Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Demand Everything Immediately So You Can Get Something Eventually"

Cleve Jones - famed AIDS activist, union organizer, inspirational speaker, who's new BFF is Sean Penn - puts his arms around me, 

"My grandmother used to say to me 'You cry so much 'cause your bladder's too close to your eyes!'"

I laugh through the tears, because, yes, I'm crying. Oh boy, am I crying. It's Fresno, I'm facilitating at Camp Courage, and it's been that kind of weekend.....

November 4th was a bittersweet day for our LGBT brothers and sisters in California. Even as we made history for electing a young black man named Barack Hussein Obama to the White House, a narrow majority of California voters chose to take away their right to legally marry. For them, it was one step forward, two steps back.

But here's the thing, rather than accept defeat, they took to the streets. Not only in California, but nationwide. New LGBT leadership grew out of the ashes of the failed "No on 8" campaign and taking a page from Obama, began a grassroots movement organized from the bottom up.

In Los Angeles, former Obama organizers (including my partner in the campaign, Mike Bonin) teamed up with the Courage Campaign to create "Camp Courage" - weekend workshops on marriage equality that borrow heavily from the "Camp Obama" model and the teachings of Marshall Ganz. 

After taking the concept out for a successful one-day test drive in West Hollywood, the organizers took the show on the road: First stop, Fresno.

The attendees, many from Fresno and the large surrounding Central Valley, trickled in and quietly sat down. Immediately, we could feel that there was energy, but it was definitively different from what we experienced before. Trying to put my finger on it, I observed my amazingly diverse group - a lesbian in her 70s, a middle-aged gay man, a lesbian in her 20s, a straight woman (yeah, straight!) and a bisexual girl of just 16. Though we were talking, you couldn't miss the initial impression - "What do I have in common with these people? What have I done by coming here?" As the Camp kicked off, it hit me what the energy was - "Caution."

As I grew to learn, these residents of the Central Valley had been let down so many times before. Fresno, CA is practically the capitol of the Bible belt in California (and yes, there is a Bible belt in California), and the local LGBT population has continually and constantly experienced discrimination and hate from their own city. But worse, they have reached out to their own LGBT community in other cities, raising their voices that they needed help only to get no response. (Fresno doesn't even have a center for the LGBT population to meet at, let alone organize.) During the No on 8 Campaign, they cried out that they needed help, that they were prepared to act, only to receive a few yard signs to put out in response. And even more, they have witnessed the burgeoning movement blooming in their neighboring urban cities only to be forgotten about. Again.

To illustrate just what these burgeoning community organizers are up against, let me share with you an email exchange one of our Central Valley campers had with the Mayor of Porterville, CA - a tiny enclave south of Fresno that unanimously passed a resolution in support of Prop 8.    

This proposition is not an attack on gays, it is just the opposite, it is a reaction to the attack on traditional family marriage that the gay community has started in the quise (sic) of equality and civil rights. Since the 1960's the gays have been eating the elephant one bite at a time and have made some headways mainly by infiltrating our school system.......
By the way I always love the way that the gay community uses the term Homophobes, this ofcourse was a term made up by the gay activist to lable any and all people that dont(sic) agree with their agenda. Homophobe One that is afraid of homosexuals, how ludicrist (sic) is that. I and those that I speak with are not afraid of homosexuals, we just believe as I have stated before that the sexual acitivity between two men or two women is not in the best interest of society as a whole, just like certain drugs, or crimes that bring harm to society......
 Up until the Gnome (sic) was discoverd the gay community insisted that they were born to it, Oopss (sic) there was no conection, so lets (sic) move to plan b, its (sic) a civil rights issue, passed civil unions, still not good enough, lets attack the traditional family marriage. If DNA were trully a factor the homosexuals would have been bread out of society a long time ago by natural progression. Lets just be honest with each other, homosexuals are attracted to those of the same sex. With that understanding we can get pass (sic) the B.S. of equal rights. I suggest you do some research into what marriage was intended to be.

The rest of Porterville's City Council seem to be just as enlightened. This from the campaign website of Brian Ward, who won a seat on the City Council just this year:

Nature argues against homosexuality as an "alternative" lifestyle. Homosexuality is simply unnatural. Speaking as plainly as I can, people have "in holes" and "out holes" in their body. Some holes are designed to take things in, while others are designed to rid things from the body. While some holes perform both functions, the duality of function is evidenced by natural design (the vagina is meant to take in a male penis, but also expel an infant child). We should not confuse the obvious and natural purpose of our body's holes.
Ward lists his day job as a school psychologist with the Burton School District. He and his lovely wife, Yvette, have squeezed out 4 kids in 8 years. So clearly he's an expert in the "innie/outie" hole issue. Feel free to drop him - or anyone on the Porterville City Council - an email sometime if you care for a lively discussion on the subject. They seem more than happy to oblige.

But I digress. As the dark, red heart of the conservative Central Valley, Fresno is also a prime target for any effective campaign hoping to move California:

Much as states like Ohio and Michigan are the bellwether for the presidential election, Fresno -- not Los Angeles or San Francisco -- is the bellwether for Proposition 8. It's a large California city (metro population: 1 million) in the geographic center of the state. It's racially diverse, and split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans. But with no visible gay presence, it's pretty much a place where you can safely get on TV and say "God made it to be Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
No visible gay presence. I think the 150+ "campers", facilitators and staff who jammed the main conference room at the Holiday Inn downtown would beg to differ.

So now that you know a little bit about why the Courage Campaign was in Fresno last weekend, let me share with you why Fresno activists were at Camp Courage. From Unite the Fight:

When we opened the camp, Lisa Powell, the amazing head facilitator, asked the attendees, "Who here is uncomfortable? Who here doesn't know anyone? Who here is wondering, 'What am I doing here?'" Quite a few hands went up, and I could tell by the faces of others, they wanted to raise their hands, too. One 16 year old had been dropped off by their mom, to come to the camp all alone, not knowing anyone. A sure sign of the desperation and the need for community in the area.

One of the first exercises at Camp Courage is for each member of each group to answer one simple question about themselves. This easy exercise slowly began to break the thick layer of ice. It began to dawn of everyone that they're not just going to sit around listening to a droning speaker talk down to them - they were going to be engaged....

I heard stories about the mistreatment from hospitals keeping partners apart while facing fatal circumstances, about children not relating to their gay parent, about a teenager rising above her difficulties at her school, about a straight woman raised in a religious environment who came to realize that her stance in support of the LGBT community could cost her, about a woman and her partner who can't get full coverage for their daughter 's disability. I heard more stories about a trans woman who went to school and had to wet her pants everyday until she was allowed to use the woman's restroom, how others were spit in the face by their fellow Fresno residents simply for being who they were, and so much more.

As I was sitting there, listening to these stories, not being able to keep the tears from welling - it hit me. I'm not here to facilitate. I'm here to learn. I'm hear to listen. I'm here to show these amazing people that they are not alone. They have truly been on the front lines, the real soldiers, facing hate in a town in which the residents are not ashamed to show it, actually proud of it, literally spitting it in their faces. I live in the cush bubble of LA where, if someone does hate me, they're not about to fling it in my face.......

Over the course of two days, with campers driving miles and miles to return, with speakers like Cleve Jones and Dolores Huerta of the union movement to add to the inspiration, with the Story of Us bringing everyone even closer together, with solid friendships between people who were recently strangers developing, with commitments to change and action being made, the sense of community building was tangible.

The recurring them of Camp Courage Fresno was, "I thought I was alone. Now I know I'm one of many, and I never have to feel that way again."

We didn't know it at the time, but the Obama campaign gave all of us who were involved an enormous gift - the knowledge, tools and ability to build movements. It was an honor and a privilege to be in the same room with all the community organizers who had come before us - Cleve Jones, Delores Huerta, Sheila Kuehl, Torie Osborn and Lisa Powell - and with all those who will come after us - Robin McGehee, Anthony Ash, Am Williams, Jay Matthew, Felicia Carbajal and Willow Witte (to name a few among many). All of us together, building towards the future.

So what's next? As Cleve Jones said, "Demand everything immediately so you can get something eventually."

The Courage Campaign has two more Camp Courage workshops planned - April 18-19 in San Diego and May 2-3 in Oakland. Check in with their website - they should be taking reservations soon.

The Courage Campaign is also looking for community members across California who are interested in helping to form "equality teams" and who are willing to host a kickoff house party this coming weekend. Click here for more details.

Meet In The Middle 4 Equality will be holding a rally for national LGBT equality the first Saturday AFTER the California Supreme Court issues its rulings on the Proposition 8 cases. Meet on the steps of City Hall in downtown Fresno at 1:00 PM.

Why Fresno? The battle for equality has to be fought in towns like Fresno, CA — not only in gay-friendly cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. California's Central Valley population is far more reflective of national attitudes towards LBGT Equality and until we engage the communities of "middle-America", we will not gain the full equality we deserve.
Lastly, boycott these businesses whose executives use their cash to fund anti-gay bills or who refuse their gay employees the same benefits as their straight co-workers.

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