As a note, Torie will have a piece in an upcoming issue of THE NATION on this, I urge you to buy it from your local newstand.
THE NEW POLITICS OF YES:
YES WE CAN…OVERTURN PROP 8
An Open Letter by Torie Osborn November 20, 2008
I write this to help move forward the conversation in the wake of Prop 8. It is a loving work in progress. I dedicate it to my friends who died of AIDS and who are shouting from The Beyond: Do not miss this opportunity to forge transformation from this defeat. Do not forget us! In particular, I honor Ken Dawson, Connie Norman, Marlon Riggs, Rand Schrader, Mark Kostopolous, Paul Monette, Tom Stoddard, and Gabe Kruks. They never forgot what really matters: love and justice.
1. DEFEAT REQUIRES HONESTY, HUMILITY AND LONGTERM MOVEMENT-BUILDING STRATEGY
Learning from others
When the devastating violence of 1992’s civil unrest scorched communities of color in Los Angeles, a phoenix rose up from those ashes. Even with formidable external forces tearing them apart, forward-looking Asian, African-American and Latino leaders showed extraordinary leadership: Rather than devolve into infighting or finger-pointing, they took a clear-eyed look at their own failures and vowed to do things completely differently. “We have an urgent need to think long-term,” were the words that reverberated, and a fundamental paradigm shift took place. Vowing to move beyond short term and fragmented efforts, diverse leaders in diverse neighborhoods made an intentional, coordinated plan: to retool existing groups or found brand new organizations dedicated to long-term community organizing for real power in their respective neighborhoods; and, to forge an ongoing multi-ethnic network of trusting relationships. Not unlike the Right after the bitter defeat of Goldwater in 1964, they dedicated themselves to building the infrastructure of a serious new social movement. As a result, quietly, effectively, since 1992, LA has birthed a vibrant economic and racial justice movement that is building neighborhood power, incubating leaders for political office, and helping move a regional social reform agenda for labor and immigrant rights and economic equity. Fifteen years later, LA has: progressives of color as Mayor, CA Assembly Speaker, and new Supervisor; a vibrant set of organizations that network and strategize across ethnic lines; and, a pipeline of young leaders who will make history for decades to come. Progressive ideas that seemed preposterous in 1992 -- such as the living wage and environmental justice -- are mainstream.
That transformation started with humility and self-responsibility – and an eye on the prize of longterm movement-building for justice. What could have devolved into permanent divisions instead moved from pain to power.
I have seen nothing similar in the LGBT community since the bitter victory of the homophobic Proposition 8. Nobody has accepted responsibility for failure and stepped up to lead a coherent, community- wide discussion of where to from here. As a result there is too much finger pointing, and a startling loss of credibility for established LGBT organizations and leaders. Without a humble and truth-telling self-assessment, the energetic protest and proliferation of new young activists may well evaporate, or be too narrowly contained within one single – if exciting -- strand of the LGBT movement: web activism. Or, inaccurate analysis will become set in stone and lead toward division rather than powerful motion forward.
2. WHY WE WILL WIN NEXT TIME: BEATING PROP 8 IS A TRUE CAUSE OF THE NEW OBAMA ERA OF PROGRESSIVE PATRIOTISM
The nation-wide eruption of anger over Prop 8’s homophobic victory – at the same historic moment Connecticut granted marriage equality -- is the first major wave of social activism of the new Obama era. Make no mistake about it, if progressive allies and the LGBT community do our homework, we will reverse Prop 8. Yes, we got outgunned pretty spectacularly on Proposition 8 by that big scary Mormon Church and the lies of the Right wing, BUT the world has suddenly and radically shifted toward justice and equality and the Right is rapidly losing power. Feel the zeitgeist! Listen to how silly Newt Gingrich sounds when he talks about the new “gay fascism”. View Jon Stewart take on Bill O’Reilly and tell him marriage equality is the next great cause. Watch Keith Obermann passionately promote our cause!
Wake up, LGBT America! Equality and justice is on the ascendancy and we will win. Today, we have faith in the courts – and the public outcry creates a climate that helps with the legal challenge -- but if the CA Supreme Court fails us, we will go back to the ballot box in California in two or four years, and we will win. If we look with clear eyes and learn well from our own mistakes, and take a few pages from the playbook of our own history, as well as that of our allies in communities of color, there is no doubt marriage equality will be achieved in fairly short order, at least in California, which legalized inter-racial marriage twenty years before the country as a whole.
Full disclosure: I wrote sacrificially large checks, but did not work on No on 8. I was one of thousands of people who felt called by history to drop my life and join the Obama campaign fulltime for the last two months before the election. I spent 24/7 working to help move the army of nearly 15,000 California volunteers to western battleground states, primarily Nevada – which we turned blue by an amazing 12 points. My primary passion was working shoulder to shoulder with the most amazing team of (mostly) women of all colors and backgrounds to do the all-important job of getting African American and Latino to Nevada for voter-to-voter outreach.
Occasionally, I suffer from self-doubt: Would I have chosen to pour all my energies into Obama if I had known Prop 8 would lose narrowly, and Obama would win Nevada by such huge margins? I don’t know, but I honor my time with the Obama campaign as a glorious and instructive experience. On that last GOTV weekend, with 25 others on my team, I walked the dusty streets of suburban Henderson and rural Boulder City, Nevada. I spent election night with a few of my team and a thousand strangers at the Hotel Rio in Las Vegas. We cried hard with Jesse; we danced harder with the Kenyons. Victory shared with several billion world citizens was sweeter than I have ever known. I will not let the homophobes take that from me, and, in fact, my experience on the Obama campaign is what gives me huge hope.
Halleluliah!: We are Not Alone – at last!
I returned from Obamaland in Nevada to the implosion and righteous rage in my own community in LA and across the country. Immediately, I learned the first lesson I need to share: For the first time in our history as an LGBT community fighting the Right: We are not alone. I remember the bitterness of No on 64 in 1986 – fighting the evil LaRouche initiative to quarantine People with AIDS: we couldn’t get ANY nongay organization to endorse us besides our steady ally, the ACLU. Today, we have an army of straight allies who are just as outraged as we are and who have vowed to help us reverse this decision. Thursday night after election day, our LA Obama team had our victory celebration and, with a heavy heart, I drove to Silver Lake to the party – my spirit staying in Westwood with the protesters surrounding the Mormon Church – but wanting to see my Obama campaign sisters and brothers, my new friends and tribe. I still cry when I recall the love and solidarity that poured toward me that night about Prop 8. To a person, the Obama staff and volunteers I spoke with, a majority Latino and African American, mostly nongay, told me to count on them in the next steps in beating Prop 8. And then they showed up at the City Hall protest November 15. The world has turned; even more than those who endorsed No on 8 – greatly increased from previous battles -- we have a critical mass of newly empowered and passionate allies for justice, fired up and ready to go! As one new Obama friend put it: “Sister, you got next!” Those who fear that African American and Latino voters are permanently against us are flat wrong: if we do our footwork, all the signs point to changed minds and hearts in the near future (see: “Where to From Here” section). Change is in the air!
I have emerged from immersion in the Obama movement knowing that it’s a new day in America: a new progressive patriotism is on the rise that suddenly makes the Right a throwback. It won’t happen automatically; it will require hard work, but a new spirit is rising. “Respect/Empower/Include” was the mantra of the Obama campaign, and it means everyone. What a delicious irony that the first major issue that calls the question of the new era of change is the freedom for gays and lesbians to marry! Remember that this issue was blamed by many Democrats for Kerry’s loss four years ago.
3. WHY WE SHOULD HAVE WON: WE KNOW HOW TO BEAT THE RIGHT
Last week, I saw the must-see film, Gus Van Zant’s MILK, and was brought back thirty years to the No on 6 campaign against the Briggs initiative that would have fired gay teachers. The ugly homophobic words of messianic homophobes Anita Bryant and John Briggs were the same words we heard from the YES on 8 folks, only the Right has gotten more clever over its three decades in power: there isn’t one celebrity spokesperson, and they wrap the package in a happy-yellow family picture. But the themes were eerily similar: we threaten their children, we threaten their religion. And, yes, we’ve come a long way when we are fighting for the right to marry as opposed to defending the right of gay schoolteachers to work. But, the film inspired me to speak out, because I believe in my heart that we could have beaten Prop 8 had we studied our own history. 30 years ago was a different time, a time of widespread social activism on the progressive side; organizing and coalition-building was the norm, and the latest human rights movement – ours -- learned how. We came from a 25-point deficit to beat Briggs because we did exactly in 1978 what Barack Obama did this year to win the presidency: Build BOTH a professionally run, disciplined, topnotch top-down campaign AND an inclusive huge grassroots movement that engaged every single person possible in activist support.
In 1978, I was immersed in the lesbian-feminist ‘women’s music’ world and helped organize an amazing 10-city Holly Near/Meg Christian concert tour that reached 50,000 people. The day after their concerts, Holly and Meg led training sessions to inspire and educate hundreds of women to become, yes, community organizers. There were a zillion other ways to plug into No on 6, and, as a result, the gay and lesbian community came together on No on 6 in a way that presaged fighting AIDS later. (Historical note: at the time gay men and lesbians were living on separate planets, as you’ll see in MILK where you meet exactly one lesbian although in truth a huge and vibrant lesbian community lived then in the Mission, out of the camera lens focused only on Harvey and the Castro.) Together, we built a grassroots movement the likes of which had never been seen before in CA; thousands of people came “Out of the closet and into the streets”, pouring into organizing meetings in bars and coffeehouses and feminist bookstores and newly emerging community centers and clinics that were our new home base.
But even that mass grassroots movement would not have defeated the right wing’s vicious campaign without the professional political consultant, David Mixner, who got Ronald Reagan to do a 30-second radio ad that ran the last two weeks of the campaign. This year, the No on 8 equivalent of that Reagan ad designed to reach the “moveable middle” was Barack Obama. In one of the most puzzling decisions of the No on 8 campaign, Obama opposed Prop 8 early on, but the campaign failed to use it until the last days of the campaign when it was too late. When Obama’s CA campaign director asked me in early October why Barack’s face wasn’t plastered all over mailers and TV and radio – which might have made a big difference in Black and Brown communities that overwhelmingly voted for him -- I posed the question immediately to a friend in the campaign’s inner circle. I was told Barack’s position was “too confusing” (he says he opposes gay marriage). Confusing? He gave us the endorsement early; moreover, it was his ONLY endorsement in CA, despite pleas from other initiative campaigns. I’ve heard people blame the Obama campaign for sucking money and people out of the struggle against 8. And I’ve heard too much ugly anger at the Black community. But take responsibility, folks – you had Barack’s endorsement and you didn’t use it. That left it wide open for the YES folks to manipulate Obama’s position and add yet another lie -- that he supported Prop 8. That was a possibly fatal error and we cannot blame the Morman Church or African-Americans for it.
One final critique of No ON 8: Never again should our EDs run our political campaigns! Next time, let’s engage our community’s nonprofit leaders as grass roots leaders, mobilizing their membership, staff and constituencies, and NOT as professional political campaign operatives. I’m a four-time former Executive Director and I believe in longterm institution-building and the need for excellence in EDs. But as one who was also Southern CA Campaign Coordinator for No on 64 (the 1986 AIDS quarantine struggle), believe me, the skill-set of a nonprofit executive is NOT the same as that required to run a political campaign. We need to hire the best, toughest political campaign consultant and let them go, not constrain them with a web of bureaucracy: No on 8 had a big committee of 93, then a smaller committee of 25 and, finally, an “executive committee” of seven representatives of nonprofit groups. The tragedy is that this unwieldy structure precluded BOTH a topflight political campaign and a powerful grassroots campaign – that is, the campaign structure itself diverted energies from a real organizing campaign.
API Equality: Effective Grassroots Organizing
There was one standout model of effective grassroots community organizing in the LGBT community this year; it was part of the No on 8 campaign, but it began autonomously and was a three-year effort: “API Equality.” This campaign should be closely studied as a template for future efforts. Volunteer driven, collaborative, muscular, inclusive and savvy, it engaged and leveraged community-based nonprofits trusted in their neighborhoods and ethnic communities, political allies, diverse ethnic media, and fearlessly confronted homophobic religious groups. API Equality reached their ‘moveable middle’ through engaging allies and putting the human face of LGBT Asian Pacific Islanders front and center. The result? 51% NO vote despite fierce homophobic resistance. Let’s celebrate this success and learn from it!
4. WHERE TO FROM HERE? FROM PROTEST TO POWER
To move from protest to power and guarantee success in the courts or at the ballot box, if it comes to that, and -- most importantly-- to advance the LGBT and progressive movements, several things are necessary:
I. ANALYSIS: A fearless and thorough analysis of what went wrong and right with the No on 8 campaign. Several of the funders are planning on hiring an independent consultant to review the campaign and the results should be made public when they are complete, probably not for several months. Meanwhile, the more smart analysis rooted in data and experience, and pointing toward the future, the better!
II. STRATEGIC CONVENINGS – NOW! We are in a “movement moment” of high energy and new activism. It will not last. Most critical is to ride the wave and try to put something in place that will last: new relationships, banks of names and funding for when we know what the strategy is. And STRATEGY. We need to blog and twitter, yes, but also to convene, retreat, hold summits, strategize – in person as well as online. A few of the good ideas I’ve heard for convenings that should happen as soon as possible:
a. A People of Color Civil Rights/Equal Rights Summit: Gay and straight African American, Latino and API leaders having a summit and together learning from what worked and what didn’t and intentionally forming a path forward could be very powerful.
b. Interfaith and religious organizing: Allies from faith communities having conversations with YES on 8 church leaders to listen well and at least begin the conversation.
c. A cross-generation summit: The young, new LGBT net-organizers holding a meeting with longtime activists who hold many years of movement history and exchanging ideas and questions.
d. Movement infrastructure and leadership The new activist groups meeting with existing GLBT nonprofit leaders and learning what movement infrastructure exists and how it can be retooled to engage the new skills and talents of younger, new leaders coming up. There may be a shakeout in the months ahead: new organizations might emerge; old organizations might decline – what has power and impact and sustainability remains completely up in the air. (As does the new question, by the way, of the LGBT groups’ ongoing relationship with progressive allies: labor, feminist, civil rights and civil liberties, community-based people-of-color organizations? Who holds and nurtures those relationships on behalf of the LGBT movement?)
III. PRIORITIZE LONG-TERM COMMUNITY ORGANIZING IN LATINO AND AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITIES.
Again, we have a superb model in what API Equality did in the Asian communities, over a protracted three-year period. We need to study it, and look at how it can be successfully translated into the African American and Latino communities, given material differences in funding and nonprofit infrastructure, and the fact that the Right has targeted and organized brilliantly against us over 20 years, particularly in the black community. (I recommend Dee Mosbacher and Sylvia Rhue’s film “All God’s Children” about the Black church and homophobia).
NEWS FLASH!: The good news in LA – central to winning statewide, remember – is that the Liberty Hill Foundation, whose credibility in African American and Latino communities goes back decades, has just made an institutional decision to prioritize funding and training for the next several years on organizing and coalition building on marriage equality in Black and Brown communities. All who want to see that succeed should be writing checks now to www.libertyhill.org. They have a fundraiser December 4 to support these efforts; see their website.
1V. LEVERAGE THE NEW PROGRESSIVE COALITION. If we are indeed in a new era of change, then equality is nonnegotiable. Progressive patriotism is ascendant. We have to tirelessly and fearlessly leverage the Obama justice era and deepen the new progressive coalition. From what I understand, the No on 8 campaign raised huge funds from unions, but never formally asked the formidable labor movement, at least in LA, for its real muscle – peer to peer phoning and canvassing; next time must be different. In addition, many of the networks of grassroots folks that scaled up to elect Obama stand ready to be mobilized – while the Obama campaign and the DNC decide how that grassroots power is to be mobilized, there are lots of informal networks of volunteers that we can tap into. Best positioned to link to the progressive online network is the Courage Campaign – they are already linking with MoveOn.org and with key labor leaders, are already hiring organizers and net-organizing to capture the people and dollars that are ready to beat 8. www.couragecampaign.com
5. CONCLUSION: THE NEW POLITICS OF ‘YES WE CAN’
The world turned on November 4. A new movement is taking shape. I was immersed in it for two months and from my 40 years of activist experience, I can tell you the following:
* The Obama movement is about finding commonality and shared purpose: E Pluribus Unum. Both pragmatic and idealistic, it’s rooted in core patriotic values of democracy, equality and civic engagement. Most of all, this new movement looks at the positive and not the negative traits of our schitzophrenic American history, valuing above all the jagged journey toward justice – the progressive American story of ever-expanding “liberty and justice for all”. It brushes aside the culture of identity politics and its tendency for competing victimization: its motto is “YES WE CAN”, not “I’M OPPRESSED”. It has faith that people can change if you treat them with respect; its stated mantra is “Respect, Empower, Include.” There is no place for inequality in this new era, but after 30 years of Right wing power, America has some catching up to do. Both homophobia and economic inequality have been hallmarks of the past thirty years of Right wing dominance in America, so we will need to do some work to align our different struggles for justice – economic and equal-rights. But it will happen, with faith and hard work. The winds of change are at our back, and when my Obama-campaign friends vow solidarity on marriage equality and defeating Prop 8, I believe them. There is a new and diverse army of supporters out there just waiting to be tapped, for us. Just as we will need to stand in solidarity to restore equal opportunity to economic security and achieve racial justice as we go forward. All in the name of a shared commitment America’s highest ideals.
At last Saturday’s rally, my longtime friend, former boss, and a true brother in solidarity for full and complete equality for LGBT people, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, gave a gorgeous speech about marriage equality that you can find all over YouTube. It included these words: “In the eyes of the law and the eyes of God, THOU SHALT NOT DISCRIMINATE.. .…This is not just about protest and this is not just about the internet. Let us go back to our homes and into our neighborhoods and start this conversation and take it to the shuls and to the churches and to every civic institution and to City Halls and to the Halls of Congress and all the way to the White House…..”
If we do this, in very short order, we will beat Prop 8. Not to mention help forge a new American movement for democracy and equality that cannot be stopped.
YES WE CAN. SI SE PUEDE!
Torie Osborn is a longtime social activist and former executive director of LA’s Gay and Lesbian Center and Liberty Hill Foundation, as well as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She recently served in Mayor Villaraigosa’s cabinet as Senior Advisor on poverty and homelessness policy, as well as liaison to philanthropy. She is currently a writer and independent consultant to foundations and social-change nonprofits.