Out Against the Right: An Organizing Handbook for Queer Activists and Grassroots Organizers
For lesbian activists and grassroots organizers fighting the Christian Right.

After the Vote: Continued

Natalie detailed what she considered to be the four goals that emerged from the conference: building coalitions within the queer community, starting an anti-violence project in northern Idaho, starting a rural organizing project throughout Idaho, and continuing and strengthening the three grassroots groups in the area: the Palouse Avengers, the Lewiston Lesbian and Gay Society, and PLUS (People Like Us). Everyone agreed that lesbians and gay men had to continue being visible and working to make northern Idaho a place where they could live openly and proudly.

The Months That Have Followed the Vote

In the months that have followed the vote, some ideas and groups have survived; others haven't. The attempt at a lesbian/gay coalition fell apart, and the anti-violence project didn't seem to garner any interest. On the other hand, the Rural Organizing Network is alive and despite some fits and starts, the Palouse Avengers, The Lewiston Lesbian and Gay Society and PLUS are still going strong. Following are details about ongoing work in Northern Idaho:

1. Attempting to Create a Lesbian/Gay Coalition
There was an effort to bring local lesbian and gay groups together in the form of "Community Unity" that met a few times in early 1995. Representatives of all the groups met and discussed how they could work together because they were all very scattered geographically. Between the three towns of Moscow, Pullman, and Lewiston, there were four lesbian and gay groups ranging from conservative to radical in ideology. They decided to create a newsletter that would attempt to represent the entire community. Everyone participating was interested in the project. However, things broke down quickly when conflict arose between Avengers and other members of that coalition over an action the Avengers did. Without a specific, large and menacing threat to unite different groups towards a common end, like the previously impending election, the differences in ideology and strategies between different people and groups can seem insurmountable. Seeking unequivocal agreement on strategy and tactics can make long-term coalition work difficult if not impossible. It is important for various individuals and groups to find ways to keep in contact and support one another because the more that's going on in a community the better. However, it is also important to recognize and respect the differences among them, and to not expect everyone to agree. Coalitions can work to allow differences, not dispel them.

2. The Anti-Violence Project
At the conference, anti-violence work seemed to be a top priority. And participants did have a lot to say about how they had experienced violence in their lives. Yet the northern Idaho anti-violence project that was conceived of at the conference never got off the ground. Natalie thinks it's because people feel physically safe in the Moscow-Pullman area: "Although there have been a few gay bashings, queers still place violence against us at the bottom of the priority list." It is also possible that people counted on a rural organizing project to provide support, and planned to contact other AVPs when and if violence did become an issue.

3. The Rural Organizing Project
The rural organizing project is slowly but consistently moving forward. In our work with rural areas during the anti-initiative campaign, the lesbians and gay men we met in small communities were often afraid to get involved in the campaign. The fact that they felt so unsafe fighting for their lives was sobering.

Shortly after the vote, three Avengers formed the Idaho Rural Outreach Network for Gays and Lesbians (IRONGAL). They had several goals. One was to help break the isolation rural lesbians and gay men experience by forming support networks. They also sought to help organize educational efforts in rural areas which would focus on lesbian and gay issues (such as photo exhibits, speakers and films). Instead of only dealing with lesbian and gay issues in the face of an initiative, their overall goal was to change homophobic attitudes to those of human acceptance of lesbians and gay men.

The project was modeled after the Oregon Rural Organizing Project (OROP) that began in 1992 in response to rural communities' frustrations at the religious right wing that was taking over their communities. OROP is a network consisting of human dignity activists (both lesbian/gay and straight groups) in just about every county, rural and non-rural, throughout Oregon. OROP provides informational and technical support to groups in the network, and helps bring people together to share ideas.

The IRONGAL project used many of the approaches we have already described in this handbook-researching communities, understanding how rural communities function and where you can enter, gain trust, and so on. IRONGAL members contacted as many existing human rights groups as they could. They found it very difficult to find lesbians and gay men, and very few were willing to participate in the network. They also found some sympathetic straight people. In some places, though, IRONGAL organizers couldn't even find anyone interested in broader issues of human rights.

After talking to human rights activists throughout northern Idaho, organizers of IRONGAL felt that in small communities a broader group might be more desirable because there weren't enough people to spread out in groups to deal separately with every type of human rights abuse. So to fit the needs of the communities they wanted to work with, IRONGAL changed. It became IRON-The Idaho Rural Organizing Network.

They have found that people often say they are working on what they see as the "immediate" threats, such as militias, constitutionalists, and racists taking over their communities. While they may agree that a pro-lesbian and gay educational effort is needed in their community, they want to focus on what they see as the most imposing threats. There are a couple of ways that IRON is dealing with is this: 1) offering to take on responsibility for organizing a pro-lesbian/gay project with a minimum of help from the group; and 2) illustrating ties between pro-lesbian/gay projects and the groups' perceived concerns. For example, IRON will bring a speaker to address the rhetoric of militias including homophobia.

Natalie has struggled with how far she is willing to change her original intentions:
I was willing to make IRONGAL more broad. However, I am not willing to compromise on my values. If a human rights group were to say they want to work with me but please don't say I am a dyke, or they don't want to deal with queer issues, then too bad. I will continue to work with them to help them to get over their homophobia, but I will say that queers are a part of IRON and I need people who aren't homophobic to belong. This scenario hasn't happened yet, but if it does, I'll remember that a goal of IRON is to educate people about queers to eliminate homophobia.

Even though IRON emerged from a successful anti-initiative campaign with tons of momentum, sustaining lesbian organizing in rural areas without the impending initiative has been extraordinarily difficult.

4. Ongoing grassroots organizing:
The Palouse Avengers, The Lewiston Lesbian and Gay Society, and PLUS

According to Judy:

The single factor that has determined the groups' success over the last nine months is their ability to plan actions and make them happen. The groups that began in Idaho-the Palouse Avengers, The Lewiston Lesbian and Gay Society, and PLUS, People Like Us, remained strong by being visible and planning actions as well as social events. The last thing we want now is for queers to go back into their closets and disassociate themselves from altering their community. We want to keep people together.

Things these groups have done include fundraising dances to celebrate the victory-The Lewiston Lesbian and Gay Society held a Cotillion, the Palouse Avengers marched in the Mardi Gras parade and took out advertisements in the local papers on Valentine's Day exclaiming "Jane loves Jill". Groups have taken over a local bar and made every Friday night queer night; they have planned queer camping trips. They have painted signs for any random reason and posted them around town-for example, "The Lewiston Lesbian and Gay Society wishes you a happy St. Patrick's Day." In essence, they have put a lesbian/gay slant on as many events as they could get their hands on.

On the other hand, Natalie talks about some of her frustrations:

. . . it is difficult having a radical, all-dyke group in a small town. There are over 50 dykes (that I know of ) in the Moscow-Pullman-Lewiston area. Only a handful are interested in direct action, radical ideology, and a dyke-only group. Since Prop. 1, we have had 7-8 consistent Avengers who show up at all the meetings and do most of the work. Most of our actions include gay men. . . . We have always felt that we needed large numbers at actions to show the non-gay community how many of us there were. However, we were compromising our ideas of promoting lesbian survival and visibility. The men were still the ones who would shout the loudest and get most of the attention. In our male-dominated, patriarchal world, we need to focus on lesbians, even if we have fewer numbers in our actions. An Avenger visiting from Austin, Texas, pointed out to us that all you really need is 3 or 4 dykes for an action. This was great to hear, and our next two actions were all-dyke actions and were absolutely marvelous!

One action was handing out lollipops that said "Lick Homophobia-Don't Sign on To Hate," along with a flyer that discussed the new anti-lesbian and -gay initiatives in Idaho and Washington State. The second was an action at a July 4th celebration in a local park: the Avengers constructed two ten foot high, paper mache women embracing, and read their "Dykelaration of Independence" which pointed out the racism, sexism, classicism, and homophobia attached to the Declaration of Independence. Natalie said that lots of folks came by, and she thinks the action made people think.

The Palouse Avengers have come to the conclusion that some of their actions will include gay men when they want large numbers. But they have also found out that you only need a few dykes to do an all-dyke action. And you never know when new dykes will join to do an action.

But the Palouse Avengers has had its share of growing (and shrinking) pains. According to Natalie, burnout, frustration, and disagreements over tactics at times nearly brought the group down. In order to work through their problems, they planned a weekend retreat with a non-violence trainer and an Avenger from Austin, Texas, who was visiting. Natalie said: This weekend saved us, I think. We were in a beautiful, remote area away from the "city," and we spent the weekend talking about how to resolve conflict, peacekeeping, planning actions, role playing in actions, communicating, what bothers us, and how we can work through our difficulties. . . . Even though the workshop wasn't officially a mediation, the two women who ran it were not from this area so they were absolutely not involved in our shit. They could talk to us about our problems and make suggestions and we didn't get defensive. They could also offer advice based on their experience.

Ways for Your Group to Survive Based on their experiences in the nine months after the vote, here are some of the things Natalie and Judy suggest:

  1. Have fun actions. This is a good way to get your message out and to recruit.
  2. Minimize business meetings or separate these from meetings for planning actions.
  3. Bring in an outside mediator to deal with internal conflicts.
  4. Keep all phone lists, and if you don't have phone lists, throw a party and collect names and numbers.
  5. Keep people connected and reach out to as many parts of the community as possible.
  6. Let your presence be known. There are hundreds of ways to do this. Here are some: approach the local police and initiate a hate crimes awareness training focusing on fears of the queer community; go to local colleges and plan an "Everything You Wanted to Know About Queers But Were Afraid to Ask" panel; plan a self-defense workshop; protest "At-Risk Youth" conventions that do not include a queer contingent; write letters to the editor thanking those who have been supportive and denouncing those who have not; work with PFLAG chapters, your local teachers associations, religious groups, League of Women Voters, AIDS groups, health departments, senior centers, YWCA's, women's groups, and more.
Summing Up
This is what Natalie and Judy had to say about their experiences thus far:

Natalie: As far as dealing with those who try to discredit us, the best way is to let our actions speak for themselves. LACROP won people over during the campaign by showing their integrity, respecting others, and being willing to work with them. I have gotten great feedback from the "lollipop" and July 4th actions and have heard no negative things from those that dislike us. . . . Many of us were worried that our enthusiasm would diminish once (New York) LACROP left and the election was over. But the opposite has happened. We had learned new skills and what is more important we were empowered. We felt like we could organize, that we could do wild and crazy and serious things in little communities. We have the strength to keep going, even when we almost fell apart, even when the most committed of us was seriously burned out.

Judy: continue to make contacts and BE OUT. And, when the next initiatives begin collecting signatures you will have spoken with a great number of groups, letting them see you as a person, having spoken with you, and possibly having changed a few minds. Remember that it's harder for people to vote against queers when they know us, work with us, or live near us. And, as Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; Indeed, it's the only thing that ever does."
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