They can’t separate us

July 21, 2009

From the moment that news spread of the passage of California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, a new movement for civil rights and equality began to stir.

Instead of reacting to this Election Day defeat with pessimism, LGBT people and their allies have been organizing and mobilizing for marriage equality with renewed confidence. The movement has spread from its strongest areas of support in California cities to rural areas of the state, and to other states across the country.

At the Socialism 2009 conference in San Francisco, four voices from the struggle spoke out to a packed audience in the Women's Building on July 3.

Here, David McElhatton, a member of the group One Struggle, One Fight, who helped organize civil disobedience in San Francisco after the announcement that Prop 8 had been upheld, talks about the importance of solidarity in the movement.

I'M HERE representing One Struggle, One Fight. For those of you who don't know about us, we believe in fighting for full equality for LGBT people, for equal protection under the law, in all 50 states. Really, I think turning this into a global human rights issue.

We believe that we have to build bridges with other communities and other struggles. We believe that we have to look for connections, and make connections with other minorities and oppressed people. We believe that direct action, civil disobedience and community mobilization are indispensable, and must be employed if we expect to win or make any progress at all.

I'd like to see a show of hands of who else here was arrested with us at Van Ness and Grove on May 26? I can honestly say that I think that was the proudest day of my life.

When we began organizing, we were hoping for maybe 20 or 30 people to get arrested with us. The Friday before, we thought we could maybe push it and get 40 to 60. I was shocked when we ran out into the intersection, and I reached over to grab the hand of someone from One Struggle, One Fight, and there were 20 to 30 people between me and them--people I had never met before, people I had never seen at a meeting. We had to squish to fit everybody into that intersection.

Protesters take over an intersection in San Francisco after the California Supreme Court announces it is upholding Prop 8
Protesters take over an intersection in San Francisco after the California Supreme Court announces it is upholding Prop 8 (Josh On | SW)

There were several things that stood out that day. One was that the group was so diverse--our straight and cisgender allies were there in full force, and willing to get arrested for us and stand up for our rights. We had people from every religion, from every race, different creeds, different backgrounds, different economic statuses--all there for the same purpose of fighting for the rights of queer people.

And that was completely the opposite of how the No on 8 campaign was run before the election--with one very specific image of white, upper-middle-class, gay people presented. The protest completely dispelled the myth that there's some kind of war between the queer community, and people of color and people of faith.

We had Robert Moore, who's a member of One Struggle, One Fight, and who is queer and a Mormon--and I had my friends from Utah who are Mormons call and say that they had seen pictures of our action, and of Robert arrested in his missionary tags, and how much that had meant to them as people fighting for inclusion in their church. One thing I love about One Struggle, One Fight is that I, as a diehard atheist, can sit next to Robert, who's a Mormon, and we can fight for this together.

The other thing that really stuck out for me was that as a trans person, getting arrested was very different than it was for all the cisgendered folks who were arrested that day, and for the trans folks whose paperwork matches their identity.

I made the decision that day not to bring my ID with me because even though the San Francisco Police Department has some different infrastructure set up to deal with trans people, I didn't feel comfortable handing that piece of plastic over to the cops and expecting that they would still validate my identity.

The cops tried to talk me out of getting arrested. Then I was informed that if I was arrested, I would be kept separately from everyone else. I would be booked separately, I would be taken in a cop car by myself, and I would be arrested last, away from everybody else--which is exactly what happened.

There really aren't words for how completely alienating that experience was. Their argument was that as a trans person, if I was put in a paddy wagon with a bunch of men, I would be at risk of rape. And honestly, I felt a hell of a more at risk of rape in a cop car by myself with two cops, then in a paddy wagon full of the men who stood beside me, and who held my hands on that blockade.

But more than anything else, the images and words that are going to stay with me from that day are when I was brought in, and they had us in these kind of pens out back at the police station.

THEY BROUGHT me out by myself and led me over to this little makeshift pen. And instantly, Kip Williams--who was supposed to be speaking for One Struggle, One Fight here tonight--ran up to the side and yelled at the cop who had me, "You can't keep him separate because he's trans." Suddenly, I had all of the activists I had been arrested with at the sides of their pens, and yelling at these cops, standing in solidarity with me, and sending words of encouragement to me the entire time.

As a trans person--as a queer trans man--I have spent a lot of my life feeling very, very alone. And I felt less alone that day than I ever have.

That day was momentous for several reasons. I've been involved in lots of different queer activism. Before I moved to San Francisco, I was involved in much more mainstream organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Equality California, and was constantly having to deal with trans-phobia in those organizations. This was the first time organizing in any type of queer setting where I didn't have to deal with that--where I didn't have to constantly correct people on my pronouns, or ask them not to use the word "tranny" in reference to me.

So what that day signaled to me--and what One Struggle, One Fight and other organizations like SAME signaled to me--is that trans people have a place at the table and a place in this movement. Attitudes are changing about who we are and what we are and what we're doing here.

Second, I think that the attitude of queer people and our straight and cisgendered allies has changed drastically, because instead of having 20 people arrested with us that day, we had 200 arrested. Which means that people's attitude when the decision came through was not to go home and complain about it over the Internet--it was to get in the streets and fight back instantly. There was no break and no pause. Our reaction was instant, and it was widespread and massive, and it got national attention.

We definitely had to do a lot of convincing to get people to participate with us. The most common argument I heard against civil disobedience was that it wouldn't matter--it wouldn't change anybody's mind, it wasn't going to change the minds of anybody on the Supreme Court, it wasn't going to change the minds of the bigots.

And you know, that's true. It probably didn't change those people's minds. But it changed how I felt about myself as a queer person. I bet it changed the lives of the folks who participated that day. I think it changed the lives of my friends in West Virginia, who saw our action on the Internet and instantly called me. Or my friends in Utah--it gave those people hope.

We all know the famous Harvey Milk quote, "You have to give them hope." If we can give hope to our community--if we can prevent our community from committing suicide at the age of 10, like young gay boys seem to be prone to do these days because they're being bullied at school--then we can win this.

We've been too polite for too long. We can't be afraid to step on toes anymore, we can't be afraid to ruffle feathers, we have to get in people's faces. Really good behavior means staying in the closet, and I don't think that anyone here is willing to do that.

I want to thank you all for listening to me and thank you all who participated in civil disobedience. I hope you all come to the next One Struggle, One Fight meeting, or sign up on our e-mail list at, and thank you so much for being here.

Transcription by Matthew Beamesderfer.

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