We are at an interesting pivot point in our LGBTQ community's history in Chicago and Illinois. The delay in marriage equality here provides an opportunity to learn and grow. But I fear this potential will be squandered once again.
We may indeed actually see short-term success in the fight for marriage rights in Illinois. Much work needs to be done, but combined with legal challenges and increased pressure, there is hope for marriage equality, if not in 2013, then soon after.
About 50 people attended a community meeting June 11 at the Peoples Church in Uptown, one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods. No politicians attended. And no one was there as an official representative from the Illinois Unites for Marriage coalition. It was all grassroots activists and caring citizens. So we continue to have not just a failure to communicate with one another, but a failure of leadership to actually lead.
At the meeting, there were of course some of the same activists who have been protesting in the streets for years. But there were also new people to the protest table, hungry for accurate information and for ideas on a direction forward. They are tired of not seeing any clear strategy, and of being told to "wait" or just "call your reps." Most of those at the meeting voted to protest at House Speaker Michael Madigan's district office at noon June 15, voted to hold a downtown rally July 13, and will soon make plans for a major march on Springfield, likely the first day of the veto session this fall.
What are the leaders of this community afraid of when the activists want to protest in the streets? Are they too busy listening to paid political and public relations strategists and not the community? It remains unclear who is calling the shots within the coalition. With national groups stepping into the fray and local groups not keeping a roll call independent of the bill's sponsors, the coalition's strategy remains unclear. Even less clear is whether PR consultants are working for the coalition, or if the coalition is answering to PR consultants. What has come out of the coalition has been a social media campaign, crafted by ASGK strategies, a PR firm working to pass the bill.
But our community's leaders know that outside agitation is historically what kept the pressure on insiders and politicians to actually move on behalf of our rights. There is no movement that has succeeded in this country without people in the streets. And it wastes time and energy when we have three parallel tracks working on this bill but not fully engaging with one another.
I suggest the most important thing to work on right now is a "10,000 Families March for Marriage Equality" [someone suggested the better name of March on Springfield for Marriage Equality] on the first day of the veto session this fall. There should be other inside and outside agitation before then, including a push for a summer vote. But if Rep. Greg Harris stands by what he said May 31, he will call this for a fall vote. Let's give him the added outside pressure he needs to bring urgency to a veto session vote. Harris told Windy City Times if 10,000 people had showed up in Springfield May 31, it might have helped kick this bill over the finish line.
I am going to propose a few ideas below, with respect given to advocates and activists, politicians and pundits, donors and the grassroots. What happened the past six months was too much behind the scenes, with people afraid to reveal a strategy for fear the opponents would respond to it, when in fact the strategy should be clear to the community, even at the risk of showing our hand. Because without a public strategy, we alienate our own base, our own community, and do no long-term work that will create a better and stronger movement.
But first I want to review my personal take on our community's past three decades, based on my participating in, and covering, this community since 1984. In these 29 years, I have seen organizations make the same mistakes over and over, in part because of a lack of institutional knowledge and new people coming in and out of the movement. It is also because Chicago itself presents a very unique set of challenges to true movement building, based on divisions along geography, race, class, gender and agegoing back many generations.
1) While lobbying on the phone, in emails and through online petitionsand even public relations campaignsare necessary components of modern activism, these efforts create no true movement for change. What was needed these past few months was also a street-based campaign, one that the media could cover. When anti-gays protested at locations around the state, especially in Chicago and the suburbs, I was shocked to see how few marriage equality "leaders" participated. The media was there, the politicians were paying attention, yet sometimes just a few dozen marriage advocates showed up. The movement's leaders had decided not to counter the anti-gays on the streets, and we looked weak. Not only that, when it came time to call people to Springfield for a last-minute rally, little more than 100 people from the entire state showed uppeople had not been trained to actually physically show up at a protest.
Can you imagine the Black civil rights movement, or women's movement, or ACT UP, succeeding just through letters to the editor, advertisements and petitions? There were street protests, marches, sit-ins, etc. They complement the insider work and it trains the activists, readying them for the crucial moments of where pressure is needed.
2) Public cultural and educational events are needed in diverse communities. Most of our community's largest events happen downtown or on the North Side. Very few forums on marriage equality happened in the districts of reps who were wavering or who needed support for their vote to stay "Yes." We should be partnering to create fun, celebratory and educational forums in these districts, cross-promoted with the reps themselves. Some reps reportedly told Rep. Greg Harris they needed to go back into their districts to work on this. Well, let's help them by providing some LGBTQ talent and power to make them memorable. We have talent of all kinds (poetry, music, theater, film, speakers, religious leaders and much more). Let's use it.
3) We need to put more community money where our community members actually live. We need to hire a more representative group of people who work at our LGBT and AIDS organizations. When the Center on Halsted was launched in 2007, the leaders knew it was a problem that it was located in one community. Boystown was where the support was, the space was, and the resources were at the time. But now there could be satellite Centers on Halsted in several parts of the city, including the Southeast, Southwest and West sides. A small space, maybe sublet with an existing theater or church, where events happen, where staff work, and true outreach occurs. Ultimately, wouldn't it be great to have a 50-ward plan, accompanied by the suburbs, to truly engage our entire community?
It is obvious that the staffs of our major non-profits do not reflect our community. No one agency can be perfect, but it has always been largely a paid white leadership in our LGBT organizations. There are always exceptions, but because of this stubborn problem of largely white staff and largely white boards of directors, they in turn attract largely white volunteer and donor bases. They recruit from a mainly closed circle of friends.
In my 29 years of covering this community, I have attended events all over town. I rarely see very many white faces at primarily Latin and African-American events. And at predominantly white events people ask "Where are the people of color?" Really? In 2013, that segregation is just as strong, if not worse, than it was in 1984. If whites don't go to people of color events, how do you create bonds where they then come to predominantly white events? This is all true of our gender and gender identity divide as well. Most of it starts with social segregation, but then it digs its tentacles into our official structures, our staffs and our boards of directors. It is still very common for someone to say to me "Well, we did outreach through so-and-so to his Black friends, and none of them were interested in joining our board." This is a social community, built on social circles, and if you do not actively try to break down those long-term barriers, you will never be doing true community work.
4) There are great examples of cross-cultural work in Chicago's LGBTQ past and present. Things such as the Color Triangle, or Women of All Colors/Cultures Together, joint pride events, Lesbian Community Cancer Project dances at the South Shore Cultural Center, International Women's Day dances, the Dyke March (going into different communities), Amigas Latinas, ALMA, Asians and Friends, Affinity and individual leaders who worked hard to make change. But people who are volunteers, or those who are paid not well, burn out. They move on. Groups change and fold. So to truly sustain this kind of work takes more than just a few people with good intentions struggling against the tide of history. It takes a long-term commitment, money and other resources to nurture and grow the change we want.
We can learn from what has worked, and that is making our events fun and inviting, and creating them organically with many voices at the table. We can't just expect to host a political forum and people will come out. Not without true community building as part of the plan.
5) Much of the problems we now face are because of the past. Most African American and Latino LGBTQs who are over age 50 in Chicago can tell you many stories of the blatant racism they faced at gay clubs in the 1970s and 1980s. The subtle social racism still existsand sometimes it is not so subtle, as with the Take Back Boystown efforts against minority youth. But the extra carding of people of color at gay clubs was very real, and documented, and resulted in lawsuits and boycotts. People of color were tokenized, sexualized and discriminated against. Many fought hard within the white LGBT groups to work for change, but most of them eventually packed their bags and went to work within people of color communities to work for change. Being a token can take its toll, especially when you are treated as such.
6) AIDS has had a devastating impact on our people. We lost visionary leaders who could have continued to contribute to our movement. This is true of thousands of people of all colors. We lost incredible, magnificent LGBT people who fought hard for inclusive social change. ACT UP was a melting pot of diversity. They fought the outside world, and they fought each other as well, trying to create a new way of working together. Trying to change homophobia, racism, sexism, classism on top of fighting for the lives of friends and family was a near-impossible under-taking. Some men with AIDS wanted to focus on AIDS. Others wanted to connect the dots of oppression, healthcare access and discrimination hurting all people. They tried to do all of that under one acronym. It worked briefly, and very well, but those divisions, and death, were ultimately too much to overcome.
What lessons can still be learned from ACT UP? That we can work together on pivotal issues, and that marriage equality can be one of those. It crosses boundaries, and in fact has a more devastating economic effect on the middle and lower classes, those dependent on social security, pensions, healthcare benefits of partners, and those with low-wage jobs who are raising children. But how do we do this? We create reasons to get together beyond the politics, we build community groups and businesses that are both single-issue and multi-issue. We recognize that not everyone who is LGBTQ sees marriage as the only goal, but that it can be part of a series of issues we work together on. We stop our single focus on one gay-rights plank and we speak out and show up for a range of issues.
Some individual LGBTs do this, no doubt. And some groups, like Gay Liberation Network, are always crossing these boundaries, from displaying their rainbow colors at everything from immigration rallies and war protests to the Chicago Teachers Union rallies. While some issues may be too controversial for our non-profits to weigh in on, there are plenty of ways to support the work of others without risking your tax status. And individuals can do what they want, showing up across many communities. Business leaders and donors, of course, can do much to make change.
7) While we share many issues in common with past civil rights movements, we need to respect that not all oppression is the same, and we can't get into a war of ranking these. If an African American politician says they are offended at the use of the term "civil rights" for LGBT issues, we need to respect this and bring dialogue to the table, not a racist, angry response. The history of brutality and racism faced by African Americans and Native Americans is unparalleled in this country. We do our LGBTQ movement no good in trying to directly compare what our people have gone through to what happened to Blacks (including LGBTQ Blacks). The systemic racism of the past few hundred years still has an effect today on the African American community. This inherited impact spreads through multiple generations, and is deep in the memories of those who lived through it, and who have heard the stories of their ancestors.
That said, we can speak to one another about the different kinds of oppression LGBTQs face. That is very real and has also had a steep price. LGBTQs have lost their lives, their jobs, their families. Uniquely, LGBTQs get kicked out of their own homes by parents for being different. Also of historical significance, most LGBTQs can "pass" in society (some Blacks could and did do this over the years). This passing has a price, an internalized homophobia that can lead to substance abuse, and even suicide. A healthcare crisis was allowed to blossom into a worldwide pandemic, AIDS, because of homophobia and racismwe do have that in common, because early losses were among the "4H's"homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs and heroin addicts. No one wanted to help those communities until they realized it was never just killing "those people".
We have our own levels of pain, but we can't try to get into a game of "my oppression is the same or worse than yours". It will not be the way to victory.
What, Me Worry?
If you are reading this and saying "Well, I do this work in my life," that is great. This is not meant to be an accusation of any one person or organization. This work is hard. At Windy City Times, we try to practice what we preach. Our publications benefit from the points of view of a diverse staff and a team of freelancers. We always are aware that we need to have diverse people to have stronger and more diverse content. We try to cover events all over town, with our limited resources. For 10 years, we (when we were Outlines newspaper) published BLACKlines and En La Vida monthly newspapers for the Black and Latino communities. They were written by and for those communities. But businesses did not want to advertise, not enough to sustain those publications. I miss those publications very much. They provided a unique space to debate and focus on those issues. They were not that difficult to do, but there was no money to sustain them long term.
[Let me add my experience as co vice-chair of the Gay Games board, a project I worked on as a volunteer for seven years. We hosted nearly 11,000 athletes from almost 70 countries, for Gay Games VII in 2006. We were extremely committed, and even sometimes criticized by our own community, to diversity efforts for women and people of color. We made sure our literature was diverse, our board and staff was diverse, our outreach was far-reaching, our scholarships covered a wide range of people, and our venues were throughout the city, including the Southeast and Southwest sides. Even one gay paid leaderat a public city meetingquestioned us if it was wise to have cycling on the South Side! We had events all over the city and also Oak Park, Evanston, Skokie and even Crystal Lake. This was a difficult, long process, but our team worked very hard to keep to our goal of inclusion.]
So what about marriage equality? It does have a place in this larger debate about division in our community. Because we did not have a 50-ward effort in our city, and even less so in most suburbs and downstate, we are paying the price for not being further along in the understanding of our issues. Politicians and religious leaders who are against us can easily fall back on the "that's a North Side issue" because we have played into their hands. We have not done our jobs. A white 30-year-old working hard on the North Side might say, "I did not create this problem." Yes, a white bus driver in 1950s Minnesota might have been able to say to Rosa Parks, "I would have let you sit anywhere you wanted on my bus." But what did they do to work for change where Rosa Parks lived?
Most of us are simply trying to live and pay our bills. Raise our children or our pets. We are activists part-time if we are lucky. We trust our leaders, those paid to do this work, and those who commit extraordinary volunteer hours, to really carry the weight of this struggle. And most of the time, that appears to work. But it is not sustainable, and it is not going to get us true equality. And it won't help us when these "big" issues come up, ones around marriage equality, queer youth homelessness, LGBT senior housing, feeding people who are hungry, and much more. What we need is a much larger infrastructure, one that works across this city for true change.
Let's simplify the above historical overview with a few concrete suggestions that might help the short-term goal of marriage equality, but hopefully will help provide long-term gains for full equality, and create an amazing quality of life. I offer Windy City Times as a sponsor for these events, to help spread the word and keep these costs down. Will the coalition and activists join us in creating some true change?
1) The Illinois unites for Marriage Coalition, which said it will continue to broaden its list of members, needs to engage people from those districts that are most on the fence. In addition, they need their own transparent staff and structure. By having a coalition of groups that each have their own independent agendas and mission, the larger mission of the coalition can't be obtained without staffing. We hear they are moving in this direction, but it must be done with great speedand transparency.
2) Pick the 10 or so representative districts most change-able from "Maybe" to "Yes," or those needing some solidifying, and create events that combine culture and education. (These include both Chicago and suburban areas.) Do these timed to right after Labor Day and before the fall veto session. Perhaps combine a couple districts if they are neighboring. Have the events at theater or church spaces that are welcoming. Purchase food and beverages and services from local businesses and make the events free and fun and fabulous, and work with the elected officials in those areas (so not just reps, but senators, alderman, committeeperson, etc.) to make them inclusive. Have well-known speakers but also grassroots people telling their stories, and make sure these events are well promoted, well attended, and well covered.
3) Launch two satellite offices for the Center on Halsted, one on the Far South Side, one on the West Side. A simple office with two staff members charged with outreach and education, and providing referrals for support services at the main Center and related agencies. Ideally sublet or rent nearby to existing community organizations doing similar work, for example on AIDS efforts.
4) Provide resources to existing groups working on LGBTQ African American and Latino issues to allow them to hire staff to work on outreach efforts related to marriage equality for the next 6-12 months. They already have connections, why not give them the power to strengthen their work. For the long term, we need to better support these groups in their community building.
5) Hire staff and lobbyists to work specifically in districts where they have experience. Ask the reps for a list of recommended, qualified people to do outreach in their districtswho has the influence? Do not bring in people who are not from the area to lobby in districts they have no history with.
6) When the anti-gays have a protest, create an action-alert response team of coalition members and others who will send a notice out asking for a response each and every time. The media is watching, YouTube is watching, and the politicians are watching.
7) By building this response team now, we will have people ready to do this in the fall. Right now, we should be planning "March on Springfield for Marriage Equality" for the first day of the veto session. People could plan ahead for the day off of work. Our leaders knew the last day of the spring session was May 31. Yet no huge turnout was organized, so that when one was needed, an alert went out the day before and just 100 or so people showed up in Springfield. We know there will likely be a veto session. Let's create a plan of action to alert everyone to show up the first day of that session this fall (unless of course the bill passes sooner). This kind of action alert could be used to assist other groups doing similar work, for example on immigration reform that is LGBTQ inclusive.
8) Ask the Victory Fund, the national LGBTQ organization that trains and raises funds for political candidates, to come in for a series of new training sessions focused just on LGBTQ of color in the Chicago area. Focus on building new leadership and supporting those who later run for office. We have many openly LGBTQ elected officials now in Illinois, but outside of the judicial ranks, none are people of color.
9) And finally, we have to work together and be transparent in what we do. We can't be afraid of the opposition knowing what we are doing. And we can't be afraid of one another. Yes, some people are afraid of a protest at House Speaker Madigan's office. They don't have to show up. But they should not be ostriches acting as if these activities are not happening, and they should not deny that these protests are being demanded by legitimate voices in the LGBTQ community. Our politicians especially should not be afraid to hear opposing views at public forums or at the Pride Parade.
This movement has to figure out a way to channel the anger as much as it channels the money and the votes.
I could put forth larger goals than even the above suggest. Things such as documenting our community now through permanent ways (my chicagogayhistory.org free website, and Victor Salvo's The Legacy Project)plus documenting our events, and our culture, to make sure it is all passed down to youth today and in 50 years.
We often struggle to define ourselves because of so little understanding of our heroes and our history. That makes our bonds together very tenuous and easily severed when we disagree. It makes it easy for our enemies to define us as all one waywhen we know we are not monolithic. We make ourselves easy targets if we do not show our true diverse selves. Sometimes that gets a little messy.
And all of this boils down to people and money. We need it all to make it work.
History shows that progress often comes with backlash and setbacks. But we can learn some lessons here, and build a much stronger community, if we care to.
Tracy Baim is publisher and executive editor of Windy City Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Related story, June 7, 2013, Marriage Equality Round 2: A call for inclusivity, A public statement from Affinity Community Services, here: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Marriage-Equality-Round-2-A-call-for-inclusivity-/43162.html .