Letting new voices be heard

July 22, 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, Lonnie Lopez, a member of the recently formed Queer Ally Coalition, describes his experiences organizing in Seattle.

I'M SUPPOSED to talk about our experiences up in Seattle, but I want to mention that Prop 8 hits really close to home for me, because I'm originally from Bakersfield, Calif., about 100 miles south of Fresno. My first gay pride event was about 12 middle-aged people outside the Liberty Bell. I think I was the only one under 30. And about three or four of us had paper bags on our heads because we were afraid of being fired.

But I'm happy to report that on Decision Day this year, they had dozens of people rallying in three different locations against Prop 8. So as I've been told, they're radicalizing.

I moved to Seattle in 2003, and when I saw the movement around marriage equality picking up back then, I started going to rallies and protests. And strangely enough, every rally I went to, I saw the ISO. I kind of figured if these people keep showing up to everything I'm interested in and that I want to fight around, this is the organization I need to be involved with.

Of course, everyone was disappointed when November 4 came around, and in this historical election, when Obama was voted into the White House, all of a sudden, we saw Prop 8 go through.

Opponents of anti-LGBT bigotry mobilize in Seattle against Westboro Baptist Church
Opponents of anti-LGBT bigotry mobilize in Seattle against Westboro Baptist Church (John and Claudine Fisher)

Seattle responded. There was a 21-year-old gay Mormon who'd never been an activist before who pretty much organized his own the demonstration against Prop 8 on November 15. Over the course of a few days, he got some support from the big group in town. They were expecting a few hundred people to show up, and 10,000 people did.

But the weakness coming out of that awesome event was that the only message for people was: "Give us some money, and we'll see you in five months for Lobby Day."

THE GOOD news is that a couple of young queers had kind of gotten more interested, and wanted to take the movement in a political direction. A couple of us started talking and decided to form the Queer Ally Coalition. We organized ourselves as an open, democratic, grassroots coalition that invited everyone who had anything to say--or anybody who just wanted to listen--to come in and build a movement from the ground up.

We have liberals, progressives, socialists and anarchists--I don't think we have any Republicans. But one of the amazing things about the movement right now is that there are a lot of straight people who are not just showing solidarity, but leading and marching with us and getting arrested with us.

We've actively made an effort to include every face in our community. We got tired of seeing the same old faces over and over at every rally, boring us with their monotones. So we've brought in people new to organizing, and people who've never been to protests are now leading protests.

Our first event was January 10--the day of protests against the Defense of Marriage Act around the country. Some of the excitement and hope from the election was still carrying on at that point. A guy brought a huge sign with Obama on it, and the Harvey Milk quote: "You gotta give them hope." People were clearly not ready to go back. We had that march, and it was awesome.

Unfortunately, there was a rash of gay bashings in the neighborhood over a couple month's period. So we said why not have a vigil and march through the community to show people that we're going to stand up to bigots--this is our community, this is our street, this is our neighborhood.

Strangely enough, as we marched past the Egyptian Theater, the movie Milk was showing, and as we got in front of the theater, the doors opened up, and these people came out and saw a real life gay march. And so following chants of "Out of the theater, into the streets," we added a few hundred more people.

ONE OF the points that we wanted to make with this organization is that we didn't want to keep in our own little closet. We went to May Day and marched as an open LGBT-and-supporters contingent in the May Day parade, distributing fliers that explained why LGBT people should support immigrant rights, and why the issues are connected.

Of course, D-Day happened. We pushed for people to get out in the streets, no matter what the decision was. We ended up with about 1,500 people in downtown Seattle at 5:30 p.m., with people driving from Bellingham a couple of hours a way and all over the place.

Unfortunately, it wasn't us organizing it. It was the same old speakers with the same old monotone voices. Our state senator reminded us that we've been disappointed before, we're disappointed now, and we'll be disappointed in the future. And that wasn't exactly what the crowd was interested in hearing.

Luckily, we had a megaphone of our own. When they ended the program after 25 minutes, people were still just getting there, and they were ready to shut it down. One of our members was an Iraq war veteran, and they refused to allow him to speak because he might be a rabble-rouser. So we said, "Thank you very much," and we took over the rally.

We opened up the megaphone, and people just came up and vented. They were disappointed, but they were also pissed off, and they were ready to do something about it. We staged an impromptu march through the streets of downtown Seattle. If you know anything about the Seattle Police Department, you know they're not very friendly. But they came up to us to ask, "So, uh, which way do you guys want to go?"

A few weeks ago, the Westboro Baptist Church and the Phelps gang blessed our city with its presence and their right-wing craziness. The big organizations said we shouldn't don't draw any attention to these people. We said fuck that. And to give you a sense of what's going on, a 19-year-old who just got out of the closet in December got in touch with us to help organize a protest against them. The big groups told us to ignore it, but we had a few hundred people show up to one location where Westboro was at on Sunday.

We marched from one location to the next location, following them. We protested outside of a church, and it was beautiful to see junior high school choir girls flip off the bigots off.

When the Westboro Church came the next day to the local high school that's just down the street from where we live and work, 500 parents and teachers protested against them. I'm happy to report the Westboro Baptist Church got no donations or new members. Nobody even paid attention to them because we were the story.

Right now, we've got a little Prop 8 redux going on in Washington. The strategy for winning marriage equality in Washington over the last few years has been the stagist approach--a few rights here, a few rights next year, and just this past legislative session, they granted everything but marriage. They can't call it marriage, because we have a Defense of Marriage Act in our state.

It's interesting that they've been fighting for everything but marriage. And so the right wing is trying to take back that victory. They're having some kind of referendum where if they get enough signatures, it'll go on the ballot. Unfortunately, the big mainstream organizations are pretty much duplicating the failed strategy from here in California.

We're coming up with a plan for a fightback. We're still developing that. They have a couple weeks to get enough signatures to put it on the ballot. We're organizing a response to that.

Seattle Gay News is one of the oldest gay newspapers in the country, and at first, they were a little iffy about us--like we should "let the older people do it." Now, the editor is coming to our meetings and saying. "Damn, this is awesome." When we said we wanted to put together a community forum, he said, "You want free advertising?" So we're going to put together a community forum to let people who are not professional activists have a say in the direction of the movement.

We have a lot of work ahead of us in the next few months and years. I've been a gay activist for 15 years, and right now, I've never been more excited or more proud to be part of the movement.

Transcription by Meredith Reese.

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