I want an LGBT movement that is visionary, bold and unafraid of difference. I want an LGBT movement that represents the full breadth and depth of our communities without hesitation or compromise. In the words of Audre Lorde, I want a movement where:
Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialect. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unearthing. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no characters.
I want an LGBT movement that is ready to move into the 21st century with the kind of leadership and risk taking necessary to ensure that we move beyond a narrow single-issue agenda. Simply put, our mutual survival depends upon it.
So what does 21st century leadership look like? Framed another way, what does visionary leadership based on the principles of interdependency look like and why is it important at this moment in our movement's history?
First and foremost, a movement leader that is leading from a place of interdependence understands that a single-issue or narrowly defined LGBT political agenda is just not going to cut it. Although Don't Ask, Don't Tell, marriage equality, ENDA and hate crimes are important issues to many aspects of the LGBT community, they are far from the only issues that impact our communities. The oil spill in the Gulf, environmental racism, reproductive justice, global and domestic economic issues, disability justice, police brutality, immigration, health care and workers rights impact far more people in the LGBT community than the current national LGBT agenda suggests.
In a 2007 article entitled "What it Means to Be a Leftist in the 21st Century," Dr. Cornel West succinctly articulates what activism and leadership in the 21st century must look like in order to grapple with the range of economic, social, cultural and political issues facing so many communities, including the LGBT community. His puts forth an interconnected analysis that demonstrates how issues and daily lived conditions impact communities in multiple ways when he states that:
If you are concerned about structural violence, if you're concerned about exploitation at the workplace, if you're concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, if you're concerned about organized hatred against peoples of color, if you're concerned about a subordination of women, that's not cheap PC chitchat; that is a calling that you're willing to fight against and try to understand the sources of that social misery at the structural and institutional level and at the existential and the personal level. That's what it means, in part, to be a leftist.
To lead in this way means that you are committed to ensuring that all boats rise together and that no community struggling against oppression gets thrown under the bus. My vision of an interconnected 21st century movement would require us to stop fighting among ourselves for the crumbs of "equality" so that we can truly invest in making justice for all central to our work. This means that our "winning strategy" would not be defined by picking and choosing whose rights are entitled to be won first while other oppressed communities are forced to wait in the back of the line.
Waiting at the back of the proverbial legislative and policy line often means that the issues facing those of us who experience multiple oppressions are not seen as germane to the work of mainstream movements.
Rather, in my vision we would be working across communities, issues and identities to get to the root of the oppressions that impact LGBT people and our allies in multiple ways. Our movements would not be operating in silos. Instead, we would all be working to learn about one another's issues and engaging in the hard and necessary relationship building it would take to foster true mutual understanding and cross movement solidarity.
Another "must have" in my vision for an interdependent 21st century movement is that we would be committed to actually building a movement and not just a non-profit industrial complex. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of the non-profit industrial complex, it emerged in 2004 at a conference organized by women of color at UC Santa Barbara, INCITE! entitled: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex." This conference brought together hundreds of organizers and activists seeking a space to address the ways in which the "non-profit structure often obstructs movement building. In a recent article for UTNE magazine the serious pitfalls and challenges posed by the NPIC were defined in this way:
What has happened to the great civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s? Where are the mass movements of today within this country? The short answer: They got funded. Social justice groups and organizations have become limited as they've been incorporated into the nonprofit model. We as activists are no longer accountable to our constituents or members because we don't depend on them for our existence. Instead, we've become primarily accountable to public and private foundations as we try to prove to them that we are still relevant and efficient and thus worthy of continued funding.
Think about it: if we were not all so caught up in the red tape and rat race of funding we may actually be able to make the kinds of connections across issues and communities that could build long term and sustainable political power. The challenge we face is that competition for funding often prevents us from working together to grapple with the big picture. Make no mistake about it, the big picture makes it clear that all individual and collective bodies on the margin of society are right-wing targets for elimination and extermination. This is what we must work together across all of our movements to fight!
Yet, collectivizing our movement strategies to get to the root of these issues is going to require that we share power, resources and remain authentically and deeply invested in one another's individual and collective liberation. A tall order indeed when movement organizations and leadership are tied to a corporate funding system designed exquisitely to keep us from engaging in the hard conversations and ally building across communities that would bring us in strategic concert with one another.
The sad reality is that the existence of the non-profit industrial complex doesn't allow us to put forward a vision of interdependence and long lasting social change. It doesn't allow us to stay rooted in an ethic of justice and community building that would allow movements to reach the kind of scope and scale that makes real change possible. Put another way, the above-linked UTNE article states:
And what are our priorities? Perhaps the real problem is that we don't spend enough time imagining what we want and then doing the work to sustain that vision. That is one of the fundamental ways the corporate-capitalist system tames us: by robbing us of our time and flooding us in a sea of bureaucratic red tape, which we are told is a necessary evil for guaranteeing our organization's existence. We are too busy being told to market ourselves by pimping our communities' poverty in proposals, selling "results" in reports and accounting for our finances in financial reviews.
So why is this 21st century leadership and approach to movement building particularly important right now? In this moment in history the economic, environmental and political issues facing the US and the world are huge. Our world economies are interdependent and if we didn't know that already the current economic melt-down across the globe should give us all a pretty major clue. The oil spill in the Gulf is another example of how we can't contain the impact of an issue to one community or one geographic area. This disaster is damaging one earth and it will have massive ramifications for people, land and animals far and wide for generations to come. These are just two examples that speak directly to why approaching any injustice from an "us and them" perspective gets us nowhere.
The LGBT movement will wither on the vine and die if it doesn't embrace a worldview based in interdependence. The reality is that the national LGBT agenda is resonating less and less with current and future generations of LGBT people who want to be invested in a movement that represents the complexity of the issues facing our communities. The demographics of the United States are changing rapidly and the impact of the perspectives and activism on the part of People of Color and young people cannot be underestimated.
Generationally and demographically speaking, many of us are just not interested in an LGBT movement that sees itself as separate from broader social and economic justice movements. This makes me think that it is high time for the LGBT movement to start making room for 21st century leaders because the long term sustainability of the movement depends upon it!
Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales.