Take Me to Your Leader
Lacking Leadership, Gay Rights Groups Waste Valuable Time
The "Mayday" rally has been public knowledge for weeks, yet gay community leaders have no planned response. They seem to be so bogged down in their own interminable, insular politics of "consensus-building" and "inclusion" that they can't focus on their opponents.
Last week, in a typical time-sucking contretemps, queer activist and Discrimination Free Washington (DFW) board member Susan Koppelman sent an e-mail to fellow board members titled "Notes on Accountability and Inclusivity." Among Koppelman's gripes was that DFW hadn't invited representatives of two small gay subgroups to a planning meeting: Raven Heavy Runner of the Northwest Two-Spirit Society (a group representing gay Native Americans) and Jennifer Self of the QCenter (a nascent student group at the University of Washington).
"I am concerned that the list of people with the power to make decisions has been getting smaller and smaller," Koppelman wrote. "It seems that some individuals are more concerned with having a small group of people reach consensus, rather than having open democratic participation from the community." Koppelman worries the gay political organizing process has become "paternalistic" and "patronizing" and "classist" and "ego-motivated." (After another DFW board member found out Koppelman had talked to The Stranger, Koppelman said she wished to retract her remarks.)
The arguments in Koppelman's e-mail recycle tired, self-defeating demands for total inclusion and pure democracy in political organizing. It's this type of naive logic that threatens to hamstring the gay political response to the brewing fight over gay marriage in Washington State. The faulty logic goes like this: No decisions can be made until every representative of every single gay subgroup is consulted and "consensus" is reached. It ignores what everyone familiar with gay politics knows: If everyone in the movement ever got in one room together to talk marriage strategy, consensus would never be reached.
"If you're going to win, you have to play hardball," says State Representative Ed Murray, "and you can't play hardball if you're waiting for absolutely everybody in Seattle's GLBT community to feel good."
Bill Dubay, one of the few local gay leaders aside from Murray who will say such things in public, agrees: "This should be a campaign--and campaigns aren't democracies, they're dictatorships." He notes the need to get serious about political activism now that two lawsuits seeking gay marriage have been filed in Washington State and the backlash among religious conservatives is beginning.
"The advantage that [religious conservatives] have is they have a weekly meeting every Sunday," Dubay says of the "Mayday" folks. The gay community, on the other hand, is famously fractious and has so far only been able to put a happy face on a balkanized political-organizing effort.
In a classic example of losing valuable time to the search for consensus, a recent gay community town hall meeting was postponed twice while organizers tried to agree on who would lead it and what would be said. When it was finally held last week--a month late--the "how to get involved" part featured more than a dozen organizations appealing, one after the other, for people's time and money. The absence of one clear leader created a rather confusing situation for the average person who just wanted to know where to go to help kick some conservative ass.
In contrast, the "Mayday for Marriage" folks seem disciplined, unified, and well financed. They've told city officials they're expecting 10,000 to 20,000 people at their rally and they dropped a reported $5,000 on renting Safeco Field for the afternoon. The group's organizers--people like Ken Hutcherson, founder of the 3,500-member Antioch Bible Church in Redmond--did not return phone calls, so it's unclear how many people will actually attend. But even if only 1,000 people show, the crowd will be about three times the size of the crowd at last week's gay community town hall meeting.
Gay leaders keep saying they want one strong, well-financed, statewide organization taking the lead on marriage advocacy. Time is ticking. Washington's supreme court could be hearing oral arguments on gay marriage as soon as this fall. And in January, when the state legislature reconvenes, it will surely be asked by conservatives to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage (a move that would make any pro-marriage state supreme court decision moot).
Amazingly, many local gay political organizers act as if they need time to reinvent the wheel to fight this fight, when in fact a good organizing model already exists.
The confusion about who's in charge here is "the same exact thing that happened in Massachusetts," says Marty Rouse, campaign coordinator for MassEquality, a powerful coalition that emerged from initial confusion there and has successfully united Massachusetts' competing gay rights groups. The groups now work together toward a single goal: making sure that last year's Massachusetts supreme judicial court order demanding gay marriage sticks.
"I would urge someone in Washington to really get their act together and figure this out fast," Rouse says.
Holly Gunner, who represents the Massachusetts ACLU on the MassEquality team, is more blunt. "You have to start to pull on the same set of oars or you will lose, period," says Gunner, a professional management consultant and graduate of the Harvard Business School. "People need to stop thinking about pecking order and hierarchy and think about the job that needs to get done."
Thankfully, some political leaders are taking the cue from the lessons in Massachusetts. Jennifer Lindenauer, the young, no-bullshit New York native who helps run the gay political action committee Basic Rights Washington (soon to be called Equal Rights Washington) is making plans for campaigns to unseat anti-gay legislators in the November elections--an action that will make a state constitutional amendment less likely.
Still, Washington's gay political scene has a long way to go. MassEquality's Gunner has an urgent message to gay leaders: "Get it together.... Thousands of people in your state are depending on you. You have a moral obligation to those people to do the job in a way that you win."
Additional reporting by Amy Jenniges