A Call for Integrity
When I announced December 3, 1999, that I would be stepping down as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, I had the opportunity to reflect on how our movement has changed since I joined NGLTF six years ago–and how much work we still have to accomplish.
There are two ways to measure our progress. The first–the easy way–is to examine how many advances we’ve made while working in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender movement. We can look back on 1999, for example, and feel proud that for the first time in history pro-GLBT bills filed in state legislatures across the country outnumbered anti-GLBT bills. We can look at the current presidential race and watch the two Democratic candidates compete vigorously for the GLBT vote. We can look at the recent Vermont Supreme Court decision and clap with one hand at the fact that the court seemed to give us all of the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of marriage except for marriage itself.
I choose today to venture down a different road, well traveled by many of us who view our lives and our work as about social change and transformation.
I came out of the closet twenty-seven years ago–ironically, the very same year that the task force was moving from an idea to an organization. (Back then we were called the National Gay Task Force. The word lesbian was not added to the title until years later, and it would be almost another quarter of a century before we added the words bisexual and transgender to our mission statement.)
As a young dyke all of nineteen years of age I was blessed to come out in a community that valued honesty, that valued respect, and that valued consensus. One place I called home was the Women’s Resource Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1972 that center was an amazing place. It was my home, a safe place, and a place where I was challenged and nurtured. It was a place where for the first time in my life my experience as a young person and as a lesbian was respected and embraced.
In gay-straight dialogue with my lesbian, straight, and bisexual sisters I learned about the power of telling our stories and the power of taking risks. In coalition with African American, Latino, and Jewish students we held on to the newspapers that reported on the realities of our lives and worked for women’s and ethnic studies programs that would reflect our histories. I learned the personal was political and that real politics spoke the truth about our lives.
It was only years later that I realized that some really special staff members at the center laid their jobs on the line to provide a space where women like me could find a home regardless of our age, our sexual orientation, and our race.
I learned there that sometimes it was those with the most to lose who were leading the way and that there were those willing to put their privilege on the line to create change. Together, these two forces were insurmountable. Together, they could and did make lasting change.
My passion for social change was nurtured by straight white women who had a vision for a world where all people could bring their full selves to the table. Although they could have stayed safe with the privilege that their race and sexual orientation brought them, they knew in some fundamental way that they could use their privilege to bring women together. They knew that, in coming together, we could change the world–a lesson that serves us equally well today.
Our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community has made enormous gains culturally. Our cultural visibility and a calculated effort by the extreme right wing to convince the people of the United States that the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community seeks “special rights” has made even GLBT people believe that we have made political progress. Each day gay people call our office to find out where they may legally marry. Despite our efforts to tell them that there is no place in the United States they may legally civilly marry, they are convinced we are mistaken. As my colleague Urvashi Vaid said, we are virtually equal.
Despite our cultural gains, most GLBT Americans live in states that allow discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, that ban same-gender consensual sex, and that don’t consider violence directed at our community a hate crime. A majority of states ban same-sex marriage, even though it isn’t legal in any state. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has led to more gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicepeople than ever before being discharged from the military. And more and more GLBT youth find their school groups and clubs the targets of right-wing legislators who understand the power to change communities held by a growing number of gay-straight alliances.
Over the past several years we have seen the center of gravity shift from action at the federal level to movement at the local and state levels. Last year a record number of bills affecting the GLBT community were introduced in state legislatures, and more pro-GLBT bills moved further through the legislative process than ever before.
Our movement is growing stronger and more people than ever before are involved in their home communities. With this growth has come many challenges. Today we find ourselves at the brink of making important decisions that will forever affect our futures and answering a fundamental question: will we draw a circle large enough to include all of us or will we leave some of us behind?
I believe that our movement at its best is a transformational movement–one that brings all people forward together and fundamentally challenges and transforms our society. Two issues demonstrate how the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has tried to reflect this view in our mission and in our work.
The first is domestic partner benefits, which has become an organizing issue for the GLBT community. These benefits represent the very democratic notion of workplace equity. Because benefits make up, on average, 40 percent of an employee’s compensation package, denial of domestic partner benefits means that an employee who is married and whose spouse receives benefits earns more than an unmarried employee in a same- or opposite-sex relationship.
Some gay organizations lobby only for domestic partner policies that cover same-sex relationships. At the NGLTF we’ve taken a different approach because we believe that employment policies should respect and reward employees equally and recognize that there are many diverse family structures within our country.
The second issue is the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act in Congress. This bill would prohibit discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. However, it would not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity–meaning transgendered people would not be included.
The NGLTF has been steadfast in our belief that, until ENDA is expanded to include gender identity, we cannot endorse it. We’ve cancelled our subscription to the “I’ll get mine now and we’ll add you later” mode of politics. As a woman, a lesbian, and a Jew, I cannot be a woman on Thursday, a lesbian on Friday, and a Jew on Saturday–and any organization that forces me to make these choices does itself and the movement for equality irreparable harm.
Whether the issue is promoting more people-of-color leaders in our movement, whether it is working harder to be inclusive of bisexual and transgendered people, whether it is better recognizing the qualities that queer youth bring to the table, or whether it is recognizing our elders as leaders and not icons, we must model the very essence of transformed politics.
If we want to build a movement that is transformational we will model honesty, we will model openness, and we will take risks that challenge conventional thinking. We will act with integrity in our personal relationships and in our relationships with our colleagues. We will seek out and lift up every voice, challenged by what we hear but not afraid. We will listen to every voice. We will lead with love.
More and more of us are traveling down a well-worn path that will lead to our freedom. We know that when the wall of homophobia seems too high and the wall of intolerance too wide we just can’t ignore some of that load–make it lighter, easier, more manageable–by leaving some of us behind so that others can travel more quickly. The road that we travel together will lead us to a place where everyone moves forward together–and anything is possible.
Kerry Lobel is executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (until her resignation takes effect April 7, 2000), is the former lead organizer of the Women’s Project in Little Rock, Arkansas (1985-1994), and has served as executive director of the Southern California Coalition on Battered Women (1979-1984).