Phil Reese

Future of LGBT leadership in Illinois Part I: Anthony Martinez

Filed By Phil Reese | January 06, 2011 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Anthony Martinez, future, Illinois, leadership, movement

This is the first in a series of interviews with both established and up-and-coming Illinois LGBT leaders in this period of transition for our state. Look for another one with Andy Thayer in a few weeks, and more to follow after.

Anthony Martinez_1.jpgAnthony Martinez is currently on the Resource and Development Committee of the Board of Directors for Vital Bridges, as well as a member of the Governing Board for The Civil Rights Agenda--two Chicago-local organizations making a difference in Illinois. In December 2008, he co-founded LGBT Change which seeks to bridge and unite divides within the LGBT movement both locally and nationally. He graduated in 2002 from Drake University with a BFA. He began LGBT activism at Drake in the Bisexual Gay Lesbian Ally Alliance at Drake (BGLAAD) when he was elected to the board. Since coming to Chicago he has volunteered for many organizations including Test Positive Aware Network, Equality Illinois, AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and PFLAG.

I sat down with Anthony recently to discuss the future of the LGBT movement and the state of the community in Illinois.

Phil Reese: So anyway tell me a little about LGBTChange--no, first, tell me a little about how you got into activism.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I also sit on the Board for The Civil Rights Agenda with Anthony, though I've not been active this semester.]

Anthony Martinez: Well actually I started really young I helped lobby for a bill and wrote an editorial when I was in middle school--7th grade--it was for anti-smoking. It was in Albuquerque New Mexico, for age restrictions and public space smoking. So they were going to limit where you could smoke in the city to like parks and stuff like that, but it had to be a certain amount of feet from the playground, stuff like that. I was actively involved with helping to push that bill as a youth; focused on that. There was a group of five of us from my school that took part in that. That was my first foray into activism.

But I didn't really get involved in LGBTQ activism until the university level. I was active in our gay-straight alliance--BGLAD--at Drake University. We had a big rally for equal marriage at the Capitol (in Des Moines) and a large contingent came from our school. We had a march up to the Capitol, and the Westboro Baptist church was there waving their "God Hates Fags" signs and everything. Got into the rally and did the whole rally at the state Capitol--and that was just a really awesome moment from me.

From there I graduated and moved to Chicago. I started, you know, volunteering for multiple organizations, like TPAN and AIDS Foundation of Chicago and Equality Illinois; I got involved with rallies that GLN hosted. It was really when DOMA passed, I think, that really galvanized me, and I started feeling like I really wanted to be more active, more involved. I kind of found that the big established, big name organizations in Chicago that were really for the community, really didn't have volunteer opportunities beyond database entry, putting together administrative tasks--things like that. Nothing beyond one day a year--you know like when Equality Illinois would do the lobbying in Springfield--other than that there was no active role that I could take, and

PR: --top down instead of grassroots--

AM: Exactly. And you know the grassroots organizations that were here had been established for a long time. I did some things--you know there was a sit-in at David Orr's office, to make him give marriage licenses to same-sex couples. You know, Sherry Wolf and Andy Thayer kind of led that. I just felt that a lot of their actions were a little too radical, almost. The rhetoric, and the way that they would speak; you know we're not in the ACT UP era, and like, that vitriol, is--I don't think--as effective as it once was.

PR: --probably depends on the issue and the audience--

AM: Absolutely. It was absolutely acceptable after Prop 8, but when its a random day in the middle of the week in Chicago and we're storming into David Orr's office screaming at him, and he's like "There's nothing I can do," you know. I just didn't feel like we were really making that large of an impact.

So moving into kind of like, getting into [the Presidential] campaign--I was really behind Hilary. Then after the primary, I moved into Obama's camp, and really pushed hard to get him elected. It was through that organizing process that I realized how effective grassroots can be, and how really there wasn't really that same organizational structure within these other groups.

From that was really born LGBTChange. You know, we got together right after Obama was elected, and he wanted to hear from different organizers; what they felt like the agenda should be for the next year. So we got all of the organizations in Chicago together and went through his entire platform, and talked about what should be added to that platform, and then sent that recommendation off to Obama with twenty-five different "community leaders," that came and spoke on different topic areas--you know--like equal marriage. Art Johnston and Rick Garcia spoke about that. Adoption: Jim Madigan, who was an attorney at Lambda Legal spoke about that. And from that experience we kind of moved in and created LGBT change. We felt like bringing all of these voices together and having this think tank was such a unique idea and had really never been done. The current leadership, you know, didn't really extend beyond their own organizations to try to pull together in coalition and really work together. So that's what we really tried to start doing.

PR: You described LGBTChange as more grassroots than anything we'd seen in Illinois at that time. Can you describe how LGBTChange is 'grassroots' and describe the structure: the membership and some of the strategic goals of LGBTChange.

AM: You know, grassroots organizing... a lot of people throw that word around all the time. Even Equality Illinois says that they have grassroots organizing. I personally disagree with that only because most of the organizations, I feel, that have been around, have really targeted leaders, and tried to change leaders' minds, and tried to change those "in control," those in charge, and change their minds and their perceptions. That is absolutely appropriate and needs to be done.

But for me grassroots organizing is really about community and about volunteerism and thriving. Everything that's done is through the community; the community is always the focus. Everything that we do, we try to involve the community in what we're doing. What I mean is, we have the new Faith Project--our new project and initiative that we're really focused on. What its really about it creating a safe space for LGBTQ people of faith to come together and really discuss their issues and how they live in this really weird kind of limbo land.

The broader LGBTQ community isn't always welcoming of the religious, so they have a hard time expressing that part of themselves within the queer community. The other side of that, within the faith communities that these people are a part of, some are in really really accepting--like, the Metropolitan Community church--which is really driven by their LGBTQ membership. So they feel, of course, very comfortable speaking about that. But then there are other people kind of hiding within churches that aren't really recognized as part of the congregation, so they don't necessarily feel as comfortable speaking about that part of their lives.

So really what we try to do is create that safe space for people to discuss their faith and discuss the intersection of faith and the queer community; and how we can then transform that into action and really take the community and use the collective power of the community and say "we are of faith, we are queer, and--you know--this rhetoric from the right about how we're all constantly drinking and constantly partying, and are sinners," and things like that, and say "there are millions of queer people that live their lives through faith and through Christ and through Judaism or through Buddha and through whatever means of faith that they find that works for them." So really using the power of community. So a lot of what we really try to do is unite and empower the community and then transform that collective power into action to then move forward. So that's really for me what grassroots organizing is, and its really about reaching out beyond our safe spaces and trying to encapsulate all of the voices across Illinois, across Chicago.

You know a lot of "gay Chicago" is concentrated on the north side, but there are hundreds of thousands of queer people outside of the north side. That's really what our biggest goal is over the next year. To expand our network, and to really try to reach out to the rural areas of Illinois and to the south side of Chicago and the west side of Chicago. Because what we've heard from legislators is that they're not... they don't think [gay issues] matters to them if they're on the west side or the south side, because the queer community is on the north side. So we need to show them that there are queer people everywhere, and the only way that we can do that is reaching out to the community and finding those people, and then inspiring them and helping them--empowering them--to then reach out to their legislators and say "look, I'm here, and I'm a constituent, and you need to vote for this for me."

PR: How do you do that? I've lived down state--in a city, but its a really rural area around me--so its a lot different than North Halsted. So the LGBT people--while there's tons of them out here--they are much different, and they respond to things different. So how do you reach out to people, let's say in southern Illinois, or on the south side of Chicago, whose goals are different and whose values are different than we traditionally see in outspoken, more urban-focused LGBT community organizations?

AM: Yeah, I think a lot of where the hangup has been in the past is ownership. You know, with a lot of organizations, the hierarchy is such that the ownership is in the top of the hierarchy, whereas the community at the bottom isn't as involved and active within the organization. Our hierarchy is very different. We have three executive directors that are all co-executive directors, and every decision that we make that guides the organization has to be voted on by those three people, and there has to be consensus among those three people to move forward, and if not, then it doesn't happen. And really what informs the three of us, our "Change Coordinators," which are--we kind of have like a board-level hierarchy, the three at the top--they're really helping to guide, and then underneath that is sort of like our director level, which is communication, fundraising and development directors, which help to empower and really work as tools for the change coordinators. Who are coordinating and helping to guide a lot of our projects.

We have two Change Coordinators that are guiding the faith project. Really, underneath those change coordinators, all they're doing is administering these programs or administering what each of these chapters or outreach projects are doing. And then underneath that is really the community. And the volunteers in the community are really what's driving all of these programs. Like with the faith project, the change coordinators, we help guide what the faith project is going to look like, but they're the ones that are really interacting with the community, taking the community's input and feedback: "what do we want to do? What is this program going to look like?" And really using that to inform the program, and then using that to administer it. But its really driven and run by the people who are in the faith project, who are in that group, who want to be a part of that specific project.

So what we plan on doing in our outreach throughout Illinois is we're creating chapters in key cities--so like Champaign, in Springfield, in Bloomington--to help. Those people are really going to be the ones to help bring the faith project into their chapters, into downstate Illinois. Then they have ownership over that chapter, so there will be somebody who is running that chapter who reports directly to the co-executive directors, but again its all run within that group and its, you know, basically a democracy. The majority wins. Everything is voted on, everything is driven by the community, by the volunteers.

And that's how, you know, we gain ownership, and how people feel involved, and how people feel like they're actually taking... being a part of this movement, and not just being told what to do. We obviously help guide them so that they don't feel alone and out there, and like "Well, we don't know what the best thing to do is." Because we have the insight, the research. We're up on the current events. That's our role: to guide what's happening. Say "this is what's happened in past times, in past states, in history in Illinois, and this is what we feel we need to move forward, so how do we get to this point?" Then discussion ensues within the group. So that's kind of how we plan on really helping to empower the community to really take control of their rights and really be the ones that are driving what is happening.

PR: So my last question is basically about the frustrations and challenges what are some of the challenges yet within the LGBT community in Chicago itself; especially in leadership--that there are some hurdles that we may really need to get over, that we need to help our young leaders get over, and some of the deficiencies that we have that we can work to correct in the next few years especially as we have young leadership rising in the ranks.

AM: I think the largest thing in Chicago, and then, actually, really throughout Illinois, is that most of the resources for the queer community--the LGBTQ community--are concentrated in the north side of Chicago. So largest thing, I think, you know, and the biggest hurdle that we need to overcome as a community is to spread these resources around the city and around the state. Before Boystown and Andersonville and, you know, the ghetto mentality in terms of building a community, that was prevalent back in the day to create an identity for our community, to be able to galvanize us and pull us together; but you know the LGBTQ community is the most diverse and the largest minority of any minority so you know we're everywhere. I think we're starting to see that more. Even within Chicago we know there's so many other things that we need to overcome, like socioeconomic issues, racial issue--we're a very segregated city--so its hard to really spread those resources around because of the way the city is set up and how segregated it is.

So being able to work across racial lines, across economic lines, that's really going to be pertinent to the movement in the next few years. Then, beyond that, pulling the resources out of Chicago and making sure that they're distributed throughout the state. You know those people in rural areas that are living on a farm--we all know there's a couple of gay people that have a farm, and they're raising a family or whatever--and they need to be able to access resources the same way that, you know, a family on the north side of Chicago should. So we need to ensure that, really, the resources that--in terms of organization, in terms of education the ability to know who to reach out to who have been discriminated against, things like that--we really need to make sure that they're everywhere.

Another really big barrier to address that you're kind of addressing; it seems a much younger, newer leadership is bubbling to the surface and I feel like I'm kind of in between because I'm thirty so you know I'm close to my young comrades, who are in their early twenties, and I'm also close to those who are older. Maybe I feel like the much younger leaders and organizers of our movement have a much different viewpoint than older leaders of the community.

I was meeting with someone you would call--ha ha--you know an old gay rich man (and he even calls himself that)--but we were talking, and I was talking about the need for organize across the city, and he said "this is why your generation really needs to rise up and take control because you're saying 'we need to organize across the city,' and I'm thinking 'can we organize across the city?' and that's a much different viewpoint. And my viewpoint is becoming archaic."

We really need to figure out a way to ensure... you know we really have this weird division between generations and we really need to find the bridge there and to bring things together. Not necessarily completely transition to the youth but to able to help inform those who are ahead; who are older within the movement, to make sure that they understand where we're coming from and how society is truly changing.

Once you get older its harder to be in touch with the pulse of where we are in America, so I think we have to find a way to get those two generations, to really start communicating and informing each other. Because there's so much history and so much that, you know, the older community really brings to the table on past issues that we've had in terms of organizing and then, you know, the new, younger leaders are really invigorated and have the energy and really the zeitgeist of our times. So I think its just bridging that gap.

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Anthony Martinez | January 6, 2011 8:20 PM

"...but you know the LGBTQ community is the most diverse and the largest minority of any minority" I wanted to clarify this comment that I made. I did not mean we are the largest minority. I meant to say- but was obviously in a rambling mood this day- that the LGBTQ community is made up of every minority so we are the most diverse of all minorities.