Phil Reese

LGBT Challenges: True Leadership

Filed By Phil Reese | August 04, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: California marriage equality, leadership, LGBT leaders, Martin Luther King Jr.

Recent leadership gaffes in California have reminded me of the challenge of leadership in general--specifically LGBT leadership. What is it about our movement that seduces us to keep picking leaders that we are inevitably unhappy with?

In her July 28, Bilerico posting "Repeal Prop 8 Leadership Summit: The Expert Point of View" Karen Ocamb says about the leadership uneasiness in the California gay community, "The rivers could part and a charismatic general who meets everyone's leadership criteria could emerge carrying unlimited funds and access to the latest technology and voter data bases - and still we'd fight and hurl nasty invective at our LGBT enemy in public - and do it with a self-satisfied sneer."

I'm not taking a position on either 2010 or 2012, but on our conspicuously questionable commanders. Leadership is not easy, especially in our community, and I've been on both sides of the rotten tomatoes. Our community, however, is acutely sensitive to inadequacies because of our seeming lack of traction in the past four decades. Though many local laws have been attuned in our favor, and though public opinion swings our way, overall we're still stuck in 1969.

Several bloggers have asked "Where is our Martin Luther King?" But what if we've already had her, and driven her away with our impossible expectations and our unquenchable anger?

I don't think we have actually found-and-subsequently-turned-against our "Martin Luther King." We need leadership not from one great, charismatic demagogue, but quieter, uniting, behind-the-scenes direction. We need not one, but many leaders with the power to make us feel invited to buy into the plan as well as help create it.

We're too smart! We've too much experience! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a young, inexperienced 26 year old man fresh out of graduate school when he became the voice of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He had not worked on hundreds of campaigns and studied volumes of political science, but he was very familiar with his community, and he had a unique ability to connect with people of all backgrounds and make them feel a common bond with him. He valued the contribution that everyone can make.

In an interview with Karen Ocamb here on Bilerico, Eric Bauman, Vice Chair of the California Democratic Party and veteran political tactician, seemed to snub the zealous--albeit inexperienced--young activists because they disagree with predetermined strategy.

Having been in Bauman's shoes before as a frustrated leader, I can understand why it's maddening when the newbies--without acknowledging the practicalities--want to jump in and take over like the fogies are invisible nit-wits. Neither Bauman nor I, however, are going to be the gay community's Martin Luther King.

Dr. King welcomed innovation, delegated and took on a lot more than he could handle, but invited everyone in to take some of the brunt. Why can't we unify behind "multiple" strategies? Our true leaders will recognize all voices on the way to victory.

Back to California; money and strategy aside--and yes it will be much more difficult to raise cash for 2012 if we blow it and lose in 2010--we don't want to tell our young activists, "Hey, all of this passion and energy you have right now? Ignore it. Come back in 2012 a little more willing to take orders, and get out of my face." Whatever's done, don't squander the gusto the new activists have bottled up ready to unleash.

Across America, our leaders today--even our 'grassroots' leaders--are not enticing us to buy into the strategy at all, because they see no reason to offer us a stake of ownership. They 'know' what works, and we don't, and they want us to trust them but stay out of the way. If they do offer us ownership in the 'agenda,' it's on their benevolent terms--we can sit and watch and learn how it's really done. Familiarity breeds contempt--organizers need to stay above the fray--but exclusion also breeds contempt. They're feeling the hot breath of criticism getting a little too close.

Put my skills to work, please! Young activists are dying to be movers and shakers in this movement, and they have great skills to use--but they don't want to play the game. Everyone wants to be the next Harvey Milk! Leaders need to invite young activists to write their own roles in the movement, and define their own positions.

Leaders have to know when to stand their ground and say "No, that is not a strategy we will use," but they also need to know when--regardless of 'conventional wisdom'--to get everyone on board and to take a chance on new roads to victory.


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twinkie1cat | August 5, 2009 1:12 AM

I think what will bring the GLBT community together is not so much a single leader, although one is intensely needed, but a single unifier. Someone with the leadership qualities that will include everyone and focus the issue.

MLK was that leader for the black community. He had one focus--equal rights. The gay community needs that same kind of focus. The leader or leaders will define what those rights are, ignore racial and appearance differences and fight equally for all the gay communities.

But egos will have to be put aside. Yes, there are young activists ready to be arrested if necessary. But for all their enthusiasm it is unlikely that a young adult will understand the history or have the patience to work towards real social change. Dr. King was young, but he had studied non-violent social change extensively and had been to graduate school. In order to bring the community together, the leadership needs wisdom and knowledge, not just enthusiasm. The Freedom Riders of the 1960s could not have done what they did without mature leaders. The gay community will have trouble gaining its rights without respect for and learning from history. It needs the wisdom and knowledge that comes from being around for a while. The gay communities need to join hands across the age gap and the sex gap and the race gap and the appearance gap respect one another. Then the leadership will appear.

I was a little taken aback at your comment about the seeming lack of traction in the last 4 decades because 4 years ago it was actually dangerous to come out in ways that aren't even on the radar now, and there has in fact been a lot of progress in a generation by a lot of brave queers. Its a little unnerving to conclude that the younger generation believes that nothing has happened in the last 4 decades. The community faced and dealt successfully with so many issues including gay men dying of AIDS by the thousands in the 80s. That alone involved heroic efforts on the part of the community as a whole just to get health care, we did pull together then.

But I share your frustration and I'm basically in agreement with you that much more commitment to inclusion is needed now. I also remember how it felt to be young, having everyone discount us in 1967 and how our activism under scary conditions (being gassed and spied on by the FBI) led to the end of the Vietnam War and the beginnings of the lgbt movement. I think knowing from experience that young people can make a huge difference is the reason David Mixner and Tori Osborn and others from that generation are supporting grass roots efforts unconditionally now.

The leaders who are pointing to history to say that you're not prepared are simply afraid. This is something that isn't being talked about, but the reality is that as we assimilate into the American mainstream, gay culture is being diluted and the people who have built their lives and careers exclusively around lgbt institutions are understandably feeling they have something to lose. Read David Mixner's 4 part series to get a better sense of our actual history and have some compassion for them. But carve out your own future and align with those who are supporting a much broader coalition. There is room for all of us and we definitely need what you bring to the table.

Rick Sours | August 5, 2009 7:44 AM

Unity is needed within the LGBT community; this is
the way in the past all other minority groups have
gained full equality and equal rights.

Just to play Devil's Advocate - is "unity" what we need? Isn't our diversity one of our biggest strengths?

Rick Sours | August 5, 2009 4:25 PM

There is a big difference between unity in strength
for common goals and diversity of the LGBT community as a group.

I can certainly appreciate frustrations with our LGBT leadership, but must point out that the world of 1969 is not the world of 2009. I am thankful for that! One of the challenges for any leader in the LGBT movement--and there are many--is that we are a people whose individual identities have been forged in our own personal experiences of oppression, discrimination and, ultimately, determining that we will control our destinies and our lives. While there can be many people in our lives who offer us support in the journey of coming out, it is ultimately a very personal and individual experience, for each of us. I believe that all of our leaders face an extra challenge: mobilizing, inspiring and motivating a community of existential individuals to act as one force to achieve a goal. It is as if many of us think: "I am. I created myself. I therefore know the best way for all of us to move forward because I have been there and done that." But our identities as LGBT people--our consciousness of our identities--is not, in and of itself, power to change institutions, laws, society. That comes through collective will and action. We do need voices of experience in all political projects and we need new energy and will. The LGBT movement is a proliferation of organizations at all levels of society, each one working on an aspect of freeing ourselves from the oppressions of homosexuality and gender conformance. I believe the key to our success is to recognize the valuable and important work being done by all of our organizations and all of our leaders, and recognizing that each org and each leader has something valuable to bring to the discussions, and that some leaders will also have more experience, more expertise and more wisdom about how best to move forward. Winning in California will require energy and determination, but also an effective campaign strategy that is inclusive of all who want to put their queer shoulders to the wheel.

Anthony in Nashville | August 5, 2009 11:54 AM

Bil, in the abstract I agree that diversity should be a strength. In practice I am starting to think that it's one of the biggest issues within the LGBT community because we can't develop a consistent message or decide on our priorities.

Since we exist in every demographic, we could be showing the universality of the LGBT experience. But too many of use that "diversity" against other members of the community, whether it's gender, race, economics, religion, etc. I think we come off as a confused, petty, and bickering group of people to straight society.

Everyone wants to be atop the social scale and given the same attention regardless if their ideas are on the fringe or not. I'll use the ever-expanding alphabet soup as an example. We started as the "gay community," then "gay and lesbian," "gay lesbian bisexual," "gay lesbian bisexual transgender," and now "gay lesbian bisexual transgender queer intersex asexual allies." That's too much, and shows that some aspects of the "community" are more interested in validation/attention than in achieving political/social equality.

Phil- this is not directed at you, maybe a question for Bil- or maybe just thrown out into the ether.

I keep hearing from the 2010 crowd, the march on washington crowd, and others- this, the young people want it now.

I feel like young people are being used as a prop to lift up dubious ideas.

to bil i guess and others- i would like to stop hearing from old folks talking about what young people want and from the young folks themselves.

there is this intense irony of having seasoned activists saying well young people want this- but then not hearing the voices of those young people directly.

Jeremy, this comment got me feeling very conflicted, which makes it great. The only constructive conversation--in my opinion--is conversation that makes us uncomfortable, especially about ourselves.

First thought that went through my head: 'well, I'M young!' Except, I've been at this LGBT rights stuff almost a decade; and while I don't think that makes me a seasoned veteran I do think that makes me a little too experienced to lump myself with the 'youth' that I think you're talking about: the dis-empowered voices of folks just becoming aware of the movement, and who will lead once we can't.

And that's where my conflict came in. Though I advocate for the youth, my very next thought was 'well they just don't KNOW as much as we know, they weren't there, they don't have the experience.' It would seem that I didn't even read my own post. The youth voices are going to INHERIT this fight. They have a big stake in this and need to be seriously included in the dialogue in a way that empowers them, WITHOUT alienating those of us who feel we paid our dues to have a say.

They may be young, but they're not stupid. Why AREN'T we giving the youth more of a voice in all of this? We tell them "Go write this Senator," and "Go carry a sign over here at this march." But by and large, they aren't on the boards, they aren't on the committees, they aren't being given any reason to invest in this fight, other than the compelling reasons we all had to get involved. Let’s sweeten the deal for them. Lets welcome them as peers. Peers with things to learn, but peers none-the-less. Give them the microphone. Maybe a hard pill to swallow, but will yield amazing results.

I think it goes without saying this comment does not apply to every activist or every organization ever--I held a prominent board position when I was fairly newly involved, and was replacing someone even younger than myself--but we all know the hierarchy shoe fits in general.

Phil- I totally feel ya. I turned 30 in 09'. I remember when I was considered youth. Its been tough to let go of that mantle.

Luckily, I work in the labor movement where youth is considered 40 and below (which is another issue altogether). So in labor circles if it gets P@W in the room I'll use that hat fully. But not in the LGBT-world. But that's just my own personal thing.

I like to think that I was 21, I had many wonderful mentors (still do) who helped impart the wisdom of age without squashing the passion of youth. I don't know what I would have thought about 2010 if it had been 2000, but I do know even then, I had people teaching me, how to be inclusive and how to run a real grassroots campaign.

I know there are plenty strategic-thinking young people out there with lots of energy and smarts that we need to hear from.

Maybe Bilerico could partner with NYAC and do some voices of the next generation piece or something, accompanied, of course, by the theme music of star trek the next generation.