I was on a conference panel last week talking to graduate students about life in Washington, D.C., and to kick off our Q/A, a young woman in the crowd raised her hand and asked me this question. She followed it up with, “like, when do you know when the policy window is going to open for an issue you really care about?”
Of all my classroom time spent in graduate school in Minnesota, I remember discussion about John Kingdon’s book on public policy formation the best. Kingdon uses the concept of the policy window to describe how certain policy solutions that are challenging at the time (seatbelts to save lives, no-fault divorce to allow for harmonious separations, prohibiting smoking in public places to save more lives, etc.) were successfully transitioned into public policies we now for the most part accept as the law of the land. Kingdon’s theory is that the various streams comprising any policy debate rarely lead to an open window—and thus structural change—but when it does happen, we can make the impossible possible.
In the six years since I’ve been in DC working in the public policy realm, I’ve reflected a great deal on this concept, often grumpily wondering why I seem to care most about issues where the policy window is not only closed, but locked with a deadbolt and some steel security bars welded across for extra safety. My closed window list off the top of my head:
women’s reproductive health
paid parental leave
sexual assault and family-based violence
trafficking and human slavery
the mass incarceration of men of color
the chaining of pregnant women who give birth in prison
criminalization of sex work
compassionate immigration reform
honest education reform
wealth and wage disparities
sexism and patriarchy
I also care a great deal about equality issues for LGBT Americans. It’s something I’ve worked on in my money-making life for years and cared deeply about personally for a lot longer. Along with many pundits out there, I wholeheartedly agree that the grounds have really shifted on these issues—particularly in the lead up to two DOMA cases being heard by the Supreme Court this week. Polls show more Americans than ever support civil rights for LGBT individuals. Anecdotally, my Facebook feed shows the same thing.
For the first time in my life, I feel like the change I’ve been working toward is actually happening. No longer am I a weak voice yelling about fairness with a few freaks and geeks—somehow, the masses have accepted the idea of equality and our collective understanding of the world now involves LGBT people as good guys who can serve in the military, get married, and keep a job (well, almost). It’s pretty cool.
My thoughts on how we pried open this policy window on equality issues are very much influenced by Harvey Milk. About a month before I was born, he gave a speech in San Francisco on the importance of coming out:
Gay brothers and sisters… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.
I think the LGBT rights movement made such incredible progress in my lifetime because people across the country (and the world) took Harvey’s words to heart. They figured out how to be honest about who they are even in the face of rejection and hate. For many, it hasn’t been a positive process. We’ve lost kids to suicide. Families have been ripped apart. But the courage of a brave minority to live honestly has motivated necessary conversations among families, coworkers, and friends. It has even provided space for a crucial deconstruction of gender norms, particularly as generations shift. I wholeheartedly believe this coming out by thousands of LGBT folks across the country has engendered a cultural shift toward acceptance and opened the window to an historic Supreme Court decision.
I remember feeling overwhelmed with emotion when I read Jose Vargas’s 2011 piece in the NY Times Magazine where he “outed” himself as an illegal immigrant. At the time, he said he couldn’t “hide the secret anymore.” Despite being a highly regarded, Pulitzer Prize winning writer for the Washington Post, Vargas felt the need to be public about his status as an undocumented immigrant, particularly in the context of a national conversation about immigration reform. Vargas helped me (finally) make the connection that his version of “coming out” involved exactly the same courage required of any gay kid following Harvey Milk’s exhortation.
All the Supreme Court rallying this week highlights how very inspired I am by the concept of coming out for the issues we believe in. I think it is the most direct route to social change—to open policy windows. I also feel strongly that our honesty as advocates and people who care about the common good is the strongest argument we have on our side. Rationality, religion, and traditions are not as powerful as common life experiences. Our openness about ourselves and our beliefs, particularly in the face of loud ignorance or criticism, always creates a ripple effect, even if we don’t know who or where it will reach.
The Pleasant Progressive