An LGBT movement takes shape

January 23, 2009

AS ATTACKS on the Seattle lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community have escalated, young activists have begun making news with their energy and fresh ideas.

With a renewed sense of outrage and urgency, the possibility exists for the creation of a sizable grassroots organization of activists organizing around a range of issues affecting the LGBT community. Large questions remain, however, about the type of struggle that will most effectively combat homophobia in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8, California's anti-same sex marriage law.

Twenty-one-year-old Kyler Powell--a gay Mormon--had never organized or even attended a protest before spearheading the anti-Prop 8 march in Seattle. Due largely to Facebook and word of mouth, it drew nearly 10,000. The turnout was a testament not just to the fierce opposition to the second-class citizenship of gays and lesbians, but to the willingness of many outside the gay community to take action.

Unfortunately the event program itself--controlled by the Democratic Party-led Equal Rights Washington--silenced any militant response, refusing to address issues of homophobia because it might cause speakers, many of who were Democratic state and local officials, to think twice about appearing. And despite the large attendance, no grassroots organizing took place; instead, the crowd was told to wait on any action until the following March, for a lobbying day.

Less than one month later, the University of Washington's newspaper, the Daily, published a fiercely homophobic editorial in support of Prop 8, including a graphic of a man and a sheep. The author compared homosexuality to polygamy, incest and bestiality, and called it "a problem that needs to be dealt with."

In response, freshman Kyle Rapinian and friends organized a rally on the final day of classes, with hundreds of students gathering as a result of the Facebook group "Students for a Hate Free Daily." As with the previous demonstration, the outrage that drew these numbers was dampened by the prevailing ideas of today's LGBT movement. One school official, for example, defended the right to hate speech to mixed responses from the crowd.

Frustrated with the inability to express their outrage (words like "outrage" and hate were stricken from all official literature in favor of more "positive" message), radical activists began to organize outside the mainstream channels. Chanan Suarez Diaz, president of the Seattle Chapter of Iraq Veterans Against War, and Eli Steffen, an activist working in youth empowerment through the arts, put out a call for interested people to join the struggle against homophobia.

The first meeting brought together both new and more experienced activists who began to organize for a local demonstration as part of the National Call to Action to Repeal DOMA on January 10. In the weeks that followed, the group did explicit outreach to communities generally kept from the stage at local protests, including youth, transgender people, drag queens, and queers of color. By the time of the January 10 protest, the group included veterans, immigrants, straight people new to LGBT activism, and transgender people.

ALL OF this has occurred against the backdrop of an alarming rise in hate crimes, in particular against LGBT people.

The Seattle Police Department has come under increased criticism for underreporting hate crimes against LGBT people, including four men who attacked two men, one in drag, calling them "faggots." The Seattle Times reported last summer that from July to November 2006, police had no record of hate crimes. But auditors uncovered six reports that had not been forwarded to the Bias Crimes Coordinator (a detective who investigates and logs such reports in a database) and think there are more to be found.

The FBI reports that the number of hate crimes in Washington state increased from 177 in 2006 to 195 in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available. Thirty-nine victims were targeted because of their real or perceived sexual orientation in 2007.

In the days leading up to the DOMA protest, the attacks on the LGBT community took a shocking turn when an anonymous letter was sent to 11 gay and lesbian bars and the alternative newspaper The Stranger in the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood threatening patrons. All received the identical warning: "I have in my possession approximately 67 grams of ricin with which I will indiscriminately target at least five of your clients."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, ricin poisoning can produce vomiting and diarrhea, hallucinations, seizures, and blood in the urine and can be fatal. The Seattle Police Department and the FBI are currently investigating.

THE MARCH and rally on January 10 brought together nearly 100 people and organizations such as the United People's Coalition, the January 20 Inauguration Day Walkout and Rally Committee, the International Socialist Organization, and the Bend It Collective.

Suarez Diaz spoke of the absurdity of gay and lesbian soldiers fighting and dying to "bring democracy" to Iraq and Afghanistan while regarded treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Mike Andrews of Pride at Work argued for the importance of the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act in improving the lives of all working people, regardless of marital status. Icelandic singer and songwriter Thor got the crowd dancing, and queer spoken word artist Amber Flame gave a sensual performance of her piece "Church Kids."

Kelly Morgan, a young straight woman who was inspired by the November protests against Prop 8 to organize for LGBT rights, gave her first public speech arguing "Straight people need to know that it is okay to get involved, and to encourage your friends to get involved, in the gay rights movement...We need to stand with them in solidarity."

In the months to come, the dominant LGBT groups will need to be challenged on their conservatism. The initial response of organizers with Join The Impact was to keep the "message" of the January 10 protest "positive" and to refuse to publicly acknowledge the ricin threats against the community because "these types of people love attention."

This position could not be more at odds with the response of the targets of the threats themselves. The bar owners and their supporters organized a pub crawl, in which thousands of people, including city council members, visited the affected bars, to show solidarity in the attacks on the community's cultural institutions. The LGBT movement needs leadership that argues for the need to stand up to and fight back against attacks on the community and to not protect the rights of bigots.

If the marriage equality movement, and the struggle for LGBT rights in general, are to win, the LGBT community in Washington needs to honestly assess its strengths and weaknesses, its victories and failures. New strategies and tactics will have to be argued and debated. Most importantly, the LGBT community itself and their straight allies will need to become self-conscious organizers in a movement whose current bureaucratic leadership all too often substitutes itself for an entire civil rights movement.

With the state facing a budget deficit in the billions, schools facing closure and funding cuts, the threat of city funds being diverted from social services to build a new jail, and Boeing's lay off 4,500 workers, LGBT people may hear that their rights might have to be put on the back burner while the city and state deal with "more pressing" issues. To counter this, LGBT rights activists will need to develop stronger ties to labor and other civil rights activists and broaden the struggle to include more and more of the hopeful and energized thousands who've taken to the streets in recent months.
Jason Farbman and Lonnie Lopez, Seattle

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