Steve Ralls

Change, Coming from the Heartland

Filed By Steve Ralls | March 09, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: grassroots organizing, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, PFLAG, Terre Haute

During his campaign for the White House, President Obama was often fond of reminding Americans that "change doesn't come from Washington; it comes to Washington." Significant change, he told the country, doesn't usually originate in the halls of Congress, but rises up from the heartland of America, when voters demand their elected leaders do something drastic and change the course of our country and our collective history.

That fundamental lesson, about the power of an effective "community organizer" to usher in change on a national level, may also be a key component of an effective campaign to "turn the corner" on our national debate about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. By understanding that change won't necessarily come from the corridors of power in D.C., but may begin with a shift in the thinking of both blue and red state America, we may be able to build the foundations today that will spell victory for our families tomorrow, when we once again face ballot box battles like Proposition 8 in California or a vote on federal hate crimes legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Indeed, making in-roads in places like North Carolina (where lawmakers are moving forward on an anti-marriage amendment), Illinois (where advocates have been putting in long hours and a lot of energy to establish recognition for same-sex couples) and Indiana (where the legislature has blocked an anti-marriage bill, but where allies fear their one-vote victory could someday disappear) can pay significant dividends for families across the country. And even in California, where some smaller communities almost unanimously supported Proposition 8, there is much community organizing left to be done.

And, as columnist Stephanie Salter points out in this morning's Star Tribune in Terre Haute, Indiana, there is a much-needed grassroots movement that is picking up steam in the weeks and months following the passage of Proposition 8 and other anti-equality initiatives in other states. More and more people in America's heartland, she reports, are beginning to reach out to their neighbors, co-workers, community leaders and clergy by establishing a local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

"It is 2009 in the United States of America, and a young man on his way to a college degree still believes it is funny -- and commendable -- to use his fists like hammers on the faces of homosexuals," she writes, recounting the rhetoric she recently spouted by a young man who publicly bragged about attacking a gay couple.

"Talk about work to do."

That work, she notes, is increasingly being taken up by PFLAGers, who are mobilizing straight allies - in places like Terre Haute and elsewhere in America's heartland - to change the hearts and minds of red state voters and be a critical lifeline for those who often have nowhere else to turn when homophobia rears its head in small town America.

"As one of those straight allies, I have long believed in the power of PFLAG," Salter writes this morning." That is because the organization is based on personal relationships -- familial, collegial, among friends. It is always the personal level at which the most effective consciousness raising occurs."

And in the most unlikely of places, PFLAG chapters are changing the consciousness of our country and planting the seeds that, in the future, could lead to a substantial change in the way voters, and lawmakers, see gay Americans and our families and allies.

Following the passage of Proposition 8, and films like Lifetime's Prayers for BobbyΒΈ which told the true story of a PFLAG mother's journey from rejecting her son to becoming a vocal advocate for gay rights, the organization's Chapter Services Coordinator, Erin Cranford Williams, has reported a noticeable spike in the number of people who have inquired about starting PFLAG chapters.

Many of those chapters are in areas where there is virtually no other voice speaking out for same-sex families, like in Terre Haute, where a new PFLAG chapter is the subject of Salter's column in this morning's paper.

PFLAG chapters like the one in Terre Haute bring together not just activists, but also other community leaders who are instrumental in changing the political and personal landscape for LGBT equality. Salter notes, for example, that the Terre Haute chapter is the brainchild of a local same-sex couple, but has also inspired other community members, including clergy and straight allies, to be part of PFLAG's work.

"Unitarian member Doddie Stone proposed to her church's board that the UU's sponsor the chapter," Salter notes. "Unitarians being 'a welcoming congregation,' the board gave its assent."

"One of the chapter's founding members is David Howard, who taught in Indiana State University's College of Nursing, Health and Human Services, and thoroughly qualifies as one of those 'straight allies,'" the paper reports.

"Raised in Salt Lake City, Howard was in graduate school at Brigham Young University when his father confided he was gay. Although his mother knew, Howard was asked to keep his father's secret from his three younger siblings and the family's friends for several years, until his dad could retire from his BYU job with pension intact. The situation caused tremendous strain on Howard's own marriage."

Howard, Stone and countless others in Terre Haute are founding, and finding, a home in PFLAG.

That home, in turn, becomes a community center for the consciousness change that Salter credits PFLAG for doing.

In Kings County, California, where Proposition 8 passed with by a bigger margin, percentage-wise, than anywhere else in the state, a local PFLAG chapter was recently on the front page of its local newspaper, putting a face on the LGBT community and encouraging their neighbors to come learn about local families who were impacted by the measure's passage.

In Dayton, Ohio, the local PFLAG chapter recently hosted a standing-room-only crowd to hear from actor Ryan Kelley about his work on Prayers for Bobby, and what he learned about the power of PFLAG to change minds and help families cope.

And in Oklahoma City, the local PFLAG chapter made headlines - and doubled the number of people attending its monthly meeting - when it took on State Representative Sally Kern after she called gays a threat worse than terrorism.

Those are all "red state places" many people would not automatically associate with gay rights and big picture change. But, as a community organizer recently reminded us, they are the very places we must look to for change.

As the organizer of PFLAG Terre Haute movingly told Salter, "I can't let those that come after me down. I feel like, now, it's almost my duty. You look at the city of Terre Haute -- there are a lot of families going through what mine is. We all just need some place to be able to relate to each other."

That's change we can believe in, coming right out of America's heartland.

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For those who don't know, Terre Haute is the armpit of Indiana. Even the city's air stinks. It reeks of homophobia and racism. This is the same place where a museum set up by a Holocaust survivor was defaced and burnt.

In Terre Haute's defense, the Holocaust museum was set fire by some whack job from Illinois who was known for doing similar things around the country.

Also, ISU has quietly been one of the most GLBT friendly colleges in the state, it just doesn't get the attention that IU does. Its had a GLBT student club since the 70's and has held "Miss ISU" pageants long before the other campuses started doing it.

I'm not defending Terre Haute but sometimes it gets more of a bad rep than it deserves.