Good-bye, Equality California, it’s been a good run
July 26th, 2011
In reviewing an article today about the new direction of a gay political organization, I couldn’t help but think back on a similar decision in our community’s history. Others will, undoubtedly, remember this story differently, but here is what I recall:
In the mid 80′s California’s political gay community came up with the revolutionary notion of coalescing the various factions into a single state-wide representative organization that was the political voice for California’s gay community. Instead of each duplicating the efforts of the other and having no central source of information or progress, various groups would contribute funds, hire a lobbyist, and send a representative to jointly agree on a legislative agenda for that lobbyist to work towards.
The Lobby for Individual Freedom and Equality (LIFE Lobby) sought to set aside partisan differences, regional rivalries, and local power-struggles to work together on presenting, supporting or opposing specific bills. Recognizing that each group brought its own unique contributions, there was a commitment to respect each other and to keep the focus on shared goals: legislation which directly impacted gay people and legislation that directly impacted people with HIV/AIDS.
This was, for a time, an effective model. Utilizing the various connections and approaches of each group but with a shared message and goal, LIFE maximized the potential. Democrats, Republicans, socialists, the ACLU and church groups, people of various races and ideological perspectives came together to achieve a common cause. And the camaraderie which developed was, in many ways, as important to our community as the legislation addressed.
But over time, the lobbyists and leadership developed relationships with others in Sacramento who were similarly engaged and began to see their efforts as symbiotic. As their own personal politics were in agreement with each other, they concluded that they were each but a part of the greater struggle and that they could be more effective working in unison and thus coalition politics became the mindset of LIFE Lobby.
Coalition building can be advantageous. For example, LIFE was itself a coalition of gay interests and HIV/AIDS interests. And while those are two distinct demographics, there was significant overlap and public and political perception linked the two so closely that combining the efforts played off the strengths of both.
But while coalition politics can at times be a smarter, more efficient way to influence change, there are some things to consider:
1. The positive impression that other coalition members have built over time cannot be granted to you but must be earned; however, every negative impression of every other member is immediately yours to defend.
2. Speaking on behalf of a community of voters is only effective if it is on issues about which those voters agree. The lobbyist is not Moses leading his people. His personal views on other matters may not be shared universally among his community and the further he steps away from his direct mission, the fewer actual people he represents.
3. The gay community, in particular, is not homogenous. Drawn from families of every race, economic strata, political affiliation, religious association, ideological belief, and every other dividing quality, gay people are as diverse a community as it is possible to find.
4. No other coalition member cares about your goals as much as they do their own. Unless the level of support you receive is comparable to the amount you are giving, the coalition is not to your advantage.
But, in the thrall of being part of something bigger, LIFE build alliances and made promises and was suddenly functioning not as the gay/AIDS lobby but as a partner in the battle for social change. And there was a desire not to advance the goals of the representatives in the room, which were holding them back, but to change the representatives to be more reflective of the coalition. So new representatives were found and, as their supporting organizations may have been quite small and unable to help fund their participation, the generosity of existing members was needed.
And soon there was a creative new way of defining ‘gay issues’. Because some immigrants were gay, therefor immigration issues were ‘gay issues’. Because some union members were gay, therefor labor issues were ‘gay issues’. Needless to say, this new way of defining ‘gay issues’ did not extend to gay taxpayers, gay home-owners, gay religious adherents, gay fiscal conservatives, or even gay blue-collar Democrat-voting people. Their issues, somehow, did not become ‘gay issues’.
The result was predictable. Eventually the board of representatives had sufficient votes to push aside those who wanted to keep the older focus (which, interestingly enough, was politically diverse) and took a position that was insensitive to the realities of some members.
Faced with an affiliation that would cost them their own political connections, the more conservative members left and sent their own representative to Sacramento. And about then it became apparent whose generosity had been funding the new members which had made the change possible. And although it tottered on for a few more years as a voice for progressiveness, that was the end of the experiment that was LIFE Lobby.
All of which came back to me when I read about the new Executive Director for Equality California and the change in focus which he wishes to bring with him to the organization. (LGBT POV)
Palencia, who officially assumed the job on July 5, advocates a shift in the EQCA’s focus from legislation towards being more of a social justice organization, a move with which the board apparently concurs.
“Every executive director brings their own strengths and approach to the organization,” EQCA Board Co-Chair Clarissa Filgioun told Frontiers via email. “Roland brings a set of experiences that are unique to him and perspective from outside of the political realm. His experience as a person of color and an immigrant will likely inform the organization in a new way. Overall, all of these qualities will be put to work to continue to build on the great work we’ve already done that our members care about—strong legislation, public education, electing fair-minded candidates, marriage equality and more.”
Ron Buckmire, head of the Jordan/Rustin Coalition, agrees. “Roland shares my values as a progressive activist who truly believes that LGBT equality is just one fabulous thread in the intertwined tapestry of social justice,” Buckmire said on July 21. “He’s only been on the job less than three weeks, but I think he’s doing an excellent job so far and I expect that to continue for years.”
It’s ironic. EQCA (then CARE) was born in out of the implosion of LIFE and has served as the gay lobby group in Sacramento since the late 90′s. But with a perspective that LGBT equality is but a thread in a fabric and with significant emphasis placed on Palencia’s ethnicity, it seems pretty clear that to whatever extent that Equality California has served lately as representative of the broader gay community, it no longer does so. And the shift in focus is already evident.
It was gay newsman Rex Wockner who, seeing no movement on EQCA’s part to support the FAIR Act (a pro-gay educational bill) used his own network to rally letters to the Governor. And while some strategists believe that as an effort must be raised to defend this bill (opponents have began signature gathering for a proposition) it might be the the best and most cost efficient time to couple it with an initiative to reverse Proposition 8 – or at least come up with a strategy on the anti-gay effort – Palencia seems to have other priorities.
During the interview, Palencia continually said that no decisions had been made on strategy about both responding to the SB 48 threat, as well as whether or not to return to the ballot to overturn Prop. 8 in 2012.
But Palencia would not get specific about questions such as whether there is a “Decline to Sign” campaign in the works and what an initiative campaign structure would look like.
“We are having conversations with our coalition partners on how to respond,” Palencia said. “We will be coming out with a strategy about the kind of help we will need.”
And Palencia’s vagueness extends to who is involved in EQCA’s decision on the matter or even if any actual gay people are included. (My guess: if you can’t say “yes, there are gay people” then you don’t have any).
But while I think it is fairly evident that EQCA will no longer be a gay organization, I’m not really sure that this is a loss. Under its previous leadership, EQCA used astonishingly poor judgement in its anemic opposition to Proposition 8. So if Palencia decides that reversing the gay marriage ban does not really fit with his social justice agenda, that might be to our advantage.
And, honestly, if my rights need to be blessed as the highest priority of a coalition of progressive heterosexuals before any action is taken, then I’d rather they just sit the effort out. There will always be someone else more deserving of social justice than me and I’d rather work with someone who hasn’t got conflicting priorities.
And perhaps there isn’t as much need for EQCA anymore. It is not the same state that it was in the 90′s and Californians are not the same people. We’ve accomplished a great deal – much of it due to EQCA’s efforts over the years – and each year the legislative battles seem less important and bit more “something for the gays”.
While gays and lesbians in other states are fighting battles over being denied adoption rights, we are getting Harvey Milk Day. And while they are fighting to have any form of recognition of their relationships, our legislation is to require textbooks to teach about the positive contributions of gay people while banning “any matter reflecting adversely on a person due to their sexual orientation.”
I’m sure these bills – along with the nasty rhetoric of those in opposition – fill us with a sense of purpose. But it’s been quite a while since California textbooks reflected adversely on a person due to their sexual orientation and the importance seems a bit, well, contrived.
So maybe its time for EQCA to go serve some other purpose. They had a good long run, accomplished a lot, and (if we forget that unpleasant Proposition 8 issue) can go with their head held high.
But I do have a word of caution for them as they transition away. As the “gay legislative group” EQCA had a niche, an identified role. But the position of ‘progressive Californian political organization that has some interest in gay issues’ is already filled by the Courage Campaign. And I won’t be betting on EQCA.