Rev. Emily C. Heath

Lessons from Albany: The Role of Everyday Activists

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | June 27, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: grassroots, marriage equality, New York, Stonewall

AlbanyCapitol.jpgTwo 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:

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How many of those unpaid volunteers were even aware that GENDA was in committee, and had more votes than SSM if it got out?

How many even knew that Trans people don't have equal rights with Gays?


As one of those unpaid activists, we were all far more aware and public about GENDA than anyone from the national orgs. In fact, many of us also lobbied and continue to lobby for GENDA.

On a personal note, I am exhausted of the implication that all marriage activists don't care about or have no education on trans rights. I was partnered to a trans man for 8 years. I typically partner with butches or other gender non-conforming people. I have spent countless hours working locally and nationally on trans rights in addition to other issues. Please don't presume to know our commitment to certain issues.

On a final note, Rev. Heath identifies as gender non-conforming as she has blogged about on this very website multiple times. I've met her. We know one another. We met in fact lobbying for trans rights in MA. Her commitment is also unwavering. You can rest assured we both will continue this work and hold the national orgs accountable for theirs.

Jay Kallio | June 27, 2011 12:47 PM

Thank you, Heidi, for responding to that attack on Marriage Equality. I am Transgender (and Transsexual) and Marriage Equality has been a life or death matter for me. The most enormous loss in my life was the death of my life partner of 36 years, Eleanor Cooper, a movement icon in her time for LGBT causes, and for social justice in civil rights, feminist, and disabilities advocacy.

Eleanor died because we could not get married and enjoy the access to health care through my employer based health insurance, which any opposite sex couple was entitled to. We were rendered destitute by crushing medical costs, were evicted from our apartment, made homeless, and could not find affordable housing together ever again because of accumulated medical bills. Eleanor suffered tremendously because we were unable to afford essential medical and dental care. We could no longer live together, needing to find floors to sleep on in friends' apartments. I sifted through supermarket garbage for food, on top of working 3 jobs. Still Eleanor's condition worsened, and ultimately she died after gruesome abuse and neglect in a nursing home over the last years of her life, unable to walk, move, or talk. All for lack of the rights other Americans enjoy as their entitlement as citizens.

No, marriage equality will not help more than a minority of LGBT people who can, and want to get married. But it will save lives, like Eleanor's. And sure, it would be heaven if the US had universal health care based on individual rights, not dependent on being in relationship, but as a health care access advocate for many years, who has tried and failed to interest or recruit LGBT people to take action on health care issues in this country, I get nothing but a big yawn from both grassroots and national organizations from the mention of this issue. Including the Left. So health care access built on Leftist activism is not happening, and at least having the choice to marry for health care benefits is now an option for some. Right now Medicaid access for the poor, like myself, a cancer patient who will die without access to care is being privatized and otherwise destroyed, and there is no one but a few Quixotic health care activists who even talk about it.

It will take far more work to overturn DOMA to procure all the federal benefits of marriage so that our families have true equality.

Make no mistake about it, marriage equality is about life and death for those of us who are poor and vulnerable.

Trans rights will receive far more attention and achieve successes when there is some real organization and commitment from trans people, instead of the raging attacks by trans people on LG people who are not responsible for our not having basic rights. They cannot snap their fingers and produce equality for trans people, and it's a bit crazy and terribly misdirected to be constantly blaming LG people for this problem. It's not their fault. In fact, they are the only ones listening to us with any compassion at all.

I don't know why the trans and queer people are so fixed on raging at LG people and want to blame them for all manner of ills, and constantly find reason to not support them in their struggles, and hate on them and tear them down all the more for any hard won successes they accrue. It is not the most endearing trait I can imagine, and I fear it will further alienate any support we might get, and desperately need.

It's very painful and frightening to need others, and bitterly resent them for it. To think someone could save us, but they simply don't care enough.

We are going to need LG people, and straight allies, and anyone, paid or volunteer, even when they might appear bored to us. We need everyone who wants to help us, a miniscule minority. They will be very imperfect as allies, as we are imperfect allies to them. That's just the nature of the beast, and holding fire on our allies and having the grace to accept help even when it is imperfect will move us forward.

I find it interesting that you comment on trans people raging at LGBs but don't comment on LGBs who are transphobic. Many of us Ts help LGBs, whether we identify as such or not (such as my friend, who was at the capitol as much as he could be, who is trans, but not LGB identified). And yes, many LGBs support transpeople.

If you're going to comment on the 'raging' comment on both sides of the coin. The worst transphobia I've encountered has been from gay men.

By the way, we'll have more success when society starts to recognise that we exist, and aren't simply "confused".

Jay I'm really amazed at how bottomless your need to crap on trans people seems to be.. particularly trans women.

I'm curious how you can mention (correctly) the need for marriage equality but absolutely ignore how the exact same thing is a problem for trans people who cannot maintain employment or housing because we are trans.

Any "blame" I have for the LGB groups is because they claim to speak and work for trans people and then don't... I mean ESPA actively worked against re-including trans protections in the 2002 SONDA bill. I've also not actually found that LGB people are the only ones listening to us with compassion - if anything, there tends to be some serious minimization and dismissal. I've asked you before how it is that every single trans woman I know will say or agree that cis straight people treat us in general with more respect and understanding than cis gay people.

Personally, I'm working with straight men in every state in the US trying to get these "chasers" to not only objectify trans women's bodies but to work with us to obtain our rights. I'm having far more success there than I ever had working with LGB groups to even mention trans* in their press releases.

I have a list of 200 (ish) men all over NY who were willing to contact their Senators if the call was made to push GENDA - that call never came... nothing about GENDA was mentioned by anyone after it went to Rules, so no action could have been taken. These are guys who aren't keen about working with the LGB, because in some cases gay men promote the idea that being attracted to a trans women is just a form of closeted gay - so unfortunately I need to pick who and where I work.

Do I combat transphobia among LGB groups where I've often felt like I beating my head against a wall? Do I combat homophobia among men who love/desire/fetishize trans women who largly seem eager to learn more about being trans and are only afraid of being called "gay", but who are generally well disposed to gay rights?

Jay - send the last post before I was finished.

I am honestly moved and saddened about the story you shared. Thank you for going into detail how marriage specifically would have benefited you both. I hate that any criticism of the primacy of the marriage movement (by trans people particularly) is painted as dismissing the importance of marriage equality. Obviously, it is important. While having the ability to marry is great when things are good, it's the things that marriage does and protects when things are bad that show how important it is.

The question isn't (or shouldn't) be "It marriage important?" the question is (or should be) "Is marriage more important than securing basic trans protections in states that currently only have sexual orientation protections?"

Thanks for answering my questions.

I'm sorry that that was interpreted as an attack on marriage equality, something I have publicly supported for a while now.

I was trying to figure out where the wheels fell off, and why, so as not to have a repeat performance in future. Those were honest questions.

Considering a number of us are trans or genderqueer (myself included), or have friends who are, a lot of us care about GENDA. Did I know GENDA was in committee? No. I would need some sort of citation for proof that it had more votes behind it, because I honestly have a hard time believing that.


Just a quick note that I think you are absolutely right. Transphobia among the LGB community (particularly gay men) is unfortunately equally (if not more) rampant at times. I'm the first to admit that far too often trans people are generally much quicker to jump to the aid of LGB causes rather than vice versa. I'm struck that particularly wealthy, white, gay men are often first to jump on trans issues and last to recognize their privilege.


Just a quick note that I think you are absolutely right. Transphobia among the LGB community (particularly gay men) is unfortunately equally (if not more) rampant at times. I'm the first to admit that far too often trans people are generally much quicker to jump to the aid of LGB causes rather than vice versa. I'm struck that particularly wealthy, white, gay men are often first to jump on trans issues and last to recognize their privilege.

Zoe. You must understand something. In order for GENDA to pass, we must work together--gay and lesbian and trans alike. I AM SO SICK OF TRANS PEOPLE FEELING THAT WE DON'T CARE ABOUT GENDA! You want to push GENDA, you work with fellow gay and lesbian people to make sure this passes, take some notes from us in NY and other movements, you become the change you want. EDUCATE us about GENDA, because as a gay man I don't want to leave my trans brothers and sisters behind. Stop this division and educate people, talk TO them instead of DOWN to us.

Next, someone mentioned something that I hate to hear about--gay people who are transphobic. Like many people who are homophobic, they MUST know who you are in your entirety to have their perspectives changed. AND LIKE GAY PEOPLE, TRANS PEOPLE MUST COME OUT! I have seen too many trans--and gay--people afraid to come out because of what they believe will happen, and sometimes it's valid. The pain of being closeted will in fact be more than the pain to come out.

I am a GAY MAN WORKING FOR GENDA. I don't know the first thing about it, but I will push for it becuase I want to educate OTHERS and let them know that this affects them too. Marriage equality ALSO HAS BENEFITS FOR YOU TOO! That is the part you've forgotten or don't know.

Please ZOE, get together with supporters and start a grassroots ORG to push for GENDA. Many grassroots organizations WILL care about what the national ORGS like HRC, ESPA and other ones don't really know much or even care about. I would be happy to give you some pointers. Just PLEASE STOP THIS DIVISION--we need you and you need us. The trans community right now is not big enough to do this on their own, and neither were we until we came out

Best wishes,

Spencer, are you in New York? If so, GENDA shouldn't be pretty easy to understand once you know what it is about - it is re-adding gender identity to the state level job and housing protections that were passed in 2002 that cover sexual orientation. So, it's tough to be told the educate someone about this thing that their group already has as largely takes for granted - like a homeowner asking a homeless person to educate them on why shelter is important.

I'll let you in on a secret about being out. Off line, I'm pretty out in general as a trans woman, way more than most because I can afford to be. When I'm doing local LGBT activism, I'm as closeted about being Trans as I can be. When Chaz Bono first stated his transition, I outed myself in the line at the grocery store just to let the person in front of me know that we aren't "disgusting celebrity freaks" (or something close). I got a surprised look from the customer, a nod of approval from the cashier, and later a phone number from the bagger.

When there was a demonstration being planned against teenage bullying that was branded as "LGBT" but really only talked about gay and lesbian kids I mentioned trans folks have huge problems with being bullied and recounted a story from high school and disclosed my status in the process. I was asked to provide proof that trans people face bullying in measures at least equal to G/L youth and was essentially told that mentioning that G/L bullying was often due to perceived gender transgressions than romantic interests was a derail.

So, my hunch that I can more effectively advocate for trans people by allowing LGB folks to assume I'm a supportive straight woman and not a trans woman who dates men (a distinction that seems important to some gay men) seems to be true.

Also, I think marriage equality is important, but how does it benefit me personally any more than it would benefit my parents? Beyond all equality gains are a good thing and a fair society is a better society? What direct benefit does it have to me as a straight trans woman?

It's really easy to gloss over all the incredible accomplishments of gay rights organizations, much of which takes place behind the scenes or in mobilizing/training others -- different individuals/groups have different roles, most of which are indispensable.

Does your vow to "never give them another dime" extend to legal organizations like Lambda Legal, AFER, GLAD, or just lobbying orgs?

We'd be much stronger without all the public infighting -- the anti-gay movement doesn't do this, and they're much more effective for it.

Let me clarify. I will never give another dime to the organizations that employ the staffers I saw on that couch. I actually think the legal groups, who I did not see there, do quite a bit. And, as I articulated in the piece, I ne'er said we shouldn't give the national gay groups their due. I said we should not solely give them credit, I said that we should give grassroots folks theirs too. And I also said that the national groups should express some gratitude for that.

Dear Rev. Heath : Can you let us know some of the names of the grass roots activists, or their grass roots organisations, about whom/which you refer ? Your post on this blog is an important record that should be preserved for history, and I am eager to know who were these grass roots activists. Thanks for all your hard work and your witness to history.

To offer a different view, as someone who has phone banked with New Yorkers United for Marriage almost every night they hosted them in May and June, I never felt more appreciated by the staff at HRC, Marriage Equality New York, Freedom to Marry and the Empire State Pride Agenda. While people were tirelessly lobbying in Albany, there were volunteers, like myself, who were on the phones non-stop in the evening connecting constituents in key districts to their senator. These calls were crucial to the passage of Marriage Equality and their kindness and generosity in thanking us is what made me eager to come back for more. It was wearing to hear people call me names on the phone or who would get into rambles about how opposed to gay marriage they were, just as I'm sure it was listening to it in the hallways. Whenever it got to be too much, one of the reps from these organizations was always there to give me a hug. At the end of the day, we did it!

Hi Leone, I am very glad you had a good experience, but I had two thoughts. First, my concerns were not about the state groups. As I said in my post they were incredibly hard working and gracious. Second, the folks from national groups...were they national staffers, or interns and volunteers and local organizers being minimally compensated. I met a lot of folks who worked for one of the national organizations who were wonderful, but not regular staff members. And, for what it's worth, I wanted to call their national headquarters and ask, "Would it really hurt you to send these kids some pizzas?"

Emily- for full transparency purposes, it would help if you provided names of people (if you have them) and organization names. This conversation of what is helping and what is hurting our movement, I feel should be talked about in concrete terms.

Thank you for all of your work supporting marriage and informing folks of the progress of the struggle for equality. Hallelujah for Governor Cuomo and the New York legislature.

You totally should have because they certainly arranged for free pizza to phone bankers every night.

Thanks for clarifying on the point you're trying to make.

Emily - I think your observations of the national representatives was pretty much right on. I remember working to defeat our state DOMA. It was pretty much a losing battle given the politics of the state, but we were trying - hard. HRC sent a few people - grudgingly it seemed because our state also sends them a TON of cash - I think at the time, Ohio donated more per capita than any state. Any way, there was a real sense of "real activists" and "the help". I was really sad to see local activists from the state and city groups talked down to and I don't actually recall ever being thanked by anyone I didn't know locally - I remember being asked to get coffee by a woman who never actually introduced herself alot.

I think this is a wonderful piece!

I spent hours phone-banking and gathering names and signatures on post cards and letters with HRC - the only group active where I lived, in New York State Senate District 40 - Greg Ball's district. And although we did not succeed in swaying Senator Ball to vote yes, I do think he worked behind the scenes to see that it would pass without his vote. And the entire state saw what we were doing. I also organized a showing of "March On, The Movie" in Peekskill, co-sponsored by MENY and HRC. I have nothing but hugs and kisses for the front line people in both groups.

However, I was also arrested in April for my part in a direct action protest in New York City with Queer Rising, and I was sitting with them in the Senate Gallery the Thursday in mention. And I must say many of the staff of the national organizations were not only dismissive, they were derisive of our actions. To them I say - learn from your rank and file, who show a hell of a lot more spirit and courage than you do. And no one, gay, straight, or otherwise, has the right to tell me how to stand up for my own rights. What Queer Rising did reached way beyond the borders of New York and let queer kids across this nation know that they can and must fight for themselves, even if they don't have a dime to their name or a tailored tux to wear in the halls of power.

With each sentence I kept saying yes. From Servant-Leadership, 12 step programs and the need to be GRATEFUL. You rocked my heart, Emily. There is nothing everyday about everyday activists. Retrospect will see only them.

Emily - thank you for your insight and observations. As one of those unpaid activists in Albany for 6 days, I definitely agree with almost all your report. I was thanked repeatedly by staffers of the large lobbying organizations.

Their leadership, however, didn't know how to use our energy other than to repeatedly ask us to call and collect signatures. They were totally unprepared for the encounters in the halls in Albany. They didn't rally the troops on the ground to enlist them in the battle. They rebuffed any strategy suggestions that weren't strictly in line with the game plan established in the late winter - and thus, were unable to adapt and respond to any incoming shots or changes in the atmosphere.

I'm so terribly excited by this victory because I didn't expect success. The strategy was flawed at the beginning, and rather than engage in circular firing squad tactics, we plodded along with their strategy.

It's time for the truth to be told: we should expect our national lobbying and advocacy groups to have a plan that is flexible, bold, strong and encourages support from the ground. That way we aren't strung along until the 11th hour, completely lacking confidence of our own position and, luckily in this case, impending success.

While they have the power (and some would argue, the governor-granted authority) to manage this process, we're unhappy with how it was handled. Nor did I spend the last 18 months contributing thousands of dollars and hours to the cause only to have a logo claim credit for all the work we did.

I will not donate another dime, either.

It always sucks when you feel like you're not appreciated. I can see how you'd feel that way, Emily.

Oh Bil, this wasn't about me. Really. Everyone always says something nice to the person in the collar. This was about the way I saw people who had been there day after day get treated. I judge an organization by how they treat the people they claim to serve. I may have had some frustrations about some of the organizations before this week, but I was for the most part on the fence and willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I just can't handle LGBT organizations treating LGBT activists with arrogance and condescension.

I'm fascinated by this process story. I certainly agree with the Rev that perhaps gay dollars could be spent better by supporting other organizations, organizations that are not part of Gay Inc. HRC comes to mind. I mean, it wasn't HRC that achieved the repeal of DADT, it was a few obnoxious, unrelenting folks chaining themselves to a fence. Right?! But to really have a place at the table -- moving forward that is -- don't we need establishment types to make nice? And certainly these privileged few can be expected to be high handed and arrogant, but don't these high-handed, arrogant pricks serve their purpose?

My dollars certainly won't go to these pricks, but don't they, by their obsequious willingness to play the game provide cover for politicians unwilling to deal with those demanding equality now?

Hello Friends. Thank you, Emily, for your very moving and somewhat upsetting recounting of what you witnessed in Albany. Full disclosure: I work for one of those national organizations and feel privileged and blessed every day that I can support myself and my family while working towards the freedoms, liberations, and full legal equality for all of us. Since 1986, I have served on the staff of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Your story of disrespect, dismissal, and arrogance, Emily, is very upsetting to me. Were it not for the good people in the hallways, the meanings and weight of the lobbyists' words and deeds would be much diminished. Were it not for chants, songs, signs and pure spirits of "we shall not be moved" coming from friends and colleagues in the hallways of state houses in MA, NY, CA, VT, CT, ME, IA, MN, IN, IL, NM, NV, UT, ID, WA, OR, MD, NJ, RI, TX, FL, GA, AZ, NC, SC, MO, KS, OK, CO, NE, MI, WI, SD, MT, WY, HI, AK, PR, DC, OH, TN, KY, MS, LA, AL, GU, ND, AR, PA, DE, WV, VA, and NH, no legislative "victory" could be called such or have lasting and enduring value. We witness on behalf of ourselves and our sisters and brothers who cannot be there to witness. We chant ourselves hoarse in memory of all those who didn't survive the scourges of oppressions. We give meaning and weight to the work of ourselves and others. We won't give up. We won't shut up. We won't go away. And we should be appreciated and thanked. Thank you, Emily, and all of you who witnessed in Albany.

Hi Sue. Thank you very much for your reply. I do appreciate hearing that. I've been overwhelmed by the responses to this post. Most have said "that's exactly what I experienced" but a few have said they did experience some gratitude and appreciation from national staffers. I'm glad to hear that some did.

My own experiences with national staffers were pretty neutral. I found some a bit "brusque" but others very nice. But folks are generally pretty nice to the person in a clergy collar who is writing a piece for Bilerico to boot. It was witnessing other encounters that I found disturbing, and it was hearing feedback from other people, including those working working in the halls for groups, about their encounters that moved me to write.

Personally, as I've said above, I think national organizations are vital. We couldn't have accomplished this victory without the involvement of everyone from the grassroots activist to the highest paid lobbyist. My concern is what I felt was genuine arrogance and disrespect from people who are supposedly working hard so that we may be treated with dignity. I understand this article has earned me few friends, and I knew it wouldn't when I wrote it. But if it means that on the next campaign some young activist who just road a bus hours to get there gets thanked, it was worth it.

Amen, Emily, to your last comment about teachable moments so our newbie colleagues can do their work and be respected and thanked for the same time! I will share/distill your observations with my staff colleagues. Lessons to be learned. Thanks again and blessings of the day.