Carmen Vazquez: A Long and Proud History
I am 62 years old. I struggled alongside hundreds of thousands of Americans to end the war in Vietnam. I was among a group of radical students who shut down the City University of New York in 1969 and kept it shut until the college agreed to our demands to keep open admissions and create a Black & Puerto Rican Studies Department.
I worked to defeat the Briggs Initiative in California that would have barred lesbians and gay men from teaching in the public school system. My first of hundreds of speeches as an LGBT activist was at the 1978 SF Lesbian & Gay Freedom Day March and Rally. I was the first director of the San Francisco Women's Building.
I helped create the Lavender Youth Recreation & Information Center alongside some of the most brilliant LGBT youth I have ever known. I went to Nicaragua in support of the experiment in social democracy utterly destroyed by Ronald Reagan. I was on a US delegation to Kenya for the World Women's Conference in 1986. I have been a loud and unapologetic defender of sexual freedom for more than thirty years.
I am a founder of the NYS LGBT Health & Human Services Network which has succeeded in securing more than $55 million dollars in state funding for LGBT health issues. I was a founder and the principal author of "Causes in Common" a national LGBT liberation and reproductive justice coalition.
I led the effort to change the name and focus of Empire State Agenda from a civil rights organization to an organization working for equality and justice. I have been unpaid faculty at the Creating Change conference for twenty years and had the privilege of keynoting the conference on three separate occasions.
Throughout the last forty two years of my life I have understood and practiced the necessity of working in partnership with as many allies as I could find. This includes my partnership and alliance with Lisa and many, many young people and people I consider my own elders.
I have learned painful lessons about my own ageism and adultism, but for the most part, I have felt that I was working with my colleagues and very much in the present. Recently, that has begun to change. I wrote on Facebook: "Having an elder moment and I don't mean forgetting. Despite the respect that comes with the term, I often feel relegated to the past. Not having it. We have very young ones and elders who together have much to say about today and tomorrow, not just yesterday. That's a good thing. Let's behave with respect for our past and an embrace of our future that meets in shared leadership for a future of justice."
Fourteen people responded with comments ranging from support to anger to empathy with the notion that we are "wisdom keepers" expected to dispense that wisdom at appropriate moments; that we are to be honored for our past work and then told to "just sit over there." I deeply appreciated their support and outrage on my behalf, but for me the issue is not just the disrespect and ageism that keeps pushing us elders to the margin. It is the collective loss of resource, strategic thinking and experience that comes from our inability as a movement to understand the necessity of cross generational dialogue and organizing.
This is not new nor is it just our problem. The prevailing cultural norm is one that segregates people on generational terms from kindergarten on. It is one that objectifies youth and romanticizes the glorious "golden years" when we elders "should" be out of sight in some condo in Florida or Arizona and no longer clogging up work stations that younger workers can occupy on the cheap.
It is a culture that eschews the circular ring of life and one that medicalizes aging for enormous profit and when possible, erases us altogether. Unless, of course, you have enough wealth to decide that at 69, you are a viable candidate for the presidency as Mr. McCain did three years ago and Mr. Gingrich proposes to do again. For queers, the problem is compounded by decades of internalized fear of being called out as pedophiles when young ones are seen with older ones.
Whatever the reason, it means that there is an ever widening gap between those of us over fifty and activists and organizers in their twenties and thirties. We don't see each other, talk with each other, work with each other. We deny each other the opportunity of shared experience and what the experience of those of us called "elders" can bring to movement building, strategizing and an evolving vision of social justice. Our organizations create few opportunities for us to work together.
I am aware from my own painful dismissal from an LGBT organization and know from the experience of others, that many of us are simply dismissed. Our organizations create few opportunities (Southerners on New Ground being a significant exception) for the development of young LGBT leadership that gets home schooled not by reading what I wrote twenty years ago or what Audre Lorde wrote thirty years ago but by actually working with those of us still alive and healthy enough to be engaged in political work.
It denies young activists the opportunity to understand that "intersectional" work is not something they invented five years ago but the evolution of a long and proud history of social justice organizing and strategic analysis that have guided my work and the work of Suzanne Pharr, Achebe Powell, Amber Hollibaugh, Mandy Carter, John D'Emilio, Urvashi Vaid, Chrystos, and countless others of us in rural and urban communities who haven't had the kind of national exposure that we have had.
This willful refusal to create an intergenerational dialogue and movement is costing our young ones the songs and stories and organizing lessons to be learned from their elders and costing us elders the inspiration and new visions of our young leaders. It's just a terrible waste.
I know that the movement for racial justice and civil rights did not look like this. I know that the worker's rebellion in Wisconsin does not look like this.
I challenge both our mainstream LGBT movement and organizations and our radical LGBT movement to get off the dime and look ageism on both ends squarely in the eye. I challenge them to consciously develop intergenerational work and strategies that bring us together in shared leadership for a future of justice. Some of us are running out of time.
I remain forever grateful for the respect, leadership and vision that I share with Lisa, colleagues younger than her and many older than me. We need many, many more of those partnerships.
Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz: The Shoulders Upon Which I Stand
I am so deeply aware that I stand on the shoulders of those that have come before me. I am so deeply aware that I stand on Carmen's shoulders and I do everything I can to acknowledge and pay attention to it. I pay attention to the organizing, thinking and vision of elders - particularly queer feminists of color - who have helped shape my worldview and my commitment to justice.
I literally grew up in movements for social justice with the support of elders who took the time to provide sage wisdom, inspiration, training and true partnership. Because of these offerings, I have had the space to grow and make mistakes with so much love and support. For this I am grateful.
I started doing racial justice work in the 90's in my local community. I was in my 20's and I knew that doing social justice work was what I was called to do. However, I didn't know exactly how to enter a world within which I had no previous relationship. As I began to turn out consistently to work on racial justice campaigns and community organizing efforts locally I encountered two types of elders.
On the one hand, I experienced adultism and patronizing attitudes from some elders who clearly felt that young people should be seen and not heard. On the other, I was able to forge relationships with wonderful elders who were committed to racial justice work and to building partnerships with young people who also shared this passion. It was these relationships that have shaped my thinking, organizing practices and vision for intergenerational collaboration.
I take my partnerships with movement elders very seriously. Yes, I said partnership rather than mentorship because I believe that a relationship based on shared leadership and power is key to building effective intergenerational collaboration.
The most powerful experience for me is when I am working with an elder who assumes that we both have something to learn and something to teach. Together, we are on a journey where we contribute to one another's thinking, deepening our growth over time.
I have woven elders into every aspect of my personal and political life. This means that I live and organize in a completely intergenerational way.
Through these experiences I have come to understand that movement elders are often taken advantage of for their wisdom and experience without a commitment on the part of younger people to forming relationships with them based on depth and reciprocity. Elders are not here to serve our needs but, rather, to remain embedded in the fabric, direction and vision of movements they have helped to move for much of their lives.
I have met many elders in my travels with whom I do not share politics or values. I also have experienced significant adultism (and other forms of oppression) from elders in various movements for social justice who believe that young /younger people should be seen and not heard. Elders always deserve our respect but this does not mean that we cannot disagree, challenge or speak truth to power.
In other words, not all elders are the same. They are not a monolith! Some elders are deeply committed to intergenerational collaboration while others are committed to maintaining their position of power.
I love elders I can truly collaborate with. I love elders who are deeply interested in growing and changing as movement's change, who love new ideas and thinking and who don't believe that things have to be done the same way they have always been done. I love elders who take risks, who listen and who are interested in strategizing right here, right now about the current political and economic moment.
With these movement elders I have made a commitment to not engaging in long term organizing or movement building efforts without making sure that they are embedded in the work. Why? Because I believe that the most vibrant organizing efforts start with a multi racial and intergenerational teams of people.
Elders committed to intergenerational partnerships often bring an experienced lens without imposing their agenda. They also bring a wealth of history, strategy, lessons learned and insights that can keep an organizing effort on track. Why waste time, resources and energy we don't have? Why reinvent the wheel?
Elders often raise critical questions and share layers of history that can either help us avoid or work through some of the most difficult organizing challenges we face out there in the movement. Combined with the energy, vision and strategic minds of young/younger people the organizing work we have the potential to do together can make movements move in powerful ways.
Allies In the Present: Fostering Respect for the Past and a Shared Vision of the Future:
We don't believe that what we present here is unique to our relationship or individual experiences. We are also aware that the cultural norms of Native American societies and communities of color vary greatly from the ones we work under in white led organizations. But it is hard not to internalize the prevailing norms of privilege.
Many of us have struggled for years to see and root out the internalization of race and class and gender privilege. We need to bring the same rigor to seeing and rooting out the devaluation of our young and our elders.
Finally, what we offer here is not just a critique of "mainstream" LGBT organizations. What we say is also something we have experienced within younger, progressive and radical organizations with a commitment to movement building and justice but a blind side to the significance of partnerships with elders. It is not acceptable in any arena.
We have often heard and applauded youth organizers who say: "We are not your future! We are here and present!" To that we need to add with insistence that elders are not your past! They are here and present.
They deserve not only our respect for creating the paths to social justice we all walk on, but an invitation to continue working and walking with us.
Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales