Open letter to the community:
Sunday, December 19, 2004
Preparing to oppose an anti-gay ballot initiative
You have no doubt seen the news stories in The Washington Blade about an anti-gay D.C. initiative that was proposed recently by a woman named Lisa L. Greene from northeast Washington. Elsewhere on this page I am providing links to those stories.
Before continuing, I should make clear that we in GLAA are painfully aware that the fight ahead will require resources and expertise well beyond our capacity. We are eager to do our part, but we harbor no delusions about being able to run an expensive campaign of the sort that will be needed. The message you are now reading is one of our efforts to reach various people in hopes of catalyzing some organizing.
A number of us in DC's GLBT community have already begun informal discussions on this matter. GLAA's first effort was to prepare testimony to present at the hearing of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics that was to have been held in November. That hearing was canceled after Ms. Greene withdrew her proposed initiative to fix technical problems with the way she had drafted it. We have to proceed on the assumption that she will come back with a better draft. She is reportedly being assisted by Rev. Pat Robertson's legal group American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Needless to say, the radical right has deep pockets.
The backers of the initiative will be able to exploit all the divisions and distrust in the D.C. community. On the other hand, to put it in a positive light, it will give us an opportunity to do some much-needed community building. We can defeat the initiative, but it will be expensive and time-consuming. If we are successful, this fight could serve as a demonstration of how gay-friendly progressives, moderates, and conservatives can embrace faith and family issues in a way that offers a positive alternative to the divisive approaches of the radical religious right.
A new group is needed to wage our campaignDespite the existence of hundreds of GLBT organizations of all kinds in the Washington Metropolitan area, there appears to be no existing organization with the resources and skill sets needed to run the campaign against the ballot initiative. We in GLAA believe that a separate organization needs to be created for the specific purpose of waging the campaign against the initiative, and preliminary discussions with others suggest that this is the way to go. One value of setting up a new group would be that it would make it easier for everyone to set aside any past internecine squabbles and to start fresh with a group that has broad support and buy-in from all the stakeholders in our community. The group will need to reflect the diversity within our community, and will particularly need strong participation by the African-American and faith-based communities. The skills needed include fundraising, campaign organization, public relations, and legal expertise. All of these skills are present in our community, they just need to be pulled together. One local activist I spoke with recently suggested that we might want to establish two organizations: one a 501(c)4 to wage the actual campaign, and a separate 501(c)3 to prepare educational materials.
The racial dimension of the initiative campaignAccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60 percent of the District's population is black. This is nearly five times the percentage of blacks in the population nationwide. These numbers, and the fact that the woman who submitted the proposed initiative told The Washington Blade that she regards gay marriage as a threat to black families, suggest a couple of things. First, obviously, a substantial part of our effort to defeat the initiative must address and engage the African American community.
In considering how to campaign in the black community, one is inspired by the knowledge that the greatest strategist of the civil rights movement was the openly gay Bayard Rustin, and that our strongest allies in Congress include such Congressional Black Caucus members as our own Eleanor Holmes Norton and John Lewis. Those two names, incidentally, are the first that come to mind for our board of advisers, along with Coretta Scott King. However, Rustin's involvement in the movement was controversial from the beginning, and many of Martin Luther King's ministerial colleagues were never happy with Rustin's presence. So here we are, 49 years after the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, still confronted by the same problem (as illustrated by recent reports of disagreement between Mrs. King and one of her daughters). Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the former D.C. Delegate to Congress who has long touted his past association with Dr. King, has been a leading spokesperson for the anti-gay Alliance for Marriage which launched the fight for the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2001. Since our adversaries like to portray the gay community as being all white, the importance of a leading role for African Americans on our side in this campaign is more clear than ever.
At the same time, 60 percent is not 100 percent. The initiative would affect the entire District population, not just African Americans, so the initiative fight must not be treated purely as a conversation within the black community. Many conversations are needed, both within and among the various overlapping groups that make up our city. As a matter of fact, many such conversations are much needed anyway, so in that regard the initiative fight can serve a useful purpose. If and when the initiative battle begins, individual GLBT groups in the city will of course continue to speak for themselves, but we also need a well-funded and -coordinated campaign organization to fight what we have to assume will be a well-funded and -coordinated effort on the other side.
The religious dimension of the initiative campaignInitial news reports on the proposed initiative have already made it clear that anti-gay ministers will play a significant role in the push for its passage. This calls for an informed, adept, and sensitive faith-based component of our own effort. We have to reach people of faith where they are, which must begin with respect rather than adversarialism. This is why religious groups will be crucial to our effort. The model for religious-motivated political activism that I think we should honor is that of Dr. King, whose religion inspired an effort to liberate people rather than to scapegoat or marginalize them, and which was founded on hope rather than on fear or distrust. There are already black religious leaders who fear being hijacked by the right wing, and we need to address that concern and urge them to resist being used by the radical right. For example, there is resentment in parts of the black community over the Unification Church's aggressive efforts to win over black ministers. We must avoid at all costs any temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water by equating our adversaries with the religious community in general, which in fact includes many gay-welcoming congregations and in any case needs to be approached constructively. One personal project of mine is to persuade a colleague on the NAACP-DC Police Task Force who is a young black minister to come out against the initiative. Many of you will have similar challenging (and perhaps uncomfortable) conversations to undertake.
Bringing together a diverse communityA reality that we need to keep in mind as we face this initiative campaign (and which I just mentioned last week in an interview with the SF-based TV program "Q on the Move") is that the GLBT community reflects in microcosm the same fault lines as the community at large -- racial, economic, and cultural. It is a lot easier to talk about a GLBT community than to function as one. We have a wide variety of voices, and all of them will be needed. Our diversity makes it all the more important that we coordinate our efforts to avoid working at cross purposes. As one eminent politico told me, this initiative will test our nerves and patience. One perspective I think we need to promote within our community is that we are fighting an initiative, not people. Persuading local GLBT families to come forward and tell their stories would be a natural part of any advertising campaign.
Maximizing our pool of alliesSpeaking of winning over allies, our effort needs to be clearly focused on opposing the initiative, not on endorsing same-sex marriage. We want to attract to our coalition people who may not be ready to support our equal civil marriage rights, but who recognize the harm of a divisive initiative that seeks to scapegoat gay families. Three key points that we will have to make are:
- D.C. gay activists are not pushing for a same-sex marriage bill now because our city is not ready for it, so the initiative is a cure without a problem;
- Even when we feel the time is ripe for the D.C. Council to consider equal marriage rights bill, there would be a full and open legislative process, including a public hearing, a committee markup, and two readings/votes by the full Council before it could reach the Mayor's desk; and
- Even then, we would have to contend with the U.S. Congress, which can exercise a legislative veto against any District-passed legislation, and which clearly at present is not about to let a D.C. gay marriage bill survive the congressional review period. In short, political reality tells us that the District has several years ahead in which to have a civil conversation on how to protect and help families and how to deal with gay families, without having to conduct such a conversation in the context of a divisive initiative.
Existing political organizingSince its founding in 1971, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance has been the leading local group doing GLBT political organizing, policy formulation, and advocacy. While we do non-partisan ratings of District candidates, however, we are not set up to run campaigns, and our own fundraising only runs to a total in the low five digits annually, because we deliberately avoid having paid staff or an office to maintain. Partisan groups include the Gertrude Stein Democrats and Log Cabin Republicans; GLAA has worked cooperatively with both on various matters in our usual non-partisan way. The black-oriented D.C. Coalition, unfortunately, appears to be defunct (we would love to hear of a resurrection). There are some Asian groups, but they appear to be primarily social (if that perception is wrong, by all means let us know). We heard a few years ago about a gay Latino activist group that was in the process of forming, but we have never heard anything further. Wanda Alston, the Mayor's Director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, has periodic meetings of her advisory group, which covers a lot of ground and not just political. (Incidentally, we feel it is important that the effort against the initiative not be run from the Mayor's office. This effort, it seems to us, by its nature needs to be independent.)
Existing community organizingIn community organizing, there are a number of groups: One In Ten produces the Reel Affirmations film festival and other cultural events. Service organizations such as Whitman-Walker Clinic, Mautner Project, Us Helping Us, and Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League have volunteers in addition to their paid staffs. Charitable groups include Brother Help Thyself. Youth Pride Alliance and Black Lesbian and Gay Pride Day put on pride day celebrations every year. Burgundy Crescent Volunteers offers volunteers for GLBT community events. There are a variety of professional, social, cultural, and sporting groups. We cannot know in advance which of this multitude of groups may choose to become involved in the initiative fight, or in what ways; no doubt some will be constrained by their missions from getting involved directly. We have a pretty good set of links on our links page at http://www.glaa.org/resources/links.shtml.
Religious groupsThe groups with the most regularly active members are probably the religious organizations, which will be important to tap in this fight. Happily, there are reports that local GLBT religious leaders are already organizing. As I wrote in a recent op-ed, we cannot afford to let the radical right claim an unchallenged monopoly on the rhetorical high ground in the areas of faith, flag, and family. Local D.C. religious groups include Bet Mishpachah, Dignity Washington, Inner Light Unity Fellowship Church, Integrity Washington, and two Metropolitan Community Church affiliates. National or international groups include Al-Fatiha, Equal Partners in Faith, Soulforce, and the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews.
Community resourcesThere are a variety of groups and individuals who may be able to lend their skills to the cause in the areas of public relations, legal assistance, graphic design, web design, and grants making. Some particular persons come to mind, but since we have no idea about their availability for this project, we will not presume to name them here. One group that may be able to offer legal assistance or referrals is Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Attorneys of Washington (Gaylaw). In addition to specialized professional skills, volunteers could help us distribute many thousands of leaflets, work phone banks, etc.
AlliesGLAA knows the value of coalition work, having worked with many allies and coalition partners over the years on a variety of issues, such as domestic partnerships and condom availability in the local schools and prisons. Religious organizations were important allies in those efforts, as they will be in this. I have represented GLAA on the local NAACP Police Task Force since its founding in 1997. The National Capital Area chapter of the ACLU is GLAA's strongest and longest-standing ally, and in fact prepared testimony for the Board of Elections and Ethics hearing last month before it was canceled. GLAA has dealt with a variety of student groups, including groups from Howard and George Washington universities. For many years GLAA and Whitman-Walker Clinic have participated in the D.C. Appropriations Working Group, an ad hoc group that works to defeat anti-gay and other social riders on the District's annual appropriations bill in Congress. That group has included the Human Rights Campaign, reps from the local clean needle-exchange group Prevention Works!, the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), and advocates for orphans.
The role of national groupsGLAA believes that the lead on this should be taken locally rather than nationally, with national groups offering support. Those national groups include the National Black Justice Coalition, Human Rights Campaign, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Freedom to Marry, Lambda Legal Defense, and American Civil Liberties Union. GLAA is a member of the Equality Federation (formerly the Federation of Statewide LGBT Advocacy Organizations), and can coordinate with them; one of our vice presidents, Christopher Neff, serves on the Federation board. We will all have to work our networks on this. Partly because Washington is the nation's capital and many of the national groups are headquartered or have offices here, there will undoubtedly be interest by many of them in the initiative fight. The sooner an independent group is set up to wage the initiative fight for our side, the sooner the coordination of efforts can be underway.
Getting startedSerious organizing will have to wait until after the holidays. We (that is, the GLBT community in D.C. and our allies) can't wait too long to get going. A preliminary organizing meeting should be held soon to get something started. Any ideas you may have on how to approach this and who can help would be appreciated. And do not just send your ideas to us -- talk amongst yourselves!
Best wishes for moving forward in the new year.
Vice President for Political Affairs
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C.