Sitting in a coffee shop in Pittsburgh, Penn., during the weekend of the nation’s largest gathering of progressive bloggers and citizen journalists, 27-year-old Kip Williams looks more like a laidback San Francisco hippie, than a man charged with the monumental task of pulling together a national network of activists in all 435 congressional districts.
But as he speaks, a leader filled with passion and vision breaks through the image presented by his hip, grunge look: baggy jeans, a ragged button-up shirt and a carefree iPod headphone-wearing personality.
“We are broken and divided right now,” Williams told Q-Notes, commenting on the state of LGBT community affairs in the face of a splintering debate on the National Equality March his group has planned for Oct. 11, 2009.
As director of Equality Across America, a new national organizing network springing from the passage of California’s Prop. 8, Williams is moving full-steam-ahead on plans to bring thousands of activists to the nation’s capital.
The initial call for the October march — made by longtime activist David Mixner and later picked up by grassroots and national activists including AIDS Quilt founder Cleve Jones — sparked a frenzied debate among LGBT advocates and community members across the nation.
The march has come under intense scrutiny and criticism — traditional LGBT media outlets and bloggers have hounded Jones and other organizers. Some bloggers have issued statements against the march, urging their readers not to attend. The criticisms are always the same: limited resources for individuals and organizations during a bad economy, a top-down leadership rather than grassroots action and bad timing without enough time to adequately plan.
In the face of the criticism, Williams stands strong. “In order to move forward we’re called to a higher place,” he said. “We’ll have to get past a lot of the finger-pointing and in-fighting and work together as friends and partners in a movement.”
When activists, community members and politicians gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Millennium March in 2000, not one state had yet approved marriage equality for same-sex couples. The Supreme Court had yet to hand down its decision overturning sodomy laws. In rural Southern and Mid-Western states, safe schools policies and gay-straight student organizations were still developing and had yet to take a foothold.
On the record:
“We need new leadership and we need good strategy. I think it is just the nature of things as organizations get older the tend to become more cautious, that every now and then we need to reinvigorate the movement and organizations and take stock of where we’re at. All of the people in the national organizations are working hard. I think they are good people, but I question some of the strategies and I do so with respect and affection for the people doing the work, but I think we need to change the strategy and I most definitely think we need to make room for renewed leadership and encourage them and provide them with the resources and information they need. We need to respect them and listen to them.”
National march budgeting
“We’re going to spend very little money. These people who talk this way seem to believe there is a finite and limited amount of money for this movement and a finite, limited number of volunteer hours. If movements do not grow, they will die. There is no limit on the amount of money we can raise. There is no limit on the number of volunteers. The only limits are those we impose on ourselves with our lack of confidence.”
“It is important to understand how lobbying works. To really make an impact you have to lobby in all the 435 districts. That is where the most effective lobbying can occur, in the district level by people who live and work and vote in that district and go into those offices and build relationships with the staff.”
‘Milk’ and public opinion
“Public opinion has clearly drifted dramatically in our favor and I think the film, “Milk,” had something to do with that. During this time of great change and focus on the issue we had this powerful film come out that informed people of a history they’d never been taught in school and reminded some of us older people what we were fighting for in our youth. Include the fact that this is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of our movement — all those things came together to create a unique opportunity.”
— Photo courtesy: Greg Hernandez
Yet, despite the progress, organizers with Equality Across America feel we haven’t moved far enough, and fear the current Democratic leadership might be backing down on the promises they gave the community before the 2008 election. Equality Across America hopes its National Equality March will send a message and inspire change.
Jones, a protégé of openly gay elected official Harvey Milk and portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch in last year’s landmark film about the assassinated leader, says our community has great momentum that can’t be wasted.
“We’ve got the Stonewall generation working with the Facebook generation on this march,” Jones told Q-Notes in an interview via telephone. “We’re dealing with a very historic moment the likes of which we have not seen before. I’ve been around for a long time and I have never seen anything like what we have today.”
Reports in the LGBT media and blogosphere have consistently placed the leadership onus on Jones. Although he has been front and center representing the movement, he’s quick to dismiss the leadership label.
“I’m not the leader of the march,” he said. “I’m just one of over 80 people, a great group of people all over the country.”
Equality Across America says the aim of their National Equality March is simple: “Equal protection in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states.”
To achieve that national equality, Jones believes it is time to change strategy.
“I think the old strategy of fighting state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city is a failed strategy,” he said. “The time has come to focus on federal action.”
Ian Palmquist, executive director of the statewide Equality North Carolina, disagrees.
“Most of our movement’s resources have always gone to the federal level and that’s still the case. Yet, all of our significant victories have come from the work of state groups, usually on shoe-string budgets,” he told Q-Notes via email. “Half of Americans are protected from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. One-third are protected from discrimination based on gender-identity. In the last five years we’ve gone from no states with marriage equality to six.”
Jones said we should take our cues from other nations around the globe. “When we look at those countries on the planet that have full equality for LGBT people, that progress was never achieved by popular votes and rarely even by legislative action, and never by provincial or state action. It came from national action from parliaments or national courts. This is not a matter of opinion. This is simply fact.”
And Jones also thinks it is clear to see why state groups are so adamantly opposed to a national action.
“This criticism comes from the state equality groups and the local groups who are deeply invested — and I use that word deliberately — in maintaining a strategy of slow, state-by-state progress,” he said.
In California, Jones said, local activists are “in a huge rush” to spend millions on a campaign to repeal Prop. 8, a ballot fight he says won’t grant anyone any new rights (California already offers domestic partner benefits equal to those benefits received by married, heterosexual couples).
“There is a certain amount of irony that the ones who talk about diverting resources for a march that will cost less than $250,000 are quite willing and indeed eager to continue to spend tens of millions of dollars,” he added.
Palmquist says a greater impact could be made by volunteering time and contributing financially to ballot fights like those in Maine. “We have a real chance to win marriage equality in a vote of the people for the first time in our nation’s history, and they need our help talking one-on-one with voters to succeed,” he said. “It might not be as sexy as rallying in D.C., but we know that is the kind of work that makes the greatest difference.”
$30k for toilets?
This issue’s cover story documents a debate brought to the forefront of LGBT activists’ minds as Equality Across America plans its National Equality March for Oct. 11.
Some of the most strident opposition to the march comes from those who feel the financial and volunteer hours and resources being poured into the event might have been better used in other ways. It is a view I’ve shared before, as recently as my trip to Pittsburgh, Penn., for the Netroots Nation conference.
Palmquist understands the emotion behind pushing for a national focus. “It sounds so much easier to just get it all done at once,” he said. “But the reality is we have to keep doing our homework in the states if we want to succeed nationally.”
It is important, Palmquist said, to understand the history of progressive change in America. “The history of social movements shows us that federal progress on an issue almost always follows victories in the states.”
Durham-based activist Mandy Carter, who’s spent her entire career tackling issues of racism, sexism, poverty and homophobia, told Q-Notes she is neutral when it comes to the march.
“I’m not going to endorse it, but I’m also not going to speak out against it or tell folks not to go,” she said in an email to Q-Notes.
Like Palmquist, Carter questions Jones’ push for a new, national focus and strategy.
“I couldn’t disagree more,” she said. “With my 40-year movement history as a gauge, I would say that for me the state-by-state and city-by-city grassroots work being done across the country is why I think we’ve seen and will continue to see the legislative and ‘changing of hearts and minds’ wins.”
Carter said the community needs a combination of both federally-focused and state- and local-level organizing.
Williams believes national organizing and local organizing can work together. One mustn’t be forced to choose between marching in D.C. and volunteering in Maine or at home.
“I don’t think it is one way or the other — that is a false and artificial choice,” he said. “The folks who are at the march, who have the time to go and volunteer in Maine, will be able to.”
Williams said some D.C. residents had “tossed around the idea” of organizing buses to take willing volunteers to Maine after the march. Equality Maine is organizing community housing for individuals taking part in its “Volunteer Vacation” initiative.
The march, Williams said, is a rallying point for the nation’s community. He says Equality Across America’s longterm organizing goals include supporting and rallying support in each of the 435 districts that comprise the U.S. House of Representatives. In October, activists will be able to march and go to trainings designed to help them build support for equality at home.
“The march is not the destination,” he said. “It is the vehicle to get to these broader organizing goals. A lot of folks are starting to see that, and they are going to change the way they are talking and writing about the march.”
Still, Ryan Wilson, president of the SC Pride Movement, questions Jones’ thoughts on the “old strategy” of state-by-state movement, and creating a new focus on federal action. For Wilson, Jones’ and Equality Across America’s “new strategy” isn’t new at all — federal focus and a lack of local support is par for the course in the work he does in rural, red-state South Carolina.
“It strikes me as odd that whenever our state asks for money or support from national organizations they say, ‘Our focus is on the federal and we’ve gotta get things passed here in D.C., so funding grassroots efforts to change hearts of voters in South Carolina isn’t on the top of our list,’” he said. “Then, we are told by others that we should be doing everything in our home state, because otherwise we’ll never elected fair-minded politicians who can help make a difference here and in the U.S.”
Wilson is proud of the Palmetto State’s capital city — Columbia is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the South. “But the rest of the cities in our state won’t start supporting the cause if we all leave and go up to Washington; we should be on their doorstep where they and the local media will see us,” he said.
The contradiction between varying state and local laws and policies, along with federal statutes, is exactly why Jones is pushing for a federally-focused strategy. That state-by-state action, he argues, still leaves LGBT Americans with second-class citizenship, despite any progress on local levels.
“True equality can only come from federal action,” he said. “If we overturn Prop. 8 in California, we are still second-class citizens. If we win the fight in Maine, we will still be second-class citizens, just as we are still second-class citizens in Iowa. That is a fact, a reality of the structure of our government.”
Like other Carolinas leaders, Ed Farthing, a former co-executive director of Equality North Carolina, says a federal-only strategy is misguided, and that a combination of local, state and federal actions are needed. Even in North Carolina, he says, progress is being made.
“These state actions are crucial to winning over the hearts and minds of people,” he said. “When the federal government says, ‘This is the way it will be,’ and it is mandated, people resent that. It doesn’t become a part of their being; it becomes part of their negativity.”
Jones remains steadfast in his support for a federal movement. He believes the time is now.
“Barack Obama’s election showed us clearly that real change is possible in America. That was a profoundly important election,” he said. “Simultaneously, Prop. 8 showed, particularly our young people, that many of the freedoms and rights we take for granted could be taken away.”
He says there is an “expectation from newer generations who simply aren’t willing to settle for anything less than full equality under the law.”
“I understand where [Jones] is coming from,” Farthing said. “It makes it so easy if you can just push a button at the federal level and make it all happen. It doesn’t work that way. The success of the African-American Civil Rights Movement took 30, 40 or 50 years of work on the local level, by the NAACP and other organizations working to make that political support possible.”
Despite the criticisms — something Jones said he’s come to expect and learned how to live with — the march is happening. Jones says the National Equality March will be a positive step forward for the community. “Movements will grow or die. We should always be looking for strategies that will grow the movement and bring more people into the movement.”
Going to D.C.?
A group of UNC-Charlotte students are hoping to organize carpooling or buses to get people to and from the National Equality March on Oct. 11. For more information or if you are interested in joining them, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is your local group planning on carpooling or organizing buses? Let Q-Notes know and we will post your information with this story online. Email email@example.com or call 704-531-9988, ext. 202.