For lesbian activists and grassroots organizers fighting the Christian Right.
Building Grassroots Coalitions with Other Political Groups
Coalitions are not mergers.
LACROP makes decisions about working with other groups based primarily on whether or not the group is interested in controlling the movement and the message. We're not opposed to working with traditional campaign groups, whose goals may ultimately differ from ours, as long as those groups don't try to, or ask us to control "the message" for the entire campaign. We also will not work with groups who ask us to be closeted or subjugate ourselves or the people we work with to the supposed expertise of campaign "professionals" who require "volunteers" to carry out the boring and repetitive work of a project while they make the decisions and don't get their hands dirty. On the other hand, in the middle of an intense initiative campaign, it doesn't make sense for us to waste our time in energy-sapping and fruitless debates about how to be an activist or build a movement. So we look for groups and projects whose strategies and values overlap comfortably with our own.
When we do work with another group, we focus on grassroots coalitions--meaning coalitions among people, not leaders. This means that members of both groups are engaged in what's happening, that our coalitions are not dependent on the personal relationships of three or four individuals, and that neither group feels like it has control over what the other does. If the leadership or one faction of a group should turn against you, chances are you will have protected yourself from individual or community trauma by forming genuine working relationships (based on mutual respect--"agreeing to disagree") with a variety of other people in the group.
Some Successful CoalitionsIn Idaho, we had successful shared efforts with several local library organizations, with some local branches of the statewide mainstream campaign, with some religious bodies, and with some human rights groups. Some of these groups like the Moscow and Sandpoint libraries and the Unitarian Universalists of the Palouse had their own missions which made opposition to Proposition 1 logical for them, but not their exclusive focus. The Idaho Library Association allowed us to publish an article in their statewide magazine. The Friends of the Moscow Library had a table at a diversity rally we held in Moscow featuring books that would have been banned under Proposition 1. The weekend before the vote, the Sandpoint Library participated in a dramatic action featuring local school children and LACROPers dressed up as banned books. In Moscow, the Unitarian Church of the Palouse was very vocally opposed to Proposition 1. They worked closely with Voices for Human Rights, the local traditional campaign. Though LACROP generally used a different set of tactics than the church did, we found ties when each group had something important to offer the other. LACROP hung a giant red ribbon around the outside of the church a big white clapboard building smack dab in residential Moscow in conjunction with their declaration of the church as a "Discrimination Free Zone". This was a visibility action for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and straight supporters. Our visibility is usually focused on lesbians, but this was an effort we supported. A few weeks later, the church co-hosted a pancake breakfast with us in their basement directly following their Sunday service, which we used as a kick-off to recruit for a day of mass (NICE PUN) canvassing.
Our working relations with the state-wide mainstream No on 1 campaign were complicated for a variety of reasons which are discussed elsewhere. However, the grassroots coalitions formed between Voices for Human Rights (the local "No on One" contact group) and LACROP were extremely rewarding and essential. LACROP regularly attended Voices meetings, both to keep abreast of their work and to participate when it was appropriate. Although some members of Voices were suspicious of our methods or even our motives in our early months in Moscow, we eventually agreed to disagree, and spent a lot of energy and time trying to understand each other's approach. This work happened among members of our groups, not between "representatives" or "leaders" who spoke on the groups' behalf. This exchange ended with many organizers, who had initially opposed LACROP's tactics, working closely with us. On some projects the two groups did not work together, for instance, LACROP and the Palouse Lesbian Avengers had some exclusively lesbian or lesbian and gay visibility actions, and Voices for Human Rights ran a voter-i.d. phone bank that didn't interest us. This was as it should have been we did not look for 100% agreement or a merger, simply a productive coalition.
In addition to working coalitions, we sometimes network with organizations that may not be working against the initiative, but are supportive and have a large following or are highly respected in their community. In Lewiston, Idaho, which is an predominantly union, working-class town, we worked with the local AFL-CIO affiliate. They wrote a supportive letter for a town-wide literature drop, urging labor to "oppose discrimination against lesbians and gay men in Idaho." We put this letter inside the campaign brochure we had written. It undoubtedly had a major impact in Lewiston, a historically conservative town--especially on social issues--which ended up rejecting Proposition One by a surprising 4% margin.
Networking with Supportive Businesses
Small businesses (retail stores, restaurants, bars, bookstores, etc.) can be an invaluable asset, especially in a small town. They might buy ads, donate money and supplies, increase your town visibility by posting signs in their windows, put pressure on local government officials and candidates, and sometimes even become informal community centers. The Gayellow Pages, lesbian, women's and progressive newsletters, and alternative bookstores are good places to start looking for supportive businesses. But don't assume anything about a business until you ask; don't just ask businesses that appear "progressive". We've had fabulous support from pawn shops, drugstores, diners and country-western bars.
Think of projects that can be vehicles for getting the support of businesses. In Idaho, when we were planning a day-long rally and music fest in the town park, we made a program and sold ads to local businesses. We pounded the pavements and asked every business in town (and some farther away) if they'd buy an ad. We then designed a simple but nice-looking program (8 1/2 x 11" pieces of paper folded in half and stapled in the middle). This not only raised enough money to cover the costs of our rally and then some, but also allowed us to find out who the supportive businesses in town were. We turned to this supportive network often throughout the campaign. In Lewiston, Idaho, local restaurants donated pizza for a post-literature drop pizza party, grocery stores donated coffee, cups and napkins for the town forum, and the town sawmill donated large sheets of paper for decorating the Lewiston Lesbian and Gay Society's "Cotillion". In Lewiston, Maine, we procured hundreds of donuts from a variety of local shops for election day tabling--we gave the donuts away free, and gave folks last-minute literature about the initiative. Many of the businesses we identified when we sold ads in the Diversity Rally later agreed to put signs in their window that opposed Prop 1.
Take care of your supporters.
Small businesses will often be putting themselves at great financial and personal risk to support you. It is extremely important to keep in contact with them, find out how they're doing and how you can help them if they get harassed. In Lewiston, Maine, a diner owner wanted to go public about the harassment he received from hosting our public town form; we wrote and sent out press releases for him, and did follow-up calls with all the media persuading them to cover the story. Encourage the community to patronize supportive businesses. If your group has meetings in or goes out to public establishments bars, cafes, or restaurants make sure you go to the ones that have supported you. Let the owners know you're making an effort to give them your business.
Don't patronize businesses that respond with unnecessary rudeness to your requests. This can be done informally--spreading the word in the community and letting the store know why you're not going there anymore, or formally--sending out press releases, putting up flyers, having an action, encouraging the entire town community to boycott (if you do organize a formal boycott, make sure you are familiar with boycott laws in your area--if it's illegal, everyone should know that beforehand).
Direct Action and The Election: PostScript
Every area in which we have been part of this kind of campaign has pulled in an equal or higher percentage of votes on our side than the surrounding areas. In Lewiston, Maine, the low-income Franco-American community in which we did door-to-door canvassing, against the "scientifically based" strategy of the mainstream campaign, had the second highest number of votes in our favor. Even the local newspaper remarked how unexpected this was. In Idaho, we defeated the initiative in every town and county we worked in by higher than average percentages and some of these areas were quite conservative. We do not know for sure whether our out-and-proud messages had a positive impact on the voters, or whether it had more to do with the large numbers of people we were able to mobilize.
We believe that both of these helped in winning the votes. Some places which have run closeted campaigns have lost and some won. The most notable victory for a closeted campaign was in conservative predominantly Mormon southeastern Idaho, where few people were publicly out, but which pulled in a high percentage of "no" votes. We agree with the mainstream campaign's analysis that this was probably the result of their well-timed exposure of the Christian Right's bigoted attitudes towards Mormons. It is interesting that in this case, the objects of hatred -- Mormons __ stood up and denounced the Christian Right publicly in press conferences and letters to the editor. The mainstream campaign, based in southwestern Idaho, encouraged rather than discouraged this independent display of resistance, without trying to control the messages that came from it. Yet they actually worked against such independence of lesbians and gay men.
Other areas that have run predominantly closeted campaigns have lost, and it is in those places that the biggest psychological and political damage has been done to the lesbian and gay community. This is because many people felt that they sacrificed their own dignity by staying closeted in response to mainstream campaign beliefs that this was the only way to win the vote. And then they lost anyway. Conflicts over strategy were submerged or forced into silence during the campaign and then exploded after the defeat into a free-for-all of blame and accusation, greatly dividing the community politically.
A staffmember of Equal Protection Colorado, describing how her campaign
had ignored lesbian and gay concerns, gave this advice at a conference
held by the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force: "Every decision you
make during a campaign, ask yourself the question, 'will I regret this
if we lose?'" This is an ethical rather than strategic question. If
you are putting the needs and desires of our communities first, your answer
will always be "No" But, deciding that you will use an out, grassroots,
multi-message strategy will not make the mainstream campaign disappear
nor does it mean that there are not other anti-initiative groups you can
work with in your area. In the next section we address both of these issues.
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