Two images from the week in Albany are ingrained in my mind. The first is of the crowd in the Capitol celebrating immediately after the passage of marriage equality in New York. I will never forget it. But there's another image I'll never forget either.
By Thursday afternoon grassroots activists (those not having any expenses paid by national organizations) had invested days of standing in the halls on the third floor of the Capitol and demanding a vote. They had traveled to Albany by bus or by carpool. They had chanted so long, standing against hate, that they had lost their voices. They had taken unpaid time off of work, or leave from school. They had crammed up to eight people in one hotel room and shared peanut butter sandwiches. They had endured days of hateful tirades and angry Bible-thumping by anti-equality folks. Day after day they had come before anyone else, and they left after everyone else. And they were still at it. Still standing up in the halls. Still witnessing to what they knew was right.
And in the lobby outside the Senate chamber, even while state organization staff worked incredibly long days, paid lobbyists and staff from national LGBT organizations sat on the plush green couches. They played with their iPads and looked bored. And (this is not hyperbole) they talked about how to get to the nearest J. Crew.
They will never get another dime of my money.
Now, before you label me as a naive preacher unaware of the realities of the political system, let me tell you this. The summer I graduated from high school I left my hometown and worked for a congresswoman in Washington, D.C. By the end of the summer any naivete I may have had about the political process was gone. And yet I came back the next summer and continued to be involved in campaigns until I realized that my loyalty to the Gospel tenets of justice trumped my loyalty to a particular political party. I do understand why we need the Washington groups that lobby for LGBT rights in suits and ties and throw black tie galas.
But sometimes I think they believe they don't need anyone else.
I can count on one hand the number of times this week in Albany that I saw a paid staffer from an LGBT group thank an unpaid activist. And all of those times the staffer was from a state level group, not a national group.
Here's what I did see: A national staff member leave the Capitol after waving his hand toward anti-gay protestors and saying, "I can't deal with this anymore." You know what? Neither could the young adults who paid their own way and put up with that abuse every day. But they stayed and fought.
I am sure many of the national people who came to New York were putting in very long days. I thank them for that. But so were the rest of the people in the Capitol. And while it may be true that individually they had more power and influence than your average activist, the reality is that the continuing presence of protesters in the building was part of what forced the Senate to take that vote. The dogged persistence of people who called their Senators, rallied in major New York cities and refused to be silent is what gave them the political capital necessary to successfully advocate for equal marriage.
And, you know what? I watched the other side too. I watched people from the National Organization for Marriage and other groups in the halls. And say what you want about their politics, but they thanked their people, and they respected them.
There is a tradition in Twelve Step communities that relates to group leadership. It states: "our leaders are but trusted servants." I believe that's a good leadership principle. It's the same one I learned in my profession. I am not the served leader. I am the servant leader.
If the establishment LGBT groups want to continue to receive LGBT dollars, they need to think about that. You are not the feudal lords of LGBT equality, and grassroots activists and volunteers are not the serfs. You work for them, and they deserve your respect.
I will always remember what a future senior staffer at a large LGBT organization said to me in 1997. We were in Atlanta, and a lesbian bar had been bombed. I sat in a room with leaders from the LGBT community representing local student organizations. A member of a local grassroots organization stood up and asked why street activists were being shut out of the meetings helping to plan a response. The future staffer turned to me and whispered, "Don't get tarred by that brush." The implication, and disdain, was clear.
Since that day I have always remembered his words. For many years I thought he was right. I thought equality would come dressed in the trappings of Washington legitimacy. And maybe, to some extent, it will.
But I was reminded this week that the Stonewall uprising was not organized by a group with a building in Washington, Harvey Milk's candidacy was not endorsed by the gay establishment, and ACT UP did more to demand AIDS action than just about anyone else. And yet today their efforts would be ridiculed by those who would think they were just naive about the way politics works.
Here's the reality: They're not. They know how to get results. And the groups that are their spiritual heirs should be thanked for their work. Because in the grand scheme of things, they did as much as, if not more than, anyone else to win marriage equality in New York.
See Emily's Live Blog updates from last week in Albany: