Editors' Note: Guest blogger Rea Carey is the Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
The National Equality March held in Washington, D.C., last weekend resonated and refreshed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and our straight allies with new energy and new momentum for progressive and positive change as thousands gathered to demand action on our equality agenda. With our feet, signs and voices, we recommitted ourselves to act on behalf of LGBT aspirations for full legal equality.
Yet, even in the midst of this uplifting display of dedication to our cause and solidarity among LGBT people and straight allies, a peculiar narrative played out in both mainstream and community media: that our movement has become more divided. A "split" is now said to pit our grassroots activists against our organizational activists. According to some, the National Equality March revealed this split because the march was organized by grassroots activists, working independently of our national groups and utilizing social networking tools, fueled in large part by the defeats last November and the frustratingly slow pace of change at the federal level.
Really? A split?
I participated in the weekend's events and march until the very last speaker rallied the crowd, and while different speakers had a different take on the matter, what I heard was a unity of purpose, unity of goals, and unity of mindset. Every speaker and every marcher stepped forth for our overarching demand of full equality and full respect for all of us.
The Narrative of Division
The message I take from the National Equality March? If we want change and progress, we must all take the energy of the day, roll up our sleeves, head home and continue the work. For some of us, home is a small town in the middle of the country that has not seen a speck of LGBT protections. For others, it is a state where some, but not all, protections exist. And, yes, for some of us home is Washington, D.C., where we are fighting for marriage equality, for a real vote in Congress, for resources to fight alarming HIV/AIDS rates along with fighting for federal legislation that will improve the lives of LGBT people across this country.
A split? That's not what we are seeing in Washington state, Maine or Kalamazoo, Mich., where our staff and others who have decades of experience and activism under their belts are working day and night, side by side, with people for whom this is their first campaign. Just as some of us drove across the country for the inspiration of the National Equality March, others have driven across the country to join the grassroots efforts to protect and defend our equality in places and spaces where hard-won victories will lift us all.
The narrative of division playing out in the media ignores the history of our past national marches and the lesson that every social justice movement needs multiple tactics, insiders and outsiders, grassroots pressure and, when it comes to legislation, those who can work the halls of Congress. Each of our movement's past marches in 1979, 1987, 1993 and 2000 had its own animating issues and each energized new voices of activists who articulated our frustrations, our hopes and our determination to win. This year's march is no different.
Our Community Is Not Either/Or
The National Equality March also demonstrated the extent to which we are connected and interdependent. Scores of local, state and national organizations endorsed the march. The same generous funders who fund many of our movement's organizations (including the Task Force) also funded the march. Staff and board members from our movement's organizations were among those who spoke so powerfully from the stage. Among the thousands who put foot to pavement on Sunday were members and staff of our national, state and local organizations as well as the grassroots activists with whom we work across the country.
Federal work or state work? Grassroots or grasstops? Incrementalism or quantum leaps? You tweet or you don't tweet? Since when have we been a movement that has allowed ourselves to be framed as a set of either/or choices? Since when have we been a movement that takes a pass on pursuing equality and fighting discrimination wherever and whenever we can?
The either/or narrative that has been playing out is false. Look a young trans man in the eye and tell him we shouldn't be working on anti-bullying protections for public school students. Look a fast-food worker in the eye and tell her that her stomach must continue to churn every day as she fears losing her job simply because of who she is. Look a bisexual military service member in the eye and tell her she has to stay closeted.
State-by-state political work and localized grassroots organizing are also part of a crucial national strategy that fits exactly the design of our decentralized representational democracy. Local efforts to elect pro-LGBT officials flow upward to the state level and then, to the federal level.
A Movement Moving Forward
In the U.S., approximately 500,000 elected officials make decisions affecting our lives; only 535 of them work in the Congress and only two of them hold our highest offices of president and vice president. We need to lobby, educate, persuade, cajole, elect and re-elect local and state decision makers, both to create change at every level and to ensure that a majority of the 535 members of Congress arrive already having voted in favor of pro-LGBT legislation.
Our state and local work is foundational to achieving our federal goals. And our federal work is critical not only because it covers issues that cannot be addressed at the local and state level but also because it benefits those of us in states where protections have been denied or have not yet been achieved. As for those two top positions in the White House? We must push and push for change so second-class status for LGBT people does in fact end on President Obama's (and Congress') watch. And, that watch is ticking fast.
We need outside demonstrators; we need inside negotiators; we need constituent lobbyists in district offices; we need those who calibrate Capitol Hill persuasions to win support from key legislators; we need bloggers and tweeters; we need letter writers and phone callers; we need door knockers; we need fundraisers; we need policy wonks; we need researchers; we need organizers. This movement will succeed with all of us putting every queer shoulder to the wheel, pushing the same direction.
Here's the narrative I offer: In October 2009, the LGBT community embraced its powerful, rich and successful history and dedicated itself to its bright future. We were ready for change and progress and we vowed to do something about it. We did not waste this moment arguing over styles of activism, but rather we inspired each other and drew upon vast human resources of ourselves and our allies to transform society so that we are not simply tolerated, but rather we are celebrated, accepted and valued. Let's continue the work!