Last week, LGBT civil rights leaders from across the country held their five day summer meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. The Equality Federation, a national alliance of state-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organizations, gathers movement leaders every August as an opportunity to network, teach, learn, and share.
Campaign Manager Dan Furmansky, who serves on the board of directors for the Equality Federation, will continue to share with you over the coming days insights from leaders who are the backbone of the LGBT civil rights movement.
Following is our Q&A with LGBT civil rights leader Howard Bayless of Alabama.
Howard J. Bayless III is an American healthcare professional and politician from Birmingham, Alabama . On October 9, 2007, he was elected to the Birmingham Board of Education, making him the first openly gay man elected to public office in the state of Alabama. Howard is a longtime member of the Equality Federation board, and also serves on the Victory Fund Campaign Board, AIDS Alabama and is involved in many organizations in Alabama. He is the previous Board Chair of Equality Alabama the LGBT statewide organization.
Q: Alabama is often considered one of the more regressive states when it comes to LGBT equality. How does the lack of legal advancement affect your ability to remain steadfast in your advocacy over time?
One of the greatest things about Alabama is its people. They are warm, friendly and incredibly giving. When they get to know you it forever changes them. That is the work in Alabama….making sure that the people here are meeting LGBT people in ALL aspects of their lives. I know that for many people in my community it is hard to stay here, however we can create the community that we desire if we stay and are out and open about who we are. This year for the first time ever the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute will be curating a body of work by a local lesbian artist that highlights lesbian relationships and that in Alabama many of them cannot show their face because of the possible consequences for their families. This event at this venue would have never been possible if LGBT people had not been working to create our own community and changing hearts and minds.
Q: Among all sectors of Alabama society, where do you see the most support emerging for LGBT people here in 2011?
I see the most support emerging from other disenfranchised communities. I think the tumultuous session in our state legislature and in the Congress has given us all pause for the future. Gains that we thought we had been making within the progressive movement are quickly being turned back by a gang of bullies. The Bullies aren’t going to stop with immigration; it’s just their first attack, soon they will go for other POC and women and then back to the gays. I believe that our strength will come by working together and our collective force will become more galvanized.
Q: Where have you gained the most ground over the past 10 years?
The most ground I think we have gained has been in places where we have served in public office. [One example of this is] State Representative Patricia Todd. Since she has been in the state house the number of bills filed against our community has decreased, which is big progress for us. Another example would be my service on the school board where I was able to change the school systems policy on bullying. It is the only school board approved policy in the state of Alabama that includes sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. So the message is we need some good LGBT people to run and serve in public office!
Q: This year, Alabama passed what is considered the most anti-immigrant law in the United States of America, but hasn’t appeared to pursue anti-LGBT legislation as aggressively as other states. Do you feel immigrants are considered an easier political target in Alabama? How do the LGBT civil rights and immigrant rights communities work together in your state?
In Alabama I think we can attribute the lack of anti-LGBT legislation to two things. One of course being that we have representative Patricia Todd who has certainly created relationships with conservatives. The other reason is that for this year that wedge would not have worked. Conservatives know from their polling data that there had to be a new wedge, something to divide us all. It has been an effective tool for them in winning elections.
Immigrants are an easy target in Alabama, just as any disenfranchised community is…you must remember that in Alabama anything that is different is not something we embrace here. If someone does not look like us or talk like us we prefer to push them away–that is of course until we are forced to get to know them–only then do we change our tune.
Since we have very few progressives in the state, we all try and work together. Equality Alabama signed on to one of the amicus briefs filed by the ACLU of Alabama against HB 56. I think ALL of the progressive groups in our state could be more effective if we would all work together more.More >
Today, LGBT civil rights leaders from across the country wind down their five day summer meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. The Equality Federation, a national alliance of state-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organizations, gathers movement leaders every August as an opportunity to network, teach, learn, and share. This year’s meeting will close out with a breakfast hosted by Fair Wisconsin, with special guest Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin.
Campaign Manager Dan Furmansky, who serves on the board of directors for the Equality Federation, will continue to share with you over the coming days insights from leaders who are the backbone of the LGBT civil rights movement.
Following is our Q&A with LGBT civil rights leader A.J. Bockelman, Exective Director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization.
A.J. Bockelman joined PROMO as Executive Director in July 2007. A.J. holds a B.A. in Business Administration from the University of Evansville. After spending 15 years in Human Resources within the travel industry, A.J. changed career paths to devote his energies to non-profits, including working as the Development Director for a local after-school and mentoring program. Prior to becoming a staff member at PROMO, A.J. was a long time volunteer and community activist. A.J. started as a community volunteer for Challenge Metro, a gay and lesbian crisis line in 1994. A.J. joined the PROMO Board of Directors in 2006 and previously served on the Human Rights Campaign, Board of Governors for five years.Â As the Executive Director or PROMO, A.J. has focused on building community partners, strengthening the infrastructure of PROMO and creating systemic change in our state legislature.
Q: Unless you are in the role, it’s impossible to understand what it’s like to be a spokesperson on issues related to identity-based politics, such as you experience advocating publicly as a gay man for LGBT equality. How would you describe the personal nature of your work to those who aren’t “professionally” LGBT for a living?
I find it a bit ironic only because when I came out as a teenager, I had said to my parents, ‘being gay is a part of who I am, but it does not define me as a person’. I believe that for me it has always been a calling. A part of my personal history includes my family’s wish for me to become the family priest. During my the summers in high school, I spent a few weeks at the seminary every summer. I must admit that it was an attractive opportunity for me – a call to a mission within a broader social justice construct. Yes, I’m talking about the post-Vatican 2 Catholic Church.
On an extremely personal level, I chose to downplay that desire to seek a social justice role in society by throwing myself into a business degree and working for nearly 15 years in the HR side of the travel industry. However I never fully reconnected with the other side of my personality until I acknowledged my desire and need to be involved at a community level. Working to advance LGBT equality isn’t just a job; for me, it is a mission. So while there is a professional capacity to it, I’ve never felt that it is a professional position.
Q: What personally keeps you moving forward day after day in your commitment to growing your strong state-based movement at home in Missouri and across the country?
I must admit that the day to day can be a challenge. There are days – usually Thursdays, oddly enough – that we get calls from community members across the state that have experienced discrimination in some way. In a handful of those cases, we can give some sort of a referral to hopefully alleviate the situation. However for the vast number of those calls, we have to deliver the difficult news that you can in fact be fired from a job because you are gay; kicked out of an apartment because you are a lesbian; and all to often completely denied access to services because you don’t conform to gender norms.
What keeps me going is looking at the broader movement towards equality and the key role that a state like Missouri can play in the broader dialogue. Whether we like it or not, the growth we are seeing in pro-LGBT legislation and positive changes in public opinion are coming about because of the incremental changes we are making at the state and local level. Just a recent example from Missouri comes from back in April when University City, a progressive suburb of Saint Louis, passed a domestic partner registry. It was a simple no brainer vote for the community – literally taking less than 10 hours of planning with and advocacy combined. The amazing thing that happened as a result of this ordinance is that we have no less than 7 different municipalities in the region – not nearly as progressive – now actively interested in passing nondiscrimination or a domestic partnership registry.
In short, the day to day can be a challenge between managing budgets, conflicting personalities and organizational capacity, but I’m continuously renewed and enriched by seeing these gains build up over time and the systemic changes that it inherently brings with it.
Q: While some states have the luxury of focusing on marriage equality, Missouri is still one of the states that does not ban discrimination against LGBT people. Your organization has been advocating for the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act for some time, to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, and access to public services. Polling generally indicates that the public supports anti-discrimination laws. Is that the case in Missouri as well? What are the bill’s likely chances of passage in the next year, and what are the main stumbling blocks?
I would love to be able to say we would see the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA) pass next year, however we don’t sugar-coat our goals. Realistically we’re looking at a minimum of 2-3 more years more work before we see it realized as law. We’re actively working on local ordinances that shore up the major metropolitan areas within the state. Within the next year, that will account for nearly 1/3 of the population of Missouri. At the same time, we’re building relationships in the second tier cities with populations typically under 50,000. We know LGBT folks and allies live there, but we’ve never been able to actively engage those personalities to show up at lobby day or pick up the phone to call their state rep or senator.
We have been advocating for MONA for over 11 years now, but we’re not discouraged by that long history. In fact the opposite is quite true. After being introduced for a full decade, we finally got our first hearing on the bill in 2010 and earlier this year managed to bring it to the House floor for a vote. We lost that vote, but it has proven as a valuable test which identifies new potential allies amongst moderate Republicans; confirmed support amongst nearly all of the Democrats; and confirmed for us that the core outline of our plan to gain full nondiscrimination in the state is working. One other key indicator, in comparing ourselves to other states that have been successful over time, is that we managed to get our moderate Governor to issue an Executive Order banning discrimination in state employment. While the move is largely symbolic, it has been an integral part of the path to equality in other states.
Q: Tell us about the role of the faith community in Missouri in promoting equality for LGBT people.
We are fortunate to have formed a partnership with Faith Aloud (www.FaithAloud.org). Several years ago in our efforts to identify friendly churches and faith leaders, we realized that as an organization, we don’t speak faith. We tend to speak politics, outreach and education. Our partnership with Faith Aloud has allowed us to collaborate with an amazing faith leader by the name of Reverend Rebecca Turner around both LGBT and reproductive rights. She has been able to identify friendly clergy in nearly every county around the state ranging from UU to Catholics and Jewish leaders. When we are looking to engage that community around an issue – as we recently did for a court case challenging survivor benefits for a surviving partner of a trooper killed in the line of duty – we collaborated with the faith community to build a network of town halls and clergy breakfasts talking about the role of faith communities in becoming LGBT friendly and communicating the need for broader relationship recognition opportunities for same sex couples.More >
Over the coming days, Campaign Manager Dan Furmansky, who serves on the board of directors for the Equality Federation, will bring to you insights from leaders who are the backbone of the LGBT civil rights movement.
Following is our Q&A with LGBT civil rights leader Dr. Laura Belmonte of Oklahoma.
Dr. Laura Belmonte is Professor of History and Director of the American Studies Program at Oklahoma State University, where she receives high ratings from students in all areas except for the “easiness” of her classes. A longtime LGBT civil rights activist, Dr. Belmonte is a co-founder and vice president of The Equality Network (TEN) in Oklahoma, a published historian, and serves on the board of directors of the Equality Federation.
Q: Laura, tell us about the founding of TEN. How did it come about, and how has it managed to survive as an all-volunteer led organization?
15 years ago, when I moved to Oklahoma (for my job) after living in places like Atlanta, DC, and Charlottesville, I was truly horrified by the political culture. After just whining about it for a while, I decided I had two choices: put my head in the oven and blow out the pilot light… or work for change. Obviously, I chose the latter. While working for LGBT equality in Oklahoma can be immensely frustrating and difficult, it is also incredibly rewarding. We haven’t “won” as a movement until we secure victories on the front lines of states like mine.
After serving on the board of Oklahomans for Equality (the organization that runs the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center in Tulsa), Kathy Williams and I co-founded TEN because we knew that the LGBT community desperately needed a consistent presence at the state capital and a strategic plan for local and state-level policy change if it was ever going to seize the initiative on affecting equality. We also knew that it was critically important to empower people with the skills and knowledge necessary to be effective advocates. So, we fused our mutual love of politics, passion for LGBT equality, and experience in non-profit leadership and created TEN. We are now about 2 1/2 years old.
Q: Oklahoma hasn’t made any advancements on the state level legislatively to protect LGBT people, but from our conversations, I know there have been very real advancements. Can you talk about these advancements and what they mean to LGBT Oklahomans?
One of the first projects we did through our 501 (c) (3) arm, TEN Institute, was to create a database of municipal nondiscrimination ordinances and employment policies for public employees. When we finished the project, we were positively stunned to discover that 7 municipalities, some of them extremely unlikely places, had sexual orientation in their public employee protections. This completely shattered the guiding assumption of the activist community that we had achieved nothing at any level. We have since been able to use this information to leverage change elsewhere, most significantly in Norman, Oklahoma. We were brought in as advisors to the Human Rights Commission and it was very powerful for them to see that other communities, most smaller than theirs, had stepped up and done the right thing. That inspired the HRC – and I think, lessened their anxieties – and they added sexual orientation and gender identity to their public employee protections, thus becoming the first municipality in the state with transgender inclusion.
Victories like this might seem insignificant in comparison to say, winning marriage in New York, but in a place like Oklahoma, it is almost impossible to overstate how vital winning incrementally is. Far too often, LGBT Oklahomans and their allies feel a sense of hopelessness because the collective negative impact of an increasingly conservative legislature combined with a very strong anti-LGBT religious culture seems impossible to challenge. Disproving that on any level is huge… and starts laying the building blocks needed to push for broader change.
Q: On face value, Oklahoma legislators are overtly hostile to LGBT people, most notably, the infamous Sally Kern. Is that an accurate perception? In what ways, if any, have you noticed the hearts and minds of OK legislators changing over the past several years on LGBT civil rights?
Personally, I wish that people would simply ignore Sally Kern and stop extending the 15 minutes of fame she never deserved in the first place. She is not an effective legislator and is marginalized even by her own party’s leadership (she was also reprimanded this past session for making some very inflammatory comments on women and African-Americans.)
But Sally Kern is dangerous in that her extremism gets so much attention that it often allows her 100 colleagues in the House to escape scrutiny, when, in fact, a considerable number of them share her views but don’t articulate them as loudly or maladroitly. We need to focus on our energies on all of those legislators opposing LGBT equality, not simply target Sally Kern.
At the same time, we also need to empower the quiet bloc of representatives who tell us privately that they support LGBT equality and are aware attitudes on LGBT issues are shifting rapidly, but who are afraid there will be political hell to pay if they speak out for change. We as advocates need to mobilize enough their constituents to give them the backing and security they need if they are going to risk inciting opposition.
Finally, we also need to make sure that we continually support and thank the small bloc of representatives who have consistently defended LGBT Oklahomans in the face of intense hostility. We must never take for granted the courageous reps who do the right thing.
In terms of broader trends on legislators’ attitudes evolving, we are at a critical juncture. Many representatives are starting to understand that popular attitudes toward LGBT equality, particularly among people under 35, are changing and therefore so must they. They understand that these changes transcend party and religious lines. Unfortunately, most of them are still too cowardly to champion LGBT equality publicly. I understand that timidity because these reps co-inhabit a legislature that has a very militant, powerful conservative bloc that is dominating the legislative agenda. I firmly believe there will be tipping point toward pro-equality, but we are definitely not there yet.
Q: In much of the country, the trajectory towards LGBT equality is happening rapidly, from passage in New York of marriage equality to the proliferation of civil unions laws in Illinois and Hawaii and Delaware, to the enactment of gender identity anti-discrimination statutes in Connecticut and Nevada. When do you think similar gains will come to Oklahoma, and how will they be achieved?
I think that there is almost no chance of legislative change on marriage in Oklahoma. Any change will likely result from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Congressional repeal of DOMA would help some, but there is still a multi-facted amendment in the Oklahoma Constitution (passed in 2004) that defines marriage as one man, one woman, prohibits recognition of same-sex marriages originating in other states, and outlaws other types of relationship recognition like civil unions. That presents a huge legal obstacle that must be struck down before any change on marriage can transpire.
On non-discrimination, I think there are lots of opportunities for change at the local level and within the private sector. Perhaps with the passage of some LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances (currently, there are none), we could move statewide legislation of that nature. That, however, is going to be a very slow, long-term process, especially if the make-up of our state government does not change. At present, conservative Republicans control every state-level office and both chambers of the legislature. It has not proved a political environment conducive to progressive issues of any sort, not just LGBT. Our friends in reproductive justice, immigration rights, workers rights, and youth advocacy communities (among others) can attest to that.More >
The fabulous campers and advisors of SWUUC Youth Camp filmed a Standing on the Side of Love fan video. Their enthusiasm is contagious!
From Rev. Daniel Kanter, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX
On Tuesday, August 9th, a contingent of Unitarian Universalists, activists, and other faith leaders met with Sheriff Lupe Valdez of Dallas County at a meeting organized by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE). Sheriff Valdez is part of a controversial national taskforce reviewing the Secure Communities program. “Secure Communities” is the latest attempt to ensnare local police into enforcing unjust immigration laws with results that harm us all: separated families, shattered trust in law enforcement, increased racial profiling, and more.
Over 100 people, including thirty Latino college students, ACLU organizers, Spanish-speaking community members, local and regional law enforcement officers, and twelve UUs from our church, came out to testify and to witness. Sheriff Lupe Valdez, Acting Deputy Director of the Homeland Security Advisory Council Mike Miron, Advisory Council Executive Director Becca Sharp, and Advisory Council members Sister Rosemary Welsh, Arturo Venegas, and Adrian Garcia heard testimonies of arrests for traffic violations that ended in deportation. Except for one police officer, all the people who spoke called for the abolishment of S-Comm. I asked the panel to listen to the passions in the room with ears that hear and eyes that see.
The statement I prepared for the hearing read:
“My name is Daniel Kanter, Senior Pastor of First Unitarian Church of Dallas. I am here to stand on the side of love with immigrant families, students, and laborers.
My religion says love is the only guide we have to bring about the kingdom of heaven which is not one which treats all fellow human beings with anything but dignity and worth. My religion says people should not be treated differently because they ‘look illegal’. And my religion says families should not be dismantled when we know a strong family is the core of any secure strong community.
We have a moral responsibility to question programs like ‘secure communities’ and see if their names are political tools to manipulate us all into treating some in ways that we would not want to be treated ourselves.
The secure communities program is designed to keep communities safe from criminals but according to ICE’s own statistics over half the people it is detaining and deporting have no criminal record or only simple misdemeanors.
The program is creating communities of fear and distrust not hope, prosperity, and pride.
What we need are programs that help immigrant families understand the path to citizenship and to find ways to help them build up our communities not programs that tear them apart.
As a person of faith, I ask you to consider the call to stand with the sojourners among us and help create the kingdom of heaven, one of mutuality not fear. Please reject Secure Communities.”
I hope you will join me and Standing on the Side of Love in doing what you can to defeat ‘Secure Communities’ in favor of communities of love.