For lesbian activists and grassroots organizers fighting the Christian Right.
Let the People Speak: How to Pull Off a Media-Grabbing Town Forum
Town forums have been organized by lots of different kinds of campaigns. Many of them have tried to sanitize the lesbian and gay community by offering up one or two "respectable" lesbians or gay men and not allowing others to speak. Sometimes they don't have any gay or lesbian speakers. Our town forums are different. They are geared toward supporting local lesbian and gay people to come out and speak out. We don't try to feature "experts" or celebrities. We create a venue for lesbian and gay people who will be affected by the initiative to share their experience or concerns with the people in their communities. Sometimes this can be the first step towards starting a movement in a particular town. A Town Forum is not as potentially intimidating as a lesbian/gay street protest, but it is a big step up from a closeted press conference. Often, the dykes and fags involved in a forum are taking an extremely courageous first step.
Two of the biggest advantages of forums such as these are that they are relatively easy to organize, and in a small town, they can often receive extensive media coverage just for putting real, live queers in front of microphones (these town forums don't garner as much media in big cities). The media aspect should be milked for all its worth in press releases and follow-up calls.
We helped organize one such town forum while working in Lewiston, Maine, against the repeal of the city's anti-discrimination ordinance. The forum provided an opportunity for local lesbians and gay men to come together and talk about living and growing up lesbian and gay in Lewiston, and about the impact of the coming vote. It was the brainchild of local activists and was partially motivated by their frustration at the mainstream campaign's attempts to keep them hidden from the press except when they appeared as "victims" of discrimination. A supportive diner owner agreed to donate his space for the event. The diner was perfect: it provided a comfortable, informal atmosphere that relaxed the speakers and looked great on camera, and was also small enough to make our audience of 20 look big.
Palm cards advertising the forum invited people to have some free coffee and just hang out in a casual atmosphere while the forum took place. Eight local lesbians and gay men, who ranged in age from 18 to 55 and represented a good cross-section of Lewiston's queer community, came out on the panel and spoke movingly about their experiences living and growing up queer in Lewiston. A facilitator was appointed (who was not one of the panel members) to help prompt discussion and ensure that all participants could be heard. We tried to make the forum a "roundtable discussion, in which the speakers (who were sitting in chairs in a semicircle) could respond to each other and have a regular conversation. This worked really well--the speakers bounced stuff off each other until really moving, powerful stories about their lives were being told. The facilitator also collected written questions from the floor which were then put to the panel during a question and answer sess ion. The audience was composed primarily of local "bar queers" and groups of high school students, and the forum was so powerful that three audience members were spontaneously inspired to come out--in front of all the local news cameras. The television press was fabulous in reporting the forum as a positive discussion by local queers about the issues they face living in Lewiston.
Almost exactly one year later, we helped organize another town forum in Lewiston, Idaho. This forum was similar in that its goals were to support local lesbians and gay men, and to encourage people to come out. Panel members included a gay high school student, a lesbian mother, and a gay man living with AIDS. Most of them were coming out publicly for the first time, and all of them were participating in the first organized coming out event in the history of the town. This meant that it was really stressful for all five speakers, and many personal crises came up in the 48 hours prior to the event (related both to the psychological difficulty of preparing for the event, and to the reactions of the speakers' friends and families). Support systems for the speakers were essential, before, during, and after the forum.
The Idaho town forum had a different feel than the Maine one, primarily because of the difference in venue. The forum was held at a public meeting hall, so it felt more formal, and the room was larger, which made our crowd look smaller. Also, each speaker stood at a podium and gave a prepared speech, instead of sitting in a semicircle with the others in a relaxed conversation. In retrospect, this may have put more pressure on the speakers and made for a less stimulating discussion.
Despite these differences, the Idaho forum was a big media success it made the front page of the local newspaper the day before the vote. Good timing definitely helps--we believe the front-page piece had a significant effect on the entire town population. The forum was the first event of the town's first lesbian/gay organization, and concluded a three-day town-wide literature drop. This made it a milestone in empowering, motivating, and mobilizing the lesbian and gay movement in conservative Lewiston. We consider the forum to have been an important factor in Lewiston's narrow but surprising defeat of Proposition One.
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