Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A Plea For Queer History

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I've always liked Larry Kramer. He's one of the few people as perpetually pissed off as I am, and equally obsessed with gay history. While his thing lately is extracting queers from their historical closets, I'm desperate to preserve our activist history.

Without history, without memory, each generation seems to reinvent itself from scratch with a piecemeal vision for our movement, few role models, no understanding of organizing techniques or even how activism fits into the bigger picture of social change.

In our ignorance, we've allied ourselves with one party, diminishing our political bargaining power, and embraced a leadership seemingly determined to separate us from our history of survival and resistance. If not for some vague image of Martin Luther King, and an even vaguer image of Stonewall, we wouldn't even have had the idea to take to the street, carry signs, make speeches, and perhaps organize a sit-in or two after the Marriage Equality efforts in California fumbled their way to defeat.

Worse, we barely reacted when Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign told us to sit down and shut up after secret meetings with the Obama administration. "They've got a vision. They've got a plan."

Maybe it's time to pull a woolly mammoth from the tar pit of queer history. I recommend the Lesbian Avengers.

If you've heard of them at all it's probably for their ongoing legacy of Dyke Marches held all over the country, or their bold direct actions like taking over a radio station to put pressure on Spanish-language media to mend their homophobic, racist ways.

In fact, the most radical act of the Lesbian Avengers was to take queer activism where it had never been before, into the heart of heartland politics. And if this history had been remembered, queer Californians could probably still get hitched.

Turn the dial on the time machine to 1993-4. The place is rural, conservative Idaho, largely lacking in progressive networks. When the Idaho Citizens' Alliance put an anti-gay measure on the ballot banning everything from antidiscrimination ordinances to queer books in the library, it seemed a slam duck for the Christian Right. And almost was.

Local queers responded in two ways. The No on 1 Coalition, a loose association of LGBT groups centered in the capital city of Boise, hired a full-time staff and called on the Human Rights Campaign Fund, Gay and Lesbian Americans and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

These guys bankrolled and centralized the campaign, instituting "message control" whereby the executive committee carefully controlled who could speak to the press, or send letters and articles. Arms were twisted to get local groups to comply. And like the recent "No on 8" campaign, queers were shoved in the closet and the door locked after them. Television ads twisted themselves in knots to avoid the words, "gay" and "lesbian," and focused instead on messages denouncing government interference in private lives.

Luckily, No on 1 stuck mostly to the southern part of the state. In the more rural, northern part, a tiny local chapter of Lesbian Avengers in Palouse decided Idaho needed rather different tactics. They called the Lesbian Avenger Civil Rights Organizing Project (LACROP) in New York to come help, and eight full-time and eight part-time workers arrived headed up by native Idahoan, Sara Pursley.

The Avengers did almost everything in reverse. Local lesbians and gay men were put front and center, encouraged to set their own priorities, come out in their communities and share power as widely as possible. Together, they organized speak-outs and kiss-ins. Some even went door-to-door to talk about their lives. Nobody was censored. And getting your voice heard and your life validated made it worth the risks of violence, vandalism, and fear. Queers made connections with each other, forged a place in their communities, oh, and won a bunch of votes.

The northern, rural region where the out and proud LACROP was active defeated Proposition One by a significant margin. The centralized, closeted efforts in the more urban and progressive area around Boise only narrowly defeated the measure, with the rest of the nearby counties voting overwhelmingly "yes" to adopt Proposition One. The extra votes in the LACROP region made the difference, along with Mormons who actually voted "no" because of bashing from the Christian Right.

It's time for this history to be more widely known. Imagine if those asshats in California had understood that lesbian and gay visibility should have been a fundamental part of their campaign, and not a liability.

Imagine if they'd understood the power of working together with a broader shared vision-- liberation -- and that impatient activists bringing visibility to important issues are not just blowhard loonies but an essential force creating space for organizers and lobbyists to find common ground for change.

Imagine, imagine, imagine if they had less money, and had to focus more on human capital, on creativity, on energy, on pure heart. Imagine, if we'd only remembered what those lesbians did once upon a time in Idaho.

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