Coalition-building shaping up
by Seth Hemmelgarn
Buoyed by the success of Meet in the Middle 4 Equality, where thousands of marriage equality supporters converged on the city of Fresno in California's Central Valley in late May, activists, religious leaders, and others are launching an effort to build broad coalitions now, in advance of a possible 2010 ballot effort to repeal Proposition 8.
The unprecedented outreach has spawned more than two-dozen grassroots groups, and reinvigorated more established, larger organizations such as Marriage Equality USA, the progressive Courage Campaign, and Equality California.
Now, however, the hard work begins as LGBTs and allies work to remedy one of the main criticisms of the No on 8 campaign – that the leadership largely ignored people of color and voters in faith communities. Immediately after Prop 8 passed, same-sex marriage proponents pledged to build better relationships with communities that weren't necessarily white, LGBT, or secular.
Some feel that efforts to build coalitions are going well. But asked if he's seen more coalition building happening, the Reverend Eric Lee, president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference-Los Angeles, said, "Not really."
"I've participated in numerous conference calls, and usually the participating organizations are your LGBT organizations, and you don't find very many new organizations that are based in the African American community," or that don't have an LGBT focus, "so I'm not sure if the organizers for marriage equality understand how to reach out to the African American community," said Lee, who is straight and who was among dozens of speakers at the Meet in the Middle rally.
"It has to go beyond just being cordial at networking events," said Lee.
Lee is friends with Rick Jacobs, founder and chair of the statewide Courage Campaign, and he cited that group as one organization that's doing outreach to African Americans. Jacobs even invited Lee to speak to about 200 activists who gathered for a "Camp Courage" organizing event in Oakland last month. Both the LGBT and African American communities need to be involved in issues that extend beyond their communities, said Lee.
Lee himself has changed his position on same-sex marriage. In Oakland at Camp Courage, he said that at one time he believed homosexuality was "one of the most grievous sins out there."
"I was very vicious. I was one of those Bible-toting Christians blinded by man's doctrine," he said.
Later, however, Lee said that he "had trouble reconciling condemning people with God's word ... to love people."
Now, he is fighting for marriage equality, even as that has created tension in his own life.
"My wife asked me if I was gay," Lee said. "Others called me courageous. When you stand on the side of justice, God is with you. It doesn't take courage. It takes principle."
According to a poll published recently in the Los Angeles Times, 68 percent of white voters support same-sex marriage and 27 percent are opposed. Fifty-four percent of African American voters were against it, while 37 percent supported same-sex marriage.
Among Latinos, 45 percent supported same-sex marriage while 46 percent opposed it.
The poll, which was conducted for the Times by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in conjunction with Public Opinion Strategies, questioned 1,500 registered voters in the city of Los Angeles from June 10-16. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
Andrea Shorter, who spent months before the November election working with the group And Marriage for All to reach out primarily to black voters before becoming Equality California's coalition coordinator, indicated that EQCA's been busy.
"California is a majority-minority state," Shorter, a grand marshal in Sunday's Pride Parade, wrote in an e-mail to the Bay Area Reporter. "Voter registration among Latinos and African Americans is increasing. It's important that our movement organizes itself with these extraordinary realities in mind; clearly, outreach to these majority communities cannot be an afterthought."
As part of its "Win Marriage Back: Make it Real" campaign, EQCA is partnering with the Jordan/Rustin Coalition, a black LGBT advocacy organization, to mobilize Los Angeles' African American community. Work will include hiring organizers and establishing a field office in south Los Angeles, set to open later this summer.
There's also a TV commercial focusing on a gay married African American couple and their five children.
Similar coalition building initiatives involving African American communities in northern California, as well as efforts including Latino and Asian-Pacific Islander communities, will be announced in August, wrote Shorter.
"Working against perceptions of the LGBT community as a self-interested, wealthy, and majority white experience can be a challenge in coalition building work," she wrote. "Sharing who we really are as racially, ethnically, socio-economically, and even geographically diverse people around the state is vital to connecting with other communities."
As an example of the work going on, Shorter, who is an out lesbian and African American, wrote that she recently met with voters in San Francsico's Bayview-Hunters Point District, which has been known as a predominantly black neighborhood but also includes a mix of Asians, Latinos, and others. Shorter met with people who were upset about Prop 8's passage, which eliminated same-sex marriage.
"They wanted to be involved in building better bridges between the LGBT community and some of their community's health and economic issues," she wrote.
EQCA is also working with California Faith for Equality to develop an innovative outreach initiative, Shorter wrote, and she e
Pastor Samuel Chu, California Faith for Equality's interim executive director, said the group, which existed even before Prop 8, includes about 6,000 congregations.
There's "a much greater need for faith to be not just integrated but at the center and the forefront of marriage equality, of LGBT equality," said Chu.
"In a lot of communities across the state where a lot of work needs to be done, churches are the only places where their organizing happens, because we meet every Sunday," whether there's a ballot measure or not, said Chu, who is a straight ally.
California Faith for Equality has launched a partnership with the national Human Rights Campaign that will include training and investing resources to build up the faith group's work in California.
Chu said that Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, where he is director of relational ministries, works on "a multitude of justice issues." He said he's been in the forefront of leading the fight for comprehensive immigration reform – an estimated half of the people in his church are Latin American immigrants.
"For many years, because of the diversity and demographics, they are split in their personal beliefs of same-sex marriage," said Chu. "The way we were able to come to support equality as a church overall is because for many years before Prop 8 I have been working, and the whole church has been working, on immigrant rights."
When the moment came to support marriage equality, Chu said the message was, "This is our time. The LGBT community and members of this church are under attack. We need your help."
One sign of good relations with other groups is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People being recognized as an organizational community grand marshal at this year's San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade.
Alice Huffman, president of the California Conference of the NAACP, and whose firm worked on No on 8, said the Pride recognition is a symbol that "We have unity between us, working together arm and arm, so I think it is a great tribute."
Besides race and religion, there are other concerns when it comes to building coalitions.
One Struggle, One Fight, which formed last November, has since been involved in marriage equality, immigration, and labor issues. In March, the group led a march from Berkeley to Sacramento.
Kip Williams, an organizer with the group, said, "I definitely think that what's happening right now is more inclusive" than was the No on 8 campaign.
There are a lot of new grassroots organizations, and "a lot of young and new activists who are involved in the movement who weren't necessarily there before Prop 8 passed," Williams said, adding that people still feel frustrated about "how the No on 8 campaign was run and the inability to participate in it in a meaningful way, and now there are a lot of folks who are just asserting themselves and demanding to be part of the process."
Williams faulted the gay media for questioning the transparency issues that have arisen over some of the actions by grassroots groups.
Williams said the media have "kind of sensationalized and dramatized" questions of trust and agendas among the groups working on marriage equality "in a way that is really not helpful, and that's actually created, in a way, that's really focused on the drama, rather than getting our rights back."
"The LGBT media has been an obstacle and a problem more than a help in this struggle," Williams said.
As an example, he pointed to the leadership summit that followed the Meet in the Middle rally in Fresno. Media, including the Bay Area Reporter and the Associated Press, were ordered to leave part of the summit when poll results were discussed. Reporters protested that decision.
"The way the LGBT media and blogs sensationalized the question about transparency and didn't really give a voice to grassroots leaders who worked really hard to pull those events together, and I'm specifically referring to the folks from Meet in the Middle and Yes on Equality," Williams said, referring to the two groups that organized the summit.
"The only issue about transparency was only about keeping the polling results from our opponents," said Williams.
That same polling data, however, will now be shared with the public on the "Get Engaged" tour that started this week in cities around the state. [See story, news section.]
One reporter who was unhappy with the way the leadership summit was handled was Karen Ocamb, news editor for the LGBT magazine Frontiers/In LA. Ocamb, who also posts on several blogs, commented on Williams's remarks in an e-mail to the B.A.R at the paper's request.
"With all due respect to Kip Williams, it is not the LGBT media's job to promote, collaborate with, or obstruct any individual, organization, or endeavor. It is our job to try to convey as accurately and fairly as possible what is happening at any given time, who's doing what – including the ups and downs of leadership – and to provide analysis as a first draft of history on behalf of our LGBT people," Ocamb wrote.