This was brought home to me early in my legislative career by two contrasting attempts to influence the legislative process. The first took place on a cold and rainy night just after Thanksgiving. Approximately 800 family members--the primary caregivers of severely disabled adults and children--found time in their impossible schedules to host a forum in Tukwila to educate their legislators about the needs of the developmentally disabled community. The other attempt to influence the legislative process took place on the steps of the state capitol several months later. A lone microphone stood on the steps, the only sign of a scheduled rally to address GLBT issues. No one showed up.
This week, the GLBT community will parade through the most liberal neighborhood in the most liberal city in the state of Washington. We will enjoy a great degree of visibility--a picture of the parade might wind up on the front page of the local section of one of our daily newspapers--as we make a collective call for anti-discrimination laws and the right to marry. But where will we be on July 1? And where will we be when the legislature convenes in January?
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people claim they want to secure their civil rights, and turn out in huge numbers every year in June to demand their civil rights. So why do so few GLBT people involve themselves in the political process, which is the only way to secure their civil rights? Locally, there are many GLBT philanthropic, cultural, sports, and social service organizations. Huge numbers of queers are leaders in the creation of "the new economy." However, our local GLBT political groups are moribund or defunct. Why?
I believe local GLBT political groups have been unable to adjust to the rapidly changing place of GLBT people in the larger culture--in terms of both how that culture views us and how we have come to view ourselves. The language of our political movement is often more appropriate for another decade (the '60s) or for another movement (African-American civil rights). But our reality--despite our own experience of discrimination--is not that of slavery and the fight for the right to vote. And AIDS--despite the pain of our loss--is not the Holocaust.
Often the language we use is that of the powerless victim, which, regardless of our own personal experience, is not how most queer people--particularly young queer people--see themselves. It's certainly not how straight people see us. This use of the victim language reached the height of absurdity recently when the organizers of the Pride Parade failed to obtain a permit to host a beer garden in Volunteer Park. A violation of civil rights? I think not--yet I received more calls and e-mails about this issue than I have received about safe schools for our children or same-sex domestic partnership benefits.
We have rich experiences of our own to draw on. We must use those experiences to develop a political language that engages our own community and the larger community in a dialogue. The community of caregivers for the disabled that I referred to earlier does this and does it extremely well--and not just at the forums they host. On any given day in Olympia, these advocates are reaching out to every single elected official in the house and senate. In so doing, they build bridges to those with different ideas and beliefs--it's a model for the GLBT community.
Finally, here's another thing I've learned during my time in the legislature: power speaks. When I first introduced the Safe Schools bill five years ago (a bill that was signed into law this past March), I was in the minority party and I was only able to get about a dozen members to sponsor it with me. The next year, I was in the majority and also chair of the $2 billion capital budget--and suddenly the Safe Schools bill had 65 co-sponsors. Was I a better legislator? Perhaps, but more importantly, the language of power was speaking. In order to make advances in the political arena--to protect our relationships, families, and jobs--we must learn how to speak honestly of our own experiences and learn to use the language of power.