics to discuss LGBTQ rights in a wide variety of areas, from entertainment to the military to the controversial question of outing. Particularly interesting was the battle he got into with John Waters over Scientologist John Travolta having a starring role in Hairspray. Naff has directly been involved in outing and offers a sophisticated analysis of the issue.

Whether you agree with him on every issue or not, Naff consistently offers a thoughtful take on where the LBGTQ movement has been and where it is going. How We Won the War for LGBTQ Equality is an insightful read on activism’s power to bring progressive change and resist threats to LGBTQ rights.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw’s latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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