There I was, sitting in a hotel lobby in Dallas, TX in 1994. A new friend, just met, was sitting next to me on the fake leather couch. This new friend, Pam McMichael, was telling me about the work of Southerners on New Ground or SONG.
I have remembered that conversation multiple times over the past month. Every time I have read the report of another suicide or learned of more hatred directed from young people towards other young people, bullying based on perceived queerness, Muslim identity, race, ability or immigration status, I have thought about how much where we are today comes directly from that moment in history. Here is what I mean.
While sitting in that Dallas hotel lobby, Pam was telling me about the formation of SONG and, in particular, why SONG was founded: as a creative response to many things, including the rise of the white Christian Radical Right's targeting of Black churches and Black church leaders around the issue of homophobia and the rhetoric of "Special Rights." In 1993, the film Gay Rights, Special Rights, released by the Traditional Values Coalition, used original footage from Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and other interviews to argue that the "gay movement" threatened to undermine and belittle the entire civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Strategic and terrifying, the film presented queerness as only white and only middle class. It showed LGBT people as self-focused and without morality: taking footage from Pride parades and private parties out of context. It asked the viewer, and it presumed a Black viewer, why anyone would want to support rights for a group of people clearly already well off, privileged in their whiteness, and without any respect for how our sexual practices and interests might be experiences by all of the families watching from the sidelines. It depended on separating each from another: LGBT people from Black people.
Most LGBT responses to the film took the form of alternative media and alternate story telling. Many op-eds and fundraising letters were written to oppose the message of Gay Rights, Special Rights. New LGBT-positive films were made, policy strategies were devised and new organizations were formed that focused on gaining legal rights for, in particular, gays and lesbians. While these are all important aspects of making change, SONG's vision was different.
SONG recognized that the Traditional Values' film and all of its rhetoric would have no leverage in a community where each family and each kin network already knew each other's business and had already practiced standing together. SONG also recognized that the Traditional Values Coalition's ability to make this film potentially believable was, in part, the fault of a largely white-led and white-visioned LGBT movement that assumed whiteness as the norm and saw issues of race, economic justice and immigration as off topic. Unless LGBT organizing centrally privileged the ending of racism and xenophobia as part of its work, LGBT organizing would contribute to the separation and hatred that the Religious Right fed upon. And many of us, particularly LGBT people of color, would continue to feel isolated and split by the freedoms that LGBT organizations were attempting to gain.
This work of interdependence was not only about articulating new analysis. Instead, it depended on the sometimes slow and very intentional work of building real, grounded and truth-telling relationships and then letting strategies develop from there. The radical act of getting to know each other and to know how each other survives. Finding out what our issues are and how we can participate in making each other's lives stronger, more supported, more free. This is the kind of work whose results you can't always see until many years have passed. Not in any big picture way, at least.
Gay Rights, Special Rights and its targeting of Black communities was only one piece of the overall strategy of traditional values kinds of thinking. Other strategies included a range of programs, projects and pronouncements that demanded families be nuclear, churches be government, fathers be at the head of all group moments, and right-acting be a sort of controlled morality that depended on controlled bodies. These strategies, at the end of the day, were most successful in giving permission to the privatized untouchable whiteness whose racism is part of what supports the Tea Party, Sarah Palin and the hatred poured towards president Obama. While some Black churches and Black church leaders supported it, the Gay Rights, Special Rights video was not hugely successful in Black church communities. The film's greatest success was in giving many white Christian conservatives further validation for their own hatred. And yes, there is a twisted logic here, but a logic nonetheless.
As the rise of reporting on anti-LGBT bullying and the rise in suicides combined with the rise in xenophobia and targeted acts of visceral racism among junior high, high school and college age young people has spread across the news, I have often thought about this history. The perpetrators are, after all, the children of those times.
Born in the mid to late 1990s as the Traditional Values Coalition and its hundreds of offshoots campaigned on a platform of hate and fear, these children are now in junior high, in high school and in college. They have been witness to the home conversations that supported the kinds of hate-filled signs held up at rallies all over the country. These are the babies born into families who loved them and who passed along a legacy of hate. These are their children or their children's friends who were never taught directly to hate but did not witness often enough its opposite: what it means to stand up for love. But these are not the only ones who have learned from those times. There are other lessons carried forward.
Earlier in October, one of SONG's staff people, Caitlin Breedlove, and her partner were asked to leave a mall in Raleigh, North Carolina, after a security guard witnessed them sharing a brief kiss. When the security guard was asked if he would have made a straight couple leave after doing the same thing, he replied, "no." Cut and dried story, right? An obvious case of LGBT rights being trod upon.
Except that it isn't. Except that October 2010 is 17 years after SONG was founded, 17 years of practicing what it means to be in community together, of listening to each other's struggles and celebrations, of looking towards the whole and towards how we are all connected rather than responding only to an individual moment.
One of best places to view Caitlin's response to this situation is on the Joy Behar Show. There are other reports, particularly North Carolina Public radio where deeper analysis takes place, but the Joy Behar Show is still my favorite. Why? Because in this absolute mainstream moment, here on Ted Turner's moneymaking machine, we experience Caitlin's refusal to separate the violence directed towards queer people from the violence directed towards people of color, indigenous people, immigrants, Muslims and poor people.
This is the difference between two "next generations" of leadership - the next generation that has been taught through hatred and has created an environment in which violence towards self and others is not only conceivable but justifiable. And then there is this next generation of SONG. Caitlin Breedlove, along with Paulina Hernandez, are the current SONG staff who work together with a powerful board of southerners from across the region. And while the word "parented" isn't quite appropriate, SONG is fierce about honoring those elders who brought us to this moment: Suzanne Pharr, Mandy Carter, Mab Segrest, Joan Garner, Pat Hussain and Pam McMichael as well as every other community member who believed in what SONG hoped to create. You can't always tell how things will turn out until enough time has passed. Today, enough time has passed.
Watching Caitlin's response on the Joy Behar Show makes me feel so grateful for the hugeness of this legacy. Because knowing that we are connected, that our movements are connected, and that our liberation is connected is not just an idea, it is a practice. It took 17 years of practice to be able to turn to the cameras, show an easy smile, and say very clearly that this kind of targeting is experienced everyday by people of color, poor people and immigrants and here is an example of one of the ways that queer people are targeted. And to say this as an individual with a huge community right next to you, cheering and recognizing every word. Caitlin spoke for herself and she spoke as part of a huge community of interconnected relationships.
It sounds so simple to just look into the camera and speak as Caitlin did, right? Except that it isn't. If it were that simple, this would be the message on every Ellen show and every local television moment. We are all connected. Violence towards LGBT people is intimately connected to violence towards poor people, people of color, Muslims and women. The hatred begins in the same place, the same assumptions of controlled bodies, of normal lives, of good versus evil. Media moments don't always show the legacy of decisions and struggle and relationship and intention that led to a particular moment of time. There is rarely such a thing as an individual action. Instead, there are movements and histories.
The hardest work is the slow, intentional relationship-by-relationship building that, over time, contributes to a broader community that cannot be bought by fancy rhetoric. This is the work of movement building and it begins with building base. It begins with asking who is most impacted by those issues we seek to change and making sure that they are most at the center of this building. Afterall, who better knows the nuances of violence than those whose bodies are most harmed by it? This is the work that SONG committed to doing in 1993 and continues to learn from and build in 2010.
SONG continues to act from the belief that all of our identities, issues and lives are connected across race, class, culture, ability, gender and sexuality. As a membership-based, Southern regional organization made up of working class, people of color, immigrants, and rural LGBTQ people, SONG calls out the vision for a world where the 3rd shift factory worker and the drag queen at the bar down the block see their lives as connected. This is the world where they are working together for liberation.
And me? Well I am able to witness moments like this one, Caitlin Breedlove, SONG staff person on the Joy Behar Show and elsewhere across the internet, that makes me feel so honored to be part of a fierce and caring queerness that literally and viscerally refuses to separate or to collaborate with any kind of special or separate rights narrative. This is the work of movement building. This is the work that leads to a vision that is greater than the struggles in front of us today. Want to practice with me?
Susan is grateful, deeply grateful, to SONG staff and community and leadership for so much of my learning and to Coya for her help with this piece. www.southernersonnewground.org. And don't forget, it also takes a community of resources to support all of our work. Go ahead, give a gift in honor of this moment. You can do it online. It's on the contact us page. And while you're there, read their newest blog on how isolation kills.