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In The Fight For LGBTQ Rights, Lessons From The 1990s Culture Wars


The new documentary miniseries "Pride" on FX focuses each of its six episodes on one decade in the fight for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. Academy Award-nominated director Yance Ford is behind the episode called "The Culture Wars." It focuses on the '90s, as the country moved from the Reagan years to a Clinton presidency, the AIDS epidemic was peaking, and the country became deeply divided politically over gay rights and other hot-button issues. Back then, Ford was just in college.

YANCE FORD: I remember every moment in the news that's in the episode about the culture wars. And I remember not having the word transgender. I didn't have a word for how I felt and for who I knew myself to be. And so my coming-out journey - I was in my very formative years as a young person when all of this is going on. And it really, like, made me angry and made me committed to being out and proud and visible during that time because it felt like the way of pushing back against the narrative.

It was really sobering to see how easily a nation could be turned against a community that had so little power. You know, I really came to understand that being myself in the world was going to require a tremendous amount of bravery, but it was also going to require a tremendous amount of believing that I had the right to exist.

CORNISH: In the episode, Ford highlights a pivotal moment - Pat Buchanan's speech at the Republican National Convention in 1992.


PAT BUCHANAN: There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself.

CORNISH: It came to sound like the opening salvo to the culture wars over the rights of gay Americans.

FORD: And it signified Buchanan's successful push of the Republican Party further to the right. George H.W. Bush was running as a moderate. He was challenged in the primary - successfully in many states - by Pat Buchanan. And even though he knew he wasn't going to be the nominee, Buchanan knew that he was going to be able to add several planks to the Republican platform. And most of his planks, unfortunately, were anti-queer, anti-poor, anti-people of color. So it was really important, I think, to give our audience a sense of where that phrase first came from and in the context in which it emerged.

CORNISH: You have activists in the documentary talking about their experience at that time. One of them, Olga Talamante, talks about the idea of feeling some relief after the election of Bill Clinton.


BUCHANAN: There was a sense of relief and a sense of excitement. Yay, for we got a Democrat - let's put it that way (laughter) - in the White House. I think there was a level of complacency where we did not keep up the underground pressure.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what kind of president Clinton came to be when it came to LGBT rights?

FORD: I think that the great disappointment in the LGBTQ community was that Clinton ran very aggressively courting the votes of LGBTQ Americans and later on in his presidency backtracked very easily into positions that were shared with people who were really hellbent on circumscribing the rights of the Q+ community as much as they possibly could. And so for Bill Clinton himself admit that he was wrong about gays in the military, he was wrong to sign the Defense of Marriage Act, says everything that you need to know about his impact on the LGBTQ community during his presidency and, frankly, the damage that his support of those policies and positions did at the time.

CORNISH: The U.S. has a president in Joe Biden who has tried to be forthright in entering the conversation, especially about trans youth. I think in his address to Congress, he said something along the lines of, you know, I see you.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: To all transgender Americans watching at home, especially young people, you're so brave. I want to know your president has your back.

CORNISH: How do you hear that moment, given what you've learned the last time around?

FORD: That moment has to be seen through the prism of the four years of - the Trump presidency and its assault on the rights and the lives of the LGBTQ community has dropped the bar so low. And President Biden saying out loud to transgender youth, I see you, is a good first step. But we are starting from such a low point that President Biden needs to do more. He must do more.

CORNISH: Is there another risk of complacency? I mean, many people have argued that that happened for other kinds of progressive issues under Obama.

FORD: I would say yes, 100%. I don't think, however, that complacency is an option during the Biden administration. And I think it's because what we see now and what the culture warriors who would have the LGBTQ community disappear into our closets, they've taken the fight to the state level, where they can have immediate, expedient impact on the law.

CORNISH: These are the bills that would try and block trans youth from receiving gender-affirming drugs, for instance, or anything that would aid in their transition, so to speak.

FORD: Exactly. And that is why all of these trans bills are being introduced around the country. It's because the culture warriors who would have us disappear are very agile at locating power, accumulating power, and then using that power to attack us.

CORNISH: It feels like this is a different time, even for LGBT activism, meaning you have trans activists on magazine covers. And the kind of mainstreaming and focus and the idea of it seems kind of less foreign than it was in the '90s. What are some of the things that are different about this moment that you think are new things to consider?

FORD: Well, I think that visibility and the fact that members of the LGBTQ community, trans Americans, we make the culture, right? We make popular culture. The challenge is that people want the things that we make, but they don't want us. And it's in bridging that divide that our challenge lies.

And so we can have as many magazine covers, as many award winners, as many history makers as possible - you know, Demi Lovato came out as non-binary. That's going to be a huge impact on so many young people who identify as trans or non-binary. And yet the rights and the access to health care for those young people will still be threatened because there is not an equivalent political presence or political force from our community that would help to protect these kids and would have as big an impact in policy as we do in culture.

CORNISH: Well, Yance Ford, thank you so much for talking with us and exploring some of these ideas. It's a really fascinating conversation.

FORD: Thank you, Audie. Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: Yance Ford directed Episode 5 of the "Pride" series on FX. The final three episodes of the documentary air tonight and will be available online. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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