Patrick J Hamilton

Sitting Down & Sitting In: Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez of GetEQUAL [Interview]

Filed By Patrick J Hamilton | August 08, 2012 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: DREAM Act, Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, GetEqual, marriage equality

GetEQUALDream.jpgFelipe Sousa-Rodriguez walks the walk when it comes to LGBT. Literally.

Recently married, Brazilian-born Sousa-Rodriguez has a personal stake in marriage equality, immigration reform, and takes a hands-on approach to raising awareness.

Bilerico sits down with the new National Field Director of GetEQUAL, to get his perspective on the philosophies and tactics behind GetEQUAL, hear why marriage is just part of the equality puzzle, why our bodies are perhaps the most valuable piece of activism, why he doesn't mind making people uncomfortable, and what he thinks will be the fight of his, and our lives.

Interview after the break.

Patrick J. Hamilton: So you're only recently with GetEQUAL, correct, just earlier this year?

Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez: Yes, I basically got married and then as soon as I got married, I started with GetEQUAL.

Congratulations on the wedding!

Ah, thanks.

Let's go back a little bit in time before that. Before GetEQUAL, a big issue for you was the DREAM Act, and in what seems to be a pattern for you, you took matters into you own hands, and set off on a little journey of your own, didn't you?

Basically back in 2008, well, even a little more back, more or less in 2007, when I finally found a way to go to college. When I first came into the country, I came when I was 14 years old, without my parents. I came to live with family members. And as soon as I tried to go to college, I was unable to. So it took me a little longer than most people to finally figure a way out, figure a way to go to college.

FelipeSousaRodriguez.jpgSo when that happened, I got engaged in this group called Students Working for Equal Rights. We were pretty much a group of undocumented students who wanted to go to college, who wanted a pathway to citizenship, but didn't have a way. We were trapped in our failed immigration system.

At first, it was more like a group where we helped each other out, to maneuver the system. Later, it became a like political group, and we started working on campaigns, not only to pass the DREAM Act, but also to pass immigration reform, or fight back against anti-immigration laws in Florida, etc.

When we first got started, we were just ten people in a group, in Miami. We used to meet in our living room. The only way we were able to build power was to do some deep organizing in different communities all across Florida. Now we have groups all over, all the way from Tallahassee down to Homestead, which is the extreme north to the extreme south.

It was the power of storytelling, but also taking matters into your own hands when you feel that the government failed you.

In 2010, after many attempts to stop deportations and several other campaigns that we had fought, we felt that we needed to do something different... do more than just protest or to rally. We felt like we needed to put, pretty much, our lives on the line.

We decided to walk, well four of us did... it was myself and my husband Juan Sousa-Rodriguez, Gaby Pacheco and Carlos Roa. We walked on the Trail of DREAMs, a 1500 mile walk from Miami to Washington, D.C. telling our stories in every single community all the way until we got there.

We pretty much faced off against the big players in the southeast. We even confronted the Ku Klux Klan... all of that to show the injustices happening to immigrants in the United States.

That 'taking action,' taking a non-traditional tactic, that seems to also be at the core of a lot of what GetEQUAL does... nontraditional tactics to raise awareness.

We believe that waiting is not an option. I like to think of organizing as trying to organize people, money, but also time. Every single minute we're not out in the street, every single minute that we're not completely equal, it's a minute that someone else considers suicide, it's a minute that a couple doesn't have a way to get married, it's another minute that someone is getting fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. So that's why we are propelled by direct action, and also we've learned from past movements when it comes to civil disobedience.

It seems like there is a little bit of "ACT UP" in the DNA of GetEQUAL...

We come from a long tradition. If you go back even before ACT UP, even before the civil rights movement in the United States, go all the way back to Ghandi... we're bringing that into our work, which is non-violent actions, non-violent resistance, and really believing that our bodies are the most powerful weapon we have against an oppressive system.

One of the reasons GetEQUAL is in the news now, is for its role in the act of civil disobedience with GetEQUAL Texas, with Major and Beau, and their push for marriage equality.

This is actually part of a larger campaign we launched actually just this last Friday. We are calling it "Fight for the 14th," because LGBT Americans are not protected by the 14th amendment, the equal protection under the law, to the states, states like Texas and many others, constitutionally banning marriage, etc... limiting the civil right of LGBT Americans in the United States.

GetEQUAL14.jpgWhat Major and Beau did was a remarkable action. They didn't do it only because they wanted to take a political stance, they really wanted to get married. And it came from that sense of being completely in love with someone and being told by the state you live that you are always going to be a just "roommate" to the person you chose to share the rest of your life with.

They live in Dallas... they went to the marriage counter. Once they were denied the marriage license they "sat in" and they did not leave.

Now they are going to have to go to court, where they've been charged. They might get 180 days in jail or have to pay $2000 fine, each of them.

It's kind of remarkable that people will go to jail for that right, to get married.

People will go to jail and risk pretty much everything to be seen as equal, right? I think that it's a deeper conversation, where you get discriminated in pretty much every single part of your life.

I recently got married, and in Florida we also have a ban on marriage, so Juan and I had to fly to Massachusetts to get married over there, do the paperwork there. But as soon as we crossed back into Florida, our marriage didn't mean anything.

Even deeper than that, also, Juan is about to become a U.S. citizen. And even though a straight couple would be allowed to sponsor their spouse, so they could be united and they would not have to worry about deportation, Juan can't do that for me. So then we're in constant fear of what could happen next.

And even though President Obama most recently has given the opportunity for DREAM Act students to get deferred action, which basically means a work permit, it's not a permanent solution, so the next president could take it away. And if they take it away, then I again would be at risk for deportation, and once again Juan and I would have to worry about our personal life again.

It is a really basic right that influences so many parts of your life. When we were moving from to Tampa from Miami, Miami has a human rights ordinance that protects people in accommodation. But that's not true for all places in Florida. So when we moved to Tampa, we were scared that when we tried to get a place to live, they would not allow us to live, because we are a same-sex couple. We're just one story out of so many others.

There are lots of fundraising and awareness raising and lobbying groups out there that fight for some of these same issues. Some of them come under fire for being more about the fundraising, more about playing within the rules of the Washington Beltway, and taking a lobbying tactic. But GetEQUAL is sort of the polar opposite... you guys are getting chained to the fence of the White House, and really running the risk of arrest and things of that nature, really putting yourselves on the line, the front lines of it. Is there room for more than one kind of activism?

I believe that everybody has a place in the movement. I would like to invite all of the other groups to work with us, so we can have what I like to call the "Inside/Outside" strategy, where people who are inside can tell us what's going on inside, so we can effectively push the our decision makers from the outside. We like to play the outside game. And that's our role in the movement, too. We will always be the people who make other people uncomfortable. We're not ashamed of that role, and we will always use everything, all of our resources, to make sure we hold our leaders accountable.

So if someone is interested in playing a role with GetEQUAL but can't necessarily see themselves getting chained to anything, or arrested, like Major and Beau not wanting to leave the marriage license bureau... is there a role for those people within GetEQUAL, too?

Yes. Everyone is welcome. We actually need lots of help with many parts of the work. We need people who help up with logistics for actions, we need people who help us fundraise money to help pay fines when people get arrested. We need all the help we can get. Anyone who wants to get engaged, I'll make sure that anyone and everybody gets a role.

The men and women of GetEQUAL who chained themselves to the fence of the White House were pivotal in the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Is your next big target ENDA?

Our next big target is full-throttle equality, a comprehensive way of addressing all of the issues that the people of the LGBT community face in their everyday life.

A part of what makes us so different, too, is that we have a different sense of urgency. We are working with people on the ground. Just two days ago, I went to Lakeland, and we had a meeting with the community. Lakeland is this little town between Tampa and Orlando, people drive back and forth, maybe just stop to get gas when they are going between those two major cities. But in this little town, the local high school doesn't allow same sex couples to buy homecoming tickets, and people are afraid of coming out or being out in the workplace because they can get fired. So for us, we really want the full protection that 14th Ammendment should insure every single person. So ENDA, yes, is a part of the bigger puzzle, which we call our Full Equality campaign.

In the LGBT movement, we see moments of progress, we see backward steps. There's buzz about the DNC including an equality plank in their platform, there's the Cure for AIDS Act... does it feel good to be doing what you're doing now, or do we still have so much left to do that that doesn't quite register yet?

Well, there's a lot to do. There's a lot to do. It's one thing to put things on paper, it's another thing to turn it into policy that effectively protects people on the ground.

Every day I get up in the morning and I get on the phone with mothers who lost their children to suicide, people who lost their jobs, people who get denied the right to marry. Every single day that's what I wake up to. I know that in places like Florida, Alabama and others all across the United States, we are far from equal. And until we are fully equal, we cannot stop.

Something can happen at a federal level, but it is up to the people in the local store, at the local level, to uphold the spirit of those laws. That's why it seems so important you guys are on the ground, and that it is a grassroots kind of thing.

It's important, but we need to understand that the federal government is going to have to take a bigger role in bringing equality to some states in the United States. We cannot expect for a state like Georgia or Florida or others to one day wake up and just be completely different. That might take 50 years. We can't wait one more day. So that's why we need President Obama and the Democratic party to take leadership in our issue, and be at the forefront, and our champion, so we can not only have something in a plank of the party, but actual policies that would improve the lives of people.

Are your tactics different in an election year? Is there a different sense of urgency? Is there a different strategy because it is an election year?

It's definitely a different type of time. We understand what's going on politically in the country, but our tactics don't necessarily change. Right now what we're doing with Major and Beau is an example of continuing to highlight the injustices and inequalities that we as LGBT people in our country face. And that's not going to change.

Every time I get the ear of somebody from GetEQUAL, including the first time I met Heather Cronk, I ask, "What can we expect, what's in the works from GetEQUAL about voter mobilization, voter registration?"

Right now, basically what we're doing now is going on the ground, building out the movement from the ground up. One of the differences between our strategy and the strategy of other groups is that we believe in putting pressure on decision makers. But to do that, we need people on the ground, in every single district, in every single state of the United States. That's exactly what we're focusing on now. We're putting all our efforts, all our resources in training all our different organizers, increasing our numbers on the ground, so come November, we're ready for what's coming next, which is a fight. I think it's the fight of my life. It's the fight I'm that I'm getting ready to fight.

Photos courtesy Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez and GetEQUAL.

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