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

Community Research

Why Do Research?
Deciding Where To Work
What Are the Research Questions?
Where Can You Get Information?
What to Do With the Information

Why Do Research?

Good research is a major part of organizing a campaign against an anti-lesbian and gay initiative, but it isn't as dull as it may sound. It can mean finding out things you probably never learned in school and meeting all kinds of new people -- and some of them will be other dykes.

First you'll have to do research to figure out which areas or communities you will target in your campaign. Once you've made that decision, you'll still need to dig a little deeper -- even if you are working in your own town. Most of us don't know the political history of the places we live in, what issues matter to people in another neighborhood, all the groups that exist or other information that can help in getting the word out about the initiative or in finding people to work with. All of this information will be food for your creative thought about strategy and tactics.

Deciding Where To Work

Deciding which communities to target is a political act. We had to learn to get past stereotypes, challenge traditional campaign ways of thinking (targeting areas based on previous voting patterns or numbers of persuadable voters) and stick to our basic principles when making these decisions (See Introduction).

We prefer ideally to work in communities not being strongly targeted by the mainstream campaign. This not only helps avoid extra tension and turf wars, but also brings in communities that might otherwise be left out of the campaign debate. It also means that we can more easily evaluate how our strategy and tactics worked. These are also usually disenfranchised communities, such as rural and low-income areas who usually have the least access to information about the initiative. They often have their own reasons to be worried about the Christian Right which means it's easier to tie their issues to ours in literature and events. And, always remember that there are dykes and fags living there, even if you can't find them at first.

Sometimes you can easily pick out the areas or communities which satisfy your criteria -- you might live in one of them. Other times you might initially pick them because of what you have heard about them. At this point, you will have to start doing some homework so you can get past the stereotypes of areas and get a good, solid beginning working knowledge of the places in order to make some decision about whether or not they are areas to target. This decision is always tentative; you may begin work in an area and find you are getting nowhere fast. So, you may have to shift to another one. The better you research, the less likely this will happen. But, just in case, you might begin researching at least two areas that would be likely so that you can shift later on and not lose too much time.

What Are the Research Questions?

Once you've selected a target area(s), some of the questions you might want to answer are: -- What are the political tendencies of the community (right-wing, mainstream, etc.)? What is this description based on and are there any contradictions (right-wing on one issue; left-wing on another)? -- What is the lesbian/gay history of the area? What is the current status of the lesbian/gay community there? -- What are the issues that matter to people in the community? -- What is the voting history (how many people tend to vote; how many people are registered to vote)? -- If lots of people don't vote or aren't registered, why not? --What is the activist and resistance history of the area (strikes, walkouts, civil rights demos, marches, land rights, etc.)? --Who are the "respected" and "unrespected" individuals and groups in the area, both lesbian/gay and straight? Why is that? As you are answering some of these questions, you will come up with others. Keep following the leads you get, both before and during your work.

Where Can You Get Information?

Some of the information will be found in printed material:

  1. "Blue Books", available at one of your local government agencies ( the County Clerk's Office, the Election Board) will give you the complete voting history of each district and precinct -- how many people voted and how they voted -- as well as the economic structure, religions, and racial breakdown of each area.
  2. Political almanacs can usually be found at bookstores. These describe the political and economic history of each area in a more readable form.
  3. Books, magazines and newspapers about or from an area can be interesting even for people who have lived their whole lives there. Go to the local library and see what is there. Ask the librarian to head you in the right direction. And, keep up with current newspapers and magazines; even the Pennysavers have information you can use, especially about local events and groups.
  4. Lesbian and Gay guidebooks and newsletters. Often we don't know about lesbian/gay networks existing in our town or area but they are listed in national lesbian/gay guidebooks. The Lesbian Connection is a great resource for locating dykes around the country who may be able to provide you with good information about the area, including information about women's land located in rural areas.

Some is on the Internet:

If you are lucky enough to have a computer and a modem and are hooked into the Internet, you can put some of your questions out there and you'd be surprised how much you can find out.

But, reading isn't enough. Finding out how many people vote, or tend not to vote or register does not tell you why they do or don't do these things. In Lewiston, Maine, by doing door-to-door canvassing we found out that many of the residents of the Franco-American area were older people who had never registered to vote and no one was doing a registration drive there. Some didn't know where they could vote, others had no means of transportation. In Idaho, by speaking with activists on the Nez Perce reservation, we found that many people didn't know about the initiative. Face-to-face conversations will get you information nobody put in a book, especially information about lesbian and gay history in your area, about the history of local activism and about groups you might want to work with.

Some of the people you can talk to are:

  1. Older lesbians and gay men in your community. They can inform you about the history of the community and the movement. Often, younger dykes and fags won't even know there was a vibrant movement at one point in time in a particular town.
  2. People in political groups, community organizations, and non-profit or social service institutions. Conversations with people in these groups can be extremely enlightening, as can more strictly grassroots approaches such as starting a conversation at a local bar or coffee shop.

What to Do With the Information

Information, by itself, does not tell you what to do. You have to figure out what it means for your campaign strategy and tactics. In order for everyone in your group to be able to contribute to these decisions, it's crucial that the information you get is shared. Come up with some structure for doing this. Have everyone keep a log of every informative conversation they have and photocopy these for everyone else or stick them in a centrally located journal. Keep useful newspaper clippings filed in a convenient location. Have debriefing meetings where everyone shares what they've learned in the past week and figures out together what this means for your work.

If you've done your homework and listened carefully, you will have greatly minimized your chances of sticking your foot in your mouth and infuriating potential allies with your ignorance and/or superiority complexes. You also will be able to use this information to develop approaches when canvassing or writing brochures -- approaches that will address the important issue in people's lives. In Idaho, for example, we worked in one town we were told was very conservative politically. We knew it had a history of labor union organizing and strikes. We also found out that the local union was still considered very progressive. We decided to meet with the local union official and he agreed to write and let us distribute a letter opposing the anti-lesbian and gay initiative in terms of supporting diversity and not simply in terms of non-discrimination. We made thousands of copies of this letter and folded it into the brochure we used for literature drops. In this town we won the initiative vote by a significant margin, something that was not expected at all.

In addition to finding out about the history of the community you are targeting, you will also want to find out the history of right-wing, conservative, and Christian Right activity there, as well as it's activity at the present time.

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