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

Activists as Volunteers/Professionals as Leaders

An anti-lesbian and gay initiative campaign is directly about many people's lives. Unlike a candidate campaign, an anti-lesbian and gay initiative is not chosen by the people who will be working on it. It is imposed upon entire communities of widely diverse lesbian and gay people. To complicate it even more, lesbians and gay men are already engaged in a political movement and, in fact, it was as part of the backlash to this very movement that the Christian Right declared its "culture war" on lesbian and gay lives. To expect every group and individual within this diverse and vibrant movement to suddenly place all their strategic decisions in the hands of a single campaign manager seems completely absurd.

Campaigns against anti-lesbian and gay initiatives, like it or not, are part of our movement. It is useless to try and separate movement-building from the Christian Right's self-declared culture war on lesbians and gay men. Movements are not built out of thin air; they are built largely in response to attacks on our communities. An anti-lesbian and gay initiative is an attack on our communities. We need to use that attack to build a movement and to do it in such a way that enables the movement to continue after the vote.

Demanding that we must use one, or even three or four messages, regardless of their content, prevents our diverse communities and individuals from defining our own roles in the movement, based on what matters to us as lesbian and gay people under attack. When we make lesbian and gay communities the center of a strategy, we do not sacrifice individual and group differences for the "good of the whole" by staying on message. Instead we make sure everyone is given full opportunity and encouragement to express what the campaign means to them. And this always, necessarily, means lots of different messages.

There is also a more practical problem with the hierarchical and centralized approach to fighting an anti-lesbian and gay initiative. When people get involved in the campaign as unskilled "volunteers", rather than as thinking activists, they will be less likely to feel engaged in the campaign, to feel like it belongs to them. As a result, less people will get involved and for shorter periods of time. This means fewer resources, which means less contact with voters. Strangely enough, many campaigns seem not to mind this.

Yet, campaigns often complain that they don't have enough volunteers to do major projects, such as phone banking, or that lesbians and gay people are not volunteering in large numbers. If these things are true, it is worth looking at why. Are the projects being done of interest to the community? If not, is it because the work is boring? Or because people don't see the relevance of the project? Because people are too closeted to even express interest? Often the reason that people do not show up to begin with is because there has not been a strong, exciting outreach effort. In Lewiston, Maine, we agreed to gather volunteers and also to register people to vote. We went to the bars and recruited people there. We also found out that the mainstream campaign had not reached out to this part of the community or to lesbian and gay owned businesses -- they were totally focused on the straight community. However, once you recruit people you have to be able to retain them and most of the problems cannot be solved in a totally hierarchical structure, which is not based on the needs of the community.

Mainstream campaigns put most of their energies into TV spots, print advertisements, mailings and phone-banking. The first two don't rely on people-power, and the second two occur only at set times. So at the same time that campaigns don't get enough volunteers for their major projects, they often turn away volunteers who come in at the wrong time. In our projects, there is always something to do because different groups are always working on different projects, which need not only the bodies but also the brains of new people. Mainstream campaigns also eliminate communities which could be part of the campaign and where there is lots of work to be done.

While we're on the topic, something really needs to be said about phone banking. Campaigns claim that they save time by limiting voters through phone banks: first they call everyone in town, and ask how they're voting. This usually takes several extremely labor-intensive weeks of many volunteers a night sitting down at telephones. Once they have a list of all the undecided voters, they target these through (usually) a second phone bank or a lit drop or (less often) a canvassing effort. The logic of narrowing voters to the "undecideds" is that it takes less time and resources per voter. But this is a little confusing, since it takes so much time and human resources to do the initial phone bank just to determine who is undecided--it would certainly take less time to do just one persuasive phone bank to everyone, and it would probably take about the same amount of time to do one persuasive lit drop/canvassing effort to everyone. In addition to saving time, you would be reac hing everyone and not just those who say they're undecided.

We can't help but wonder if maybe this attachment to phone banks is an attachment to control of the campaign. It's much safer to have your volunteers on the phone all the time, in your office where you can hear them, then wandering around freely talking to voters at a rally or on their doorstep. In fact, many campaign professionals have told us they prefer phone banks and lit drops to canvassing because they can control the message. You can tell someone what to say when they canvass, but you're not there to make sure they say it.

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