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‘The Right Side of History’

Student activism on campus

| Student Life Editors

Co-founded by senior David Dresner, The Right Side of History seeks equality for the LGBT community by engaging straight youth.


Senior David Dresner doesn’t want his children to have parents who are second-class citizens.

Over the next two years, Dresner hopes to jump-start a national movement by applying new strategies to gain equal rights for the LGBT community.

Dresner’s journey as a gay rights activist started just seven weeks ago when he was approached by Brian Elliot—the older brother of 2008 Washington University alum Marc Elliot—to join him in a project called “The Right Side of History.”

Senior David Dresner works with sophomore Michael Weiss in his mission, entitled “The Right Side of History,” which strives to launch the gay rights movement into the mainstream and eventually to pass legislation guaranteeing the LGBT community equal status. (Sam Guzik | Student Life)

Senior David Dresner works with sophomore Michael Weiss in his mission, entitled “The Right Side of History,” which strives to launch the gay rights movement into the mainstream and eventually to pass legislation guaranteeing the LGBT community equal status. (Sam Guzik | Student Life)

Dresner and Elliot—both openly gay men—hope that The Right Side of History will reshape the status quo of the LGBT movement by using straight youth to garner mainstream interest and propel the movement into the national political sphere.

Equal rights in 26 months

The Right Side of History’s 26-month goal is to pass legislation akin to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that would ultimately afford the LGBT community equal rights in the United States.

The idea to engage straight people in the struggle for gay rights came to Elliot after he read a Columbia University study conducted in every state. The study showed that at least 75 percent of each state supported equal legal rights—a figure much larger than Elliot had anticipated.

Despite this widespread support, however, 29 states do not have laws on record prohibiting employers from terminating employment based on sexual orientation. Additionally, 13,000 people have been discharged from the military in violation of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” for admitting their homosexuality.

“The second takeaway of the study was [that] the young folks overwhelmingly support the most controversial issues,” Elliot said. “Young people were the vanguards of the civil rights movement. This is their generation’s turn to hold our country to its own ideals. It’s not fine for laws to treat people differently.”

Straight support

Dresner said it mathematically makes sense to place a large emphasis on targeting straight people since straight people make up between 90 and 95 percent of the population.

“My efforts right now really need to be focused on the larger 95 percent of the people, and if I’m going to really demonstrate and get the show of force that I’m looking for, I need to go for the harder demographic first,” Dresner said.

Dresner said he believed that gays in the United States would achieve equal rights within 30 years time. But when Elliot said he could fast-forward these results to the year 2011, Dresner knew he wanted to take part in this movement.

Facing Congress

Every year since 1994, Congress has attempted to prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual identity and orientation as well as disability through the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. That bill has consistently failed to garner enough support to pass both houses of Congress.

Senior David Dresner (second from left) leads a meeting of students involved with nascent organization fighting for gay rights; the movement, known as The Right Side of History, hopes to see sweeping gay rights legislation passed nationally in the next two years. Also pictured are, from left to right, are sophomore Jeremy Cramer Gibbs, sophomore Michael Weiss, junior David Klein, junior David Dobbs and Gregory Hogan, regional director of the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity. (Sam Guzik | Student Life)

Senior David Dresner (second from left) leads a meeting of students involved with nascent organization fighting for gay rights; the movement, known as The Right Side of History, hopes to see sweeping gay rights legislation passed nationally in the next two years. Also pictured are, from left to right, are sophomore Jeremy Cramer Gibbs, sophomore Michael Weiss, junior David Klein, junior David Dobbs and Gregory Hogan, regional director of the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity. (Sam Guzik | Student Life)

If passed in its entirety, the proposed bill, The Civil Rights Act of 2011 with Religious Exemptions, would be more expansive than the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The 2011 Civil Rights Act would prohibit job discrimination and afford LGBT Americans the same federal rights of citizenship that are afforded to heterosexual Americans.

The ‘Theory of Change’

Elliot and Dresner hope to tackle this ambitious goal by following the “Theory of Change”—a model developed by the movement that aims to empower youth and engage millions to make change and demand equality.

By doing so, Elliot and followers of the movement hope to pervade American culture and make the issue of gay rights a prominent one–one on the minds of national legislators.

“We’re hoping to engage millions of youth across the country,” Dresner said. “We’re trying to charge straight youth in an autonomous action.”

Powerful support

A professional group, dubbed “Creative Geniuses,” has been formed for The Right Side of History in New York and Washington, D.C. A leading executives from consulting firms are already on board and they said they have spoken with several strategists responsible for the Obama campaign’s success.

Dresner and Elliot are currently seeking to expand the group.

A band of brothers

Dresner is launching the campaign at Wash. U., and he found his first supporters in his fraternity house—Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp). His brothers have provided assistance to the movement at the University.

“At SigEp, there are a lot of people who want to get involved and help out,” said junior Lionel Johnnes, a member of SigEp. “The challenge will be branching out and stepping outside of the Wash. U. bubble and spreading to the majority of the population.”

While the support has already spread beyond SigEp on campus, Dresner said he hopes to use the fraternity as a platform from which to reach other college campuses.

With more than 13,000 current members, Sig. Ep. is the largest fraternity in the nation in terms of current members, and Dresner has plans to visit SigEp chapters through the country to garner support.

A group of approximately 25 Wash. U. students has been meeting each Saturday to discuss strategies for spreading the group’s message and expanding the movement.

The right approach?

Although Dresner said he has received overwhelming support for his campaign on campus, The Right Side of History’s tactic to primarily engage straight people represents a controversial stance within the gay rights movement.

In the past, the gay rights movement has traditionally been led by members of the LGBT community.

Junior Ayla Karamustafa, an advocate for LGBTQIA rights, said that while she respects Dresner and his team, she believes the movement disregards the history of the LGBT movement and excludes many people who have devoted their entire lives to the cause.

“Our movement centers on gaining rights for individuals of various sexual orientations and gender identities of all racial backgrounds; to take away those identities or to refuse—at the very least—to acknowledge them renders the entire thing senseless,” Karamustafa said.

Senior Laura Lane-Steele, president of Pride Alliance, said her group agrees with the intention and goals of the Right Side of History but will be working toward the goal of equality in different ways.

“Obviously everyone on Pride is going to have a different opinion on this movement and the issues surrounding it,” Lane-Steele said. “Pride and the Right Side of History have different strategies in achieving goals for LGBT people.”

The ultimate goal

Dresner said he expects challenges along the way but will continue to garner support until he gets the American youth on the right side of history.

“I think a lot of people at Wash. U. care about this issue,” Dresner said. “People can’t believe these types of inequities exist in this country. Wash. U. can be the start of a civil rights movement.”

With additional reporting by Kate Gaertner

  • Romnick

    Interesting article.California’s penal ssetym has acquitted itself quite well with threats of federal conservatorship, having its medical care ssetym under federal conservatorship and the studies released showing serious problems with the incarceration of female inmates. The state is shipping inmates out to other states to alleviate its overcrowding and shipping convicted gang members to federal prisons to try to break up the prison gangs which over the years have become closely tied to street gangs in many cities. And people wonder why the crime rate including the violent crime rate is high in some of its urban areas. What’s happening with the prison ssetyms is only part of that picture but it’s symbolic of mis-matched priorities in the golden state at least.The drug war, is producing more casualties than anything else including in many poorer communities. Many women including women of color are in prisons because of it, in disproportionate numbers. The study mentioned above concerning women found that the female inmate population is doing time in facilities more suited toward violent male offenders.At the juvenile level, quite a few youth prisons(known as CYA institutions) have been rocked with scandals of sexual abuse and drug dealing by correctional officers.Many women and girls in the penal ssetym have already been sexually abused before they got there including while growing up.Many inmates are paroled without any skills to become productive in society that prohibits convicted felons and/or parolees from many jobs, training and housing,. People with drug convictions and other types can’t have access to financial aid at public colleges and universities at all or for a period of years. Many of the people released don’t have high school diplomas. Many if not most of them go into the same neighborhoods they lived in before.Here, we have community members who want violent criminals to be dealt with but they want a fair ssetym for that process as well because they know what happens here. At the same time, they also want a definitive voice in that process and don’t want to be taken advantage of by law enforcement. It’s sometimes during more desperate times a fine line between the two. Some see both sides of the coin. Others see one side or another, at a time.It’s probably different in different cities. But even when violence hits neighborhoods here as it does particularly in the summer, most of the people living in it understand many of the points raised in the article as well as the reality of who’s committing the crimes. The two realities aren’t necessarily diametrically opposed from one another.And influxing more officers in a neighborhood by itself won’t do much. Short term, yes but it’s too expensive to keep them there. They’ll be moved around regularly to put out whatever hot spot flares up at a time. They even have cute little mobile stations to haul from one city block to the next.

  • An open discussion forum for people in binational same-sex relationships now exists and welcomes membership. Nothing is off-topic! Come and share, vent, and brainstorm. Our plight is difficult, our need is great. Immigrants come to the U.S. and a dozen relatives trail in on their heels. We ask to bring just one: our loved one. We deserve to have our relationships validated. We must be included in immigration reform, if not sooner: Demand a private bill of your senator! A sea of us, demanding individual relief may be the way to go. We can’t just write letters! Over 50,000 green cards are gifted in a lottery every year with almost no scrutiny, yet we have no right or ability to bring home our permanent partners! We need alternative routines. We support the Right Side of History.

    The U. S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself. ~ Benjamin Franklin

    • Metin

      Like Robert, I’m sure racist mavttoiions played a role in the promulgation of current laws mandating disparate punishment of crack & powder cocaine users. I also grant that it’s possible to concoct rationalizations for existing law that don’t rely on explicitly racist premises – it always is – but I wonder what’s the point of the exercise, unless Robert imagines the rationalizations either explain current law & policy, or justify it, notwithstanding its tainted origins. I’m skeptical on both counts.The argument apparently is that racial disparities can be rationalized on non-racist grounds just in case they’re an artifact of class disparities, which, in turn, can be rationalized just in case we presume that poor users have committed other, uncharged crimes to support their use, while rich ones haven’t needed to commit any. So it’s not racist to punish (disproportionately non-white) poor users more harshly than (disproportionately white) non-poor users for the selfsame offense if you assume that the former, by virtue of their relative poverty, are more likely to have committed other, prior uncharged crimes to support their use.This line of argument has always been viewed skeptically, with good reason. There are, first of all, sound reasons to question the justice of punishing someone more harshly for a given offense on the basis of an unproven hunch, based solely on her economic class, that she may have committed some sort of other, uncharged offense incident to the one of which she was actually convicted. (And what sort of other crime? Taking money out of mom’s wallet? Bank robbery? Murder? Or doesn’t it matter much?) But even if you accept this line of reasoning, isn’t the more sensible policy not, for example, to sentence crack & powder cocaine possession differently, but to appeal directly to the underlying rationalization & explicitly include economic status in the sentencing guidelines, to punish poor people more severely than rich people for the same offense, just because they’re poor? The more direct approach avoids the awkwardness of over-sentencing a rich non-white crack cocaine user, who’s just spending money from the trust fund Grandma left her, & under-sentencing a poor white powder cocaine user, who we might presume got the money by beating up her sister.Or aren’t we well down the road to absurdity here?(I add a related personal note. I’m well acquainted with a stolidly middle-class white lady who was a heroin addict for much of her adult life, & who – drugs being the force for social equality that they are – knew a number of poor non-white addicts. And at least in her case – which was hardly unique – the criminal justice system treated her profoundly differently from her acquaintances, for no other reason than her race & class, & without the least pretense of inquiring whether she’d committed any other, uncharged offenses related to her habit. Whereas the fact of the matter was that, notwithstanding her middle-class status, she was probably as much a force for social disorder as her poor friends. She was just judged lightly because of the way she looked. Perhaps, to recycle some language from Robert’s #15, there were also patronizing, but well-intentioned reasons behind her milder treatment. Some people can handle draconian punishment for drug offenses; others can’t. For those who can’t, imprisonment for a nonviolent drug conviction can have a devastating effect on their lives. Realistically, maybe the damage is more severe for someone used to wealth & privilege than it is for someone poor. So maybe justice suggests, even demands, the current preferential treatment of white, middle-class drug offenders. Or is this a bridge too far even for Robert?)

  • S.S.

    I’m sad that it may require the distinction of being straight “vs” being gay to gain credibility and recognition in the community. Unfortunately, it is true that many straight people may often not join pro-LGTBQ rights groups out of fear of being identified as gay– out of homophobia.
    To emphasize the gender binary that is at the essence of the prejudice and homophobia of our society seems hypocritical.
    Is it possible to make progress without being hypocritical?
    I guess not…

  • Mara

    Congrats Dave! This is great.

  • M. Howard

    This article is an example of great reporting. That’s reporting, not hiding an editorial between the lines. The article told a story and revealed the issue at hand. Perhaps if the New York Times, Washington Post and the San Fransisco Chronicle had writers like these they would have a robust circulation and would not be in danger of becoming bankrupt.

  • Patrick Seaworth

    Congratulations to David and the entire Dresner family. Its great to see people stepping out from behind the bureaucracy which has created the status quo and which is unable to bring about real change within the structures they have created.

    The saddest thing about this passion and support for a civil rights movement, is the fact of how divided the supporters of this movement would be as it pertains to rights for citizens living with Mental Health Diseases (based on society wide perception polls, that I don’t at the movement have the time to retrieve for the sake of the argument), given that some individuals living with Mental Health diseases are unable to vote in certain states, based solely on their need for bill/medication management its tragic that a campus now so openly and proudly in favor of airing the civil rights of one disparately affected segment of the population is still years behind the status quo in acceptance of and understanding of Mental Health issues and the individuals that are affected by them and the discrimination created by a misunderstanding of those issues on a daily basis.

    After all it was not long ago, in the historical sense, that Homosexuality itself was listed as a psychiatric disease. The campus is to be applauded for standing, in what appears to be unison, against discrimination as it is not only codified within our society, but also as it exists within the very circles that are to be advancing those issues.

    However, as a campus, civil rights movements still have light years to go before they can truly impact change on a society wide basis.

    I did not hear a mention of the fact that women are still earning ~70 cents on the dollar of their male counterparts, nor that for the amount of times children suffering from mental health issues have literally been thrown out of school simply for seeking treatment for those diseases. And that those groups also need their rights heard. The ‘Right Side of History’ although a clever play on words has the ability to be the literal right side of every matter that stands between America and American ideals.

    One of the first and most prevalent arguments raised in favor of society wide acceptance of homosexuality was the very fact that is part of the way in which an individual is born. So too are mental health issues, as a society we can not truly advance against discrimination in one arena while not being fully united against it in other arenas.

    Dresner is definitely to be applauded along with his friend that spoke on his behalf, however it is disappointing to see not one mention of the older brother that firstly accepted him onto the campus publicly and in a way that allowed no doubt within the upperclassman circles as to whether or not it was acceptable for straight individuals to treat homosexual students poorly. Family, is the most important way in which we as a society can conquer these issues for the very reasons that there are listed as reasons against advancement of these causes.

    Yes, America is far behind in what is often perceived the last social stigma, a group of people upon which our society openly discriminates. However, it is a sad reality that there are still other circles in this country that are decades behind where the current LGBT movement stands.

    In order to truly move our society forward towards equality, there can be no group that is unequal, for if un-equality exists within any determination of human worth (discard irrelevant asides such as they pertains to prison population, etc.) then the entire population has to embrace the entirety of its ‘dysfunctions’ anything less only creates more rights while perpetuating a cycle of abuse, it merely shifts the target of that abuse from one group onto another.

    I.e. when the government granted rights to previously discriminated populations, it did nothing to change the notions about the homosexual population which now needs its own civil rights movement, when had the previous civil rights movements done away with discrimination in any form within our society, the current campaigns would be needless based on a society that accepts what it finds in the future, not a society that clears a hurdle at a time while not addressing and changing the very reasons our society is bigoted against minority populations.

    I am not a sociologist nor social psychologist and do not have the answers as to why men discriminate against those that are not like them, however, I do know that in order for our society to progress it has to conquer not only the de juror factors of discrimination, but the de facto matters as well.

    Dresner it appears is taking this very issue to task, however, there is much to be said about the manner in which the campus in general still views other segments of the population, and hopefully, this will be a chance for a society wide change rather than a societal norm change.

    Patrick S. Seaworth

  • Alum

    I’m torn here because it has already been reframed, to a large extent, as a civil rights issue rather than a gay issue. The activism surrounding Prop 8 demonstrated this clearly, as well as the strategies of groups like the HRC (despite their problems). I think what this group is doing is clearly necessary, but to separate straight-directed activism so starkly from gay-directed activism might be dangerous. For one thing, it might implicitly promote the assumption of heteronormativity by presuming that the non-LGBT community is straight. As a gay man I can tell you that for a long time, even after coming out, I did not consider myself part of the LGBT community. This is not because I was opposed to it, the culture simply didn’t appeal to me. There is a void here that is problematic as probably the majority of LGBT individuals do not have ties to the LGBT community (or who, as your language characterizes it, belong to the “straight” community). Gender and sexual identities are far too varied and dynamic to separate so neatly into different categories. Furthermore, forming a group whose sole existence depends on the distinction between the straight and LGBT communities is a dangerous policy. Although activism directed toward outside the LGBT demographic certainly has its own needs in order to be effective, I think it would be best to make your group’s language more inclusive and, as you pointed out, focused on these issues as civil rights concerns without restricting your audience to non-LGBT.

  • ZoeO

    P.S. to the above post:

    Additional information about the dire, immediate need for LGBT immigration equality rights can be found at:

  • ZoeO

    Brilliant thinking. You will succeed (but you may have to adjust your timeframe a bit). Please don’t forget those of us who are actually 3rd class citizens because we are the American half of binational same sex couples who can’t even live together here in the States because we can’t sponsor our partners. In 19 other countries of the world gay & lesbian citizens can sponsor their partners! We must live alone or self-exile to be with our partners. Ours is a truly cruel situation and anyone can fall into this 3rd class: all you have to do is find your soulmate on the other side of a U.S. border. Please investigate this situation and be mindful of our plight when you plan for our equality. Do not forget us! We are at least as many as 40,000 Americans and possibly as much as 100,000. There are two bills in Congress now that seek to help us: The Nadler/Leahy bill Uniting American Families Act (HR 1024/424) and Rep. Mike Honda’s Reuniting Families Act (HR 2709). Please ask your elected official to co-sign these bills. Thank you! For more information contact: Committee To Advance Equality reachable through [email protected].

  • Debbie

    Doodle, you make me proud that you are on The Right Side of History!

  • Miriam Dresner

    David, I am so proud of you. Please let me know if there is ANYTHING I can do to help with this initiative. You truly are amazing and I admire your work.

  • Sig EP 08

    Great to see Dave spearheading this initiative with a number of other Sig Eps. Makes me proud to have been a Sig Ep while at WUSTL and looking forward to helping in any way I can. Also interesting to see the ambitious, rather corporate approach to this issue. Frankly, it’s the only way of getting things done, but I can understand why it might be seen as off-putting to the more niche LGBTQ community. That said, you are going to look like a resentful bunch if you continue to inexplicably neglect lending support to the people involved in Right Side of History.

  • Danielle

    Dave! This is truly one of the most AMAZING efforts i have ever seen! I’m so proud of you!

  • Scott

    There’s a reason social issues usually take 20 to 30 years to change things. Mobilize the youth as much as you like, but real change wont happen until the older voting bloc with the actual money, power, and influence, all finally die off. And your plan is 2011?

  • Alex Plutzer

    This is a FANTASTIC idea to target straight people. I cannot believe it has not been done in the past. I am family friends with Brian Elliot and I think his credentials should be listed here somewhere, as they are quite impressive. Stanford educated, Harvard business school graduate from Kennedy. He’s very capable and is incredibly friendly, as is David Dresner.

    I’m excited that they’ve taken this new approach, minority stands against policy have a much harder time if they are not willing or able (which in this case they are) to work with the other side who supports them. And all of us in SigEp and around who live around the country in the off-school months are ready to push this thing onward and upward to a national level

  • Brian Martin

    This is great, the LGBT community cannot do it alone we are too few, and there are still too many of us unwilling or unable to speak.

    The most amazing thing about coming out to my niece and nephew when they were 16 and 14 was not so much their support, but the support of their friends. Straight friends. Straight friends who to this day try to find me dates, have my back when peope make improper remarks or helping to oganize and participate in LGBT events.

  • meetadamandsteve

    As a straight ally advocating for GLBT rights, I’m excited to hear about this. I’ve been thinking, and blogging, a lot lately about how straight support is vital to the movement.

    I’d like to offer my modest help. My blog, Meet Adam and Steve, shows the faces and stories of LGBT folks. It’s my hope that this will get through to people that non-straight folks are people, actual and whole.

    To be featured on the blog, all you need is to not be straight, and to share your face and your story. See my Contact Me page for further instructions.

    I would also love to interview anyone associated with the project. Please contact me using the link above.

  • David Fox

    We should be thankful that people like David and Brian are making Americans take their heads out of the sand and face the injustices in our country. I hope this movement not only addresses discrimination of the gay community, but also brings forth consciousness about the oppression of women, blacks, hispanics, and other minority groups.

  • DB

    I’m curious how this movement disregards the history of the LGBT movement and how race is even an issue, as Ayla Karamustafa claims. This is by no means an attack on her claim or anything, I would just like to see her point explained a little better…especially for straight people who don’t know as much about the history of LGBT rights and its issues.

    As far as I could tell, the right side of history is focused on equal gay rights as new grassroots movement. How this disregards the history of LGBT rights and how race is even relevant are beyond me until shown otherwise.

    Best of luck Dresner, I need to get involved!

  • Andy

    Great article David! The work you’re doing is incredible! We’re all so proud of you!

  • Sebastian Estenssoro

    This looks great David. It’s about time we took a step in the right direction.

  • Josh

    Well, *someone* certainly is going to change the world. Can’t wait to read about this movement in my kids’ history books.

  • Scott Burger

    Very inspiring. I have the utmost confidence that we can get this done.

  • Gabi

    This is a really interesting and novel approach to achieving equality for Homosexuals. It’s about time serious action was taken to end the sexual discrimination that exists in our country. The fight won’t be easy, but I think an organized, dynamic movement like the one David has proposed will be the surest way of getting this bill passed. Here is one straight youth you can count on your side, good luck!