Some 380 people gathered in Somerville Boston in a Unitarian church throughout the weekend of March 26-28 for the conference, titled “LGBT Rights: Making An Impact.” The conference was organized locally by Join the Impact MA, GLSEN Mass., the Cambridge Welcoming Ministries, and Equality Across America (EAA). EAA is the national network of grassroots activists formed out of the National Equality March that took place in Washington on October 2009. This march was the first national march in Washington, D.C. for LGBT rights since the Millennium March ten years ago–On October 11, 200,000 people gathered outside of the White House firmly demanding full civil equality for LGBT people in all states.
The speakers of the March in October included human rights activist Cleve Jones who worked alongside Harvey Milk and who founded the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Julian Bond former chair person of the NAACP who stood with Martin Luther King in 1963, and performer Lady Gaga who spoke of the connection between LGBT rights, misogyny and sexism in the music industry, amongst many others. This emerging force was sparked by the storm of protest in reaction to the victory of the Proposition 8 gay marriage ban in California. The demands arising out of this new national movement are set even higher than just same-sex marriage rights–it is demanding full equality for LGBT people in all matters governed by civil law, in all 50 states.
The conference in Boston was a leap forward for this movement that developed nationally but had yet to gather regionally since last fall’s National Equality March. The workshops addressed some of the most salient concerns of the LGBT movement today, including the need to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy and uphold the defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Central to this struggle also is the support of the passage of ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation in the work place. ENDA was first introduced 36 years ago and despite the fact that 89 percent of Americans today support its passage, it has not yet passed. Al Riccio, a senior at Southern Connecticut State University expressed the residing sentiment at the conference. “It is ridiculous that we should still be waiting when the majority of the country agrees that we should have our rights.” In 38 states, it’s legal to fire or not hire someone because they’re transgender, and in 29 states if they’re gay, lesbian or bisexual. Every day, millions of LGBT workers face a choice: remain in the closet on the job, or come out and face legal harassment, discrimination or termination.
Integrating lessons from the history of LGBT activism and other social movements into the context of today was an important theme throughout. One of the speakers in a workshop titled, ‘Radical History LGBT’, Gerry Scoppettuolo spoke of the lesson he learned from the successful long-term boycott of Coors beer in the 70’s. In 1977 Coors beer was leading union busting in Colorado in tandem to funding the new right, a source of aggression against LGBT, and women’s rights organizations. Harvey Milk and his supporters joined the Teamsters in a boycott against the beer–Coors beers were emptied on the streets and removed first from 87 gay bars in San Francisco, and eventually from many more in California. When the Briggs initiative, Proposition 6 arose, the measure that would ban gay and lesbian teachers in California, the Teamsters joined Harvey Milk in successfully banning the proposition. The collaboration between groups was what allowed for their causes to be so successful, a lesson to be taken for all forms of activism.
From the topics covered in workshops and the diversity within the participants, it is evident that the character of the current LGBT struggle for equality, is multiracial and young as well conscious of the importance of transgender rights. Gunner Scott, director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, expressed the need for transgender issues to be at the heart of the movement, “The movement cannot speak for transgender people, it has to speak with them,” he said. Activists discussed regional actions for transgender rights, including mobilizations to the annual New England Trans United March in Northampton, Mass., which will take place in September 2010.
The sense of the conference was strongly centered on the need to not just stand against LGBT rights, but also against all forms of oppression. Poet and activist Staceyann Chin performed a poem where she spoke of her dislike for fragmented activism, “fuck you for crying for homophobia while you exploit the desperation of undocumented immigrants to clean your hallways,” she said, “bathe your children, cook your dinner for less than you and I spend on our tax deductible lunch. I want to scream out loud,” she began to scream, “all oppression is connected you dick! At the heart of every radical action in history stood the dikes who were feminists, the-anti racists who were gay rights activists, the men who believed being vulnerable could only make them stronger.” Expressing the necessity for the LGBT movement to put issues of racism, sexism and systemic inequality at the forefront, she received the longest standing ovation of the weekend.
Veteran activist Tom Barbera, founder of LGBT labor organization Pride at Work, spoke at the opening panel of being reinvigorated by the influx of young people in the movement, “When I look at this audience,” he said, “I see youth and I see progress.”
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On Sunday, 80 activists gathered to discuss next steps for the movement. While there was no formal national coalition formed, over 80 activists signed up to be part of EAA, and activists agreed for the need to act locally, as well as nationally. City-wide organizing meetings in Boston, New York City and Northampton will take place in the coming weeks to plan for a national day of action coinciding with Harvey Milk Day on May 22.
Supporting the spirit of the conference as a whole, Al Riccio stated, “We can’t just take things in bits and pieces. We need full equality now.” Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism and EAA interim board member, echoed the sentiment and expressed the need to build a national movement with coordinated actions, saying, “Consciousness is with us, but consciousness doesn’t change policies. Movements do. If we want to fight national bigotry, we need a national movement.”