Much of the focus of the lgbtq social movement has been on securing individual rights. In the pluralist view of liberal democracy, associational groups serve to represent competing interests and protect the individual rights of their members. Civil society organizations (including social movement organizations, interest groups, and advocacy groups) make claims to represent diverse interests and identities and push for increased inclusivity in the public sphere. In doing so, groups promote the democratic values of liberty and equality. In other words, civil society organizations are seen as democratic agents.
What makes a civil society organization a democratic agent? This paper begins with a theoretical analysis of the contributions groups can make to a democracy. I draw from democratic theory to consider ways in which such organizations can act as democratic agents in an attempt to both articulate and move beyond the pluralist view of democracy. I highlight the potential that group participation can have in cultivating the democratic virtues of individual citizens. I continue with a case study of the largest member-based lgbt advocacy group operating in the U.S. – Human Rights Campaign. I draw from social movement and interest group literature to analyze the group’s internal dynamics and external activities. Finally, I synthesize the theoretical foundations and empirical analysis to consider how well HRC performs the democratic functions of a civil society organization discussed in the beginning of the paper.
This paper (which will be an academic presentation) will contribute to the CLAGS conference by considering the rights-based focus of the lgbtq movement within a framework of democratic theory. In particular, this paper is concerned with the democratic potential of member-based groups. With the recent – though limited – successes in securing the individual rights of lgbtq persons (e.g. marriage rights), academics and activists alike must consider the limitations of rights-based discourse.