Wednesday, June 24, 2009

SAME Hosts “Radical” Marriage Equality Meeting June 23

Robin Tyler Challenges the Queer Establishment and Democratic Party


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: Robin Tyler (right) and her wife, Diane Olson

“I am to the Gay establishment what the Antichrist is to the Catholic Church,” said Lesbian comedienne, tour promoter and activist Robin Tyler in her keynote speech at the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality’s (SAME) meeting at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center June 23. The meeting was billed as a discussion of how to move forward on the marriage equality issue — but there’d already been a meeting on that topic the day before, sponsored by statewide organizations Equality California and the Courage Campaign as part of a tour across California to get community input on the future of marriage equality and in particular whether to seek a repeal of Proposition 8 in 2010 or 2012. The SAME meeting became a wide-ranging criticism of the role of state organizations in the marriage equality campaign and a call for grass-roots activism by internally democratic, community-led groups that refuse to take orders on strategy or tactics from the large statewide organizations.

Tyler, who along with her wife Diane Olson was one of the original plaintiffs in the marriage equality cases that led to the California Supreme Court’s May 2008 ruling upholding the right of same-sex couples to marry — and the successful initiative, Proposition 8, that overturned it six months later — said she’d been trying for months to set up a speech in San Diego “and everyone said they were too busy.” Much of her presentation reviewed the history of the Queer rights movement and the demand for marriage equality in particular. The first same-sex couple to marry legally in the U.S. tied the knot in Minnesota in 1971, she explained; that state’s marriage law had never explicitly defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman and the two men took advantage of that loophole. Three years later, she said, Anthony Sullivan, an Australian living in Arizona, took advantage of a similar legal situation to marry his U.S.-born partner and thereby qualify for legal residency.

Tyler gave a long history of the Queer community’s various National Marches on Washington — in 1979, 1987, 1993 and 2000 — as a prologue to explaining why she doesn’t support the call for a march this year and why she would prefer the community wait until 2010. “I called for the first March on Washington,” she said, pointing out that she did so in the late 1970’s while Anita Bryant was on the warpath against Queers and Harvey Milk was virtually unknown outside San Francisco. When she issued her call for a march and set up a committee in Minnesota to plan it, Tyler recalled, “my first call was from Harvey Milk, who said, ‘We don’t need a march. I just got elected.’ I asked him where he’d just got elected and he said, ‘San Francisco.’ When Harvey first started out, he was rather conservative. He really believed in change through the system, and both the Gay establishment and the Democratic Party didn’t want him to run.”

After three months of planning, Tyler recalled, “the Minnesota committee collapsed because the women weren’t talking to the men.” But the March got a new lease on life in July, 1978, when Milk changed his mind and endorsed it. Even so, Tyler said, “the people in New York didn’t want to do a March on Washington” — until Milk was killed in November 1978. Eventually the March happened and drew 100,000 people. Tyler worked the stage in 1979 and again in 1987, when she fought the rest of the march organizing committee to allow Cleve Jones, Milk’s former assistant and organizer of the NAMES Project AIDS quilt, to display the quilt as part of the march. In 1993, Tyler had to fight again, this time to include lifting the ban on Queers serving openly in the U.S. military as one of the issue demands of the March. She also said that President Clinton had arranged to speak at the 1993 march, then backed out and sent greetings instead — and Tyler tore up his greetings on stage and said they were from “somebody who shouldn’t matter.”

The current march plans began in the fall of 2008, when Tyler called for a march “in 2010 or 2012” — intending that it should be in an election year to put more pressure on President Obama and Congressional Democrats to support Queer issues. “Cleve Jones called me and said, ‘What a stupid idea. It’ll drain resources from California,’” Tyler said. “Now Cleve, David Mixner and Torie Osborn have called for a March in 2009, just 16 weeks from now, because we’re a year away from the mid-term elections.” Tyler accused them of wanting to schedule the March at a time which will be completely safe and won’t hurt the Democrats’ chances in a Presidential or Congressional election — and she said that’s totally the wrong strategy because the Democrats have “screwed” the Queer community again and again. In a rally called to discuss marriage, Tyler called for divorce — the Queer community, she said, needs to break away completely from the Democratic party.

“We have no teeth, because we’ve never made the Democratic party pay for what they’ve done,” Tyler said. “I have been a Democrat all my life, and they have screwed us for 30 years. In 1979 the Democratic leadership made a deal with Steve Endean [then executive director of the Human Rights Campaign] and said if we took marriage off the table, they’d pass all our other civil rights legislation. Then, instead of advancing our civil rights in one package, they started to divide the issues — and it is now 2009 and we still do not have one civil right at the federal level. They have screwed us for the past 35 to 40 years, and when you screw someone without permission it’s called rape. All the Democrats have lied to us — including Obama. You cannot say you support us and then file a legal brief comparing us to pedophiles.”

Though soft-pedaling her criticism of Equality California — she said that, since their much-criticized management of the No on 8 campaign, they’ve started hiring people of color as organizers, and they have a track record of having steered 50 Queer-friendly bills through the state legislature and into law — Tyler was almost as withering about the Courage Campaign as she was about the Democratic Party. She compared the Courage Campaign’s “public input” meetings to the Church of Scientology: “You sit in a room and tell each other your stories, and then the leadership goes ahead and does what it wants.” She said that the reason she’d been trying unsuccessfully to get an invitation to speak in San Diego for six months was that “the leaders in your community don’t want me here. Nobody wants to hear anything but the party line. Nobody wants a democratic movement. Nobody voted in Fresno [at the much-ballyhooed ‘Middle of the State’ rally May 30] whether we wanted it in 2010 or 2012. Don’t become part of anything that looks progressive, but is run from the top down and there’s no internal democracy.”

Local activist Ann Menasche followed Tyler with her own memories of why the campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6, in November 1978 succeeded while the No on 8 campaign failed. The Briggs Initiative was an effort to allow California schools to fire teachers who either were Queer themselves or supported Queer rights. The idea behind it, Menasche explained, “was that Gays were sick, and if they could teach our kids they would corrupt them and — horrors! — turn them Gay.” Though Proposition 8 didn’t specifically deal with children or education, Menasche noted, the Yes on 8 campaign effectively exploited similar concerns and ran itself very much the way the Yes on 6 campaign had 30 years earlier, with fear-mongering propaganda about the alleged ill effects of open discussion about sexual orientation in the classroom.

But the No on 6 campaign was very different from No on 8, Menasche said. Instead of being run top-down by hired consultants relying on so-called “focus groups,” the Bay Area Campaign Against the Briggs Initiative (BACABI) followed a strategy Menasche referred to by the acronym MAP — “Mass, Alliances, Pride.” BACABI “was run democratically by open meetings,” Menasche said. “Instead of focus groups and paid consultants, we relied on the experiences of people on the ground. We had lots of time for local action, and to elect people to a statewide steering committee.” One of their efforts was to mount anti-Briggs contingents in pride parades and give them professionally printed signs. Another, she said, was “mass distributions at shopping centers all over the Bay Area, not just in the ‘Gayborhood.’”

Their final action was to organize a public meeting at which they showed a big-screen projection of the televised debate between Harvey Milk and Lesbian activist Sally Gearhart on the anti-Briggs side, and Briggs himself and a sidekick in favor of the initiative. (The event is dramatized in the film Milk but made to look like a one-on-one debate between Milk and Briggs.) Over 10,000 people attended the meeting, Menasche recalled. BACABI also built coalitions with other grass-roots organizations, Menasche said, instead of No on 8’s strategy of reaching out to leaders of other top-down entities and trusting that they could bring their members along. And in contrast to No on 8, where Queer people in general and same-sex couples in particular were deliberately kept out of the limelight because the consultants and their “focus groups” had said that straight supporters would draw more voters than real, live Queers, “Gays and Lesbians were front and center” in the anti-Briggs campaign. “We refused to be apologetic or hide who we are,” Menasche said. “We showed that Gay teachers were good for schools; it was homophobia that was bad.”

The June 23 meeting was MC’d by Chuck Stemke and the first speaker was Zakiya Khabir, both members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Khabir’s short opening statement was dedicated to establishing that SAME was practicing the same grass-roots, bottom-up, internally democratic governance that Tyler and Menasche later called for in the movement as a whole. “Congratulations,” Khabir said; “by being in this room at this event, you are a member of SAME. We decided early on that every member of the public who comes to a meeting can vote. We are truly of, by and for the people.” She said that SAME’s proudest moment was the sit-in of nearly 80 people at the San Diego County Administrative Center May 27, the day after the California Supreme Court announced its decision upholding Proposition 8 — an event KGTV Channel 10, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Workers’ World and Zenger’s Newsmagazine covered but the Gay & Lesbian Times did not.

Rev. Madison Shockley, an African-American United Church of Christ (UCC) minister in Carlsbad, was a last-minute addition to the program and spoke about the difficulty in reaching out to the African-American community on this issue. “In No on 8 we made assumptions about alliances that were incorrect,” he said, “including that Obama’s turnout would help our campaign and that African-Americans would support us. Both were wrong.” Shockley said that the No on 8 campaign could have neutralized Obama’s harm to the campaign by more effectively exploiting his split position on the issue — against same-sex marriage but also officially opposed to Proposition 8 — instead of letting the African-American church and the Yes on 8 campaign enlist Obama on their side with recorded phone calls crudely edited from his speeches to create the impression Obama supported 8.

Though he currently ministers to a mostly white congregation, Rev. Shockley said, in the past he’s pastured Black churches and felt nearly 100 percent resistance even within an officially Queer-friendly denomination like UCC. He said the biggest mistake the No on 8 campaign in relation to the African-American community was to describe marriage equality with the words “civil rights.” “In our culture, there are certain phrases that are ethnically owned,” he explained: “’Holocaust,’ ‘internment,’ ‘civil rights.’ We need to find language that will win, and in a political campaign the winning language is in the middle. ‘No on hate, no on 8’ made us feel good, but it made people in the middle who hadn’t made up their minds and had doubts feel like we were calling them haters.”

Rev. Shockley also said that a campaign to repeal Proposition 8 would actually be easier to win in one respect; we’d be presenting a positive message rather than a negative one. (Lemon Grove City Councilmember George Gastil, who was at the SAME meeting but didn’t speak, had argued exactly the opposite before the San Diego Democratic Club on May 28, saying there’s a hard core of California voters so disgusted by initiatives in general that they just vote no on everything, and therefore it’s easier to defeat an initiative than to pass one.) “This time it will be a positive campaign,” Rev. Shockley said. “We can say ‘yes’ to equality. We lose the no-man’s-land that people could be against marriage equality but against Proposition 8. Now you’re either for or against it.”

“I’ve worked for Equality California three times and quit eight times,” said Fernando Lopez, who actually organized the kind of campaign others in the room were just talking about — reaching out one-on-one to potential voters in communities outside the Queer-friendly zones. After signaling his approval of how things are changing there and in other statewide organizations, Lopez warned his audience of the enormity of the task ahead in either 2010 or 2012. “We have 450,000 votes we need to change by 2010 and 650,000 votes we need to change by 2012,” he said. “That means changing 1,000 people every day and doing 1,000 volunteer shifts. A lot of that will be media and personal conversations, but a lot of that will have to be done door-to-door with clipboards and phones.”

Powell D. Gangi, local organizer for the UNITE HERE union, thanked the Queer community for its support of their boycott against Doug Manchester, owner of the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel on the Embarcadero, who has waged a ferocious battle to keep his hotel non-union and also gave $125,000 in seed money to get Proposition 8 on the ballot in the first place. He boasted that the boycott has already cost Manchester’s operation $7 million in business, most of it from organizations who have decided not to hold conventions and national events in a hotel whose owner endorses discrimination.

SAME had planned to split the meeting in half — an hour for speeches and an hour for comments from audience members — but the speakers’ portion ran over 20 minutes longer than expected so the audience comments were cut to 40 minutes. One young African-American woman who was there with a female partner said, “We haven’t told people what it’s like to be in our shoes. I waited eight hours to vote [in November 2008] and right behind me was a Black woman in her 60’s, and I realized we didn’t talk to her.” Criticizing Rev. Shockley’s argument that African-Americans feel they own the term “civil rights” and resent any other group describing their struggle with those words, she quoted Martin Luther King’s widow Coretta as saying that “Gays were there for us when thy didn’t have a voice for themselves,” and added, “I hope Equality California tells people why it’s not fair.”

Robin Tyler rose to respond, and her comments echoed a lot of the frustration many people had had in the room with the way the No on 8 campaign was run. “Equality California is doing a series of commercials, including one with an African-American family,” she said. “I produced 17 public-service announcements for TV for the No on 8 campaign, including Dolores Huerta [co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers], Hollywood stars, Gay couples and Lesbian couples, and No on 8 wouldn’t use them because the focus groups said, ‘Don’t show Gays and Lesbians.’” She compared that strategy with that used to pass Proposition 2, aimed at curbing the maltreatment of farm animals, whose backers made disturbing footage of chickens in factory farms the centerpiece of their campaign.

Tyler also echoed the woman’s criticism of Shockley’s statements that certain terms are “owned” by certain ethnicities — “Holocaust” by the Jews and “civil rights” by African-Americans. “The Holocaust is not just about Jewish people,” she said. “I’m Jewish myself and a child of the Holocaust, but there was a Holocaust in Rwanda too. We are a civil-rights movement. We moved from being a Gay liberation movement, fighting politics from the waist down, to a civil rights movement. We can’t move the hard-core radical Right, but we need to start thinking of ourselves as a civil rights movement and acting as a civil rights movement. Power is never shared; it must be taken.”

Another woman — a lifelong Lesbian who introduced herself as older than the 67-year-old Tyler — raised a question most of the people in the room probably hadn’t thought they’d hear at a meeting like this: why should the Queer community be pressing for the word “marriage” in the first place? She said she and her partner had been together for 20 years and took the opportunity to register as state-recognized domestic partners in California, but chose not to get married during the 4 1/2-month “window” between June and November 2008. “I’m not clear why ‘marriage’ is such a big deal in the Gay and Lesbian community,” she said. “I’ve always thought that marriage was for the heterosexual community, and I have a charge around marriage that’s negative.” Tyler asked her whether she’d ever been married to a man — and she said no, she’d been a Lesbian all her adult life, but her partner had been married to a man before she came out “and I’ve adopted her negative view” of marriage.

Tyler seized on this woman’s comment as an opportunity to go back to first principles and explain why she thinks marriage is so important a civil right that she and her wife were willing to sue the state for it. “There are a lot of people like you who don’t regard marriage as that important,” Tyler said. “There were a lot of people in 1955 who didn’t think it was such a big deal that Rosa Parks couldn’t sit in the front of the bus.” Tyler said the marriage issue hit home for her personally when she found out that her union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), wasn’t going to extend partner benefits to Olson until she turned 65 and was eligible for Social Security — and being smacked in the face with real-world unequal treatment for being a same-sex couple and therefore ineligible for marriage led her and Olson to file the lawsuit.

“Marriage has become the Trojan horse that contains all our other rights,” Tyler said — ironically echoing one of the principal arguments the radical Right uses in favor of Proposition 8 and other similar bans on marriage equality. “It’s the only container that gives us rights. As long as they can just sexualize us, they could deal with that. Marriage humanized us. Twenty-two percent of Gay and Lesbian households raise children, and without marriage we can’t protect our children. In every state where they’ve gone after marriage, they’ve also gone after civil unions and domestic partnerships.” (There was an internal debate within the Yes on 8 campaign before they started gathering signatures — whether to do an initiative that would repeal California’s domestic partnership law as well or whether to focus only on marriage — and they went with the latter only because their polls showed that an attempt to ban both marriage and domestic partnerships would lose.)

“If Diane and I travel across the world and say we’re domestic partners, no one knows what that means,” Tyler said. “When we say we’re married, everyone knows what that means. Separate is never equal. Our marriages don’t diminish heterosexual marriage. A 50 percent divorce rate diminishes heterosexual marriage. Eighty percent of men who don’t pay child support diminishes heterosexual marriage. So many children being sexually abused diminishes heterosexual marriage. Marriage humanized us and took us away from being sex objects. It made us human beings. All of a sudden, we’re not talking about sex; we’re talking about love. Marriage has woken up our community and changed us from lambs to lions.”