We Are an Unstoppable Force in the Fight Against Bigotry!
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about grassroots activism and community mobilizing.
As our president, his administration, and leaders in Congress work to rollback equality for LGBT people and restrict access to healthcare (among many other terrible actions), I find it helpful to remind myself how much our community has accomplished against odds that were equally, if not even more formidable. We’ve had setbacks before, but we have never let them stop us in our quest for full and complete equality.
I find great inspiration in those who were fighting for our community long before I came out and began doing so in 1979. Many of the early pioneers were right here in Los Angeles, which has rarely been given its just due for being at the forefront of our movement. For example, two and a half years before New York’s famed Stonewall riots, LGBT people at the Black Cat Tavern in Silverlake rioted after police raided the bar. This January marked the 50th anniversary of that riot, sparked because two men dared to ring in the new year with a kiss. Later that year, the organization founded in response to the police harassment started a newsletter that became The Advocate, also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Few people know that the very first uprising to protest police harassment of LGBT people was here in Los Angeles. Cooper Do-nuts was a hangout for LGBT people, particularly transgender folks. As a result, it was regularly harassed by the police. One night in May, 58 years ago, the Cooper Do-nuts regulars said, “Enough!” Led by a transgender woman, the group began pelting the police with donuts, coffee, paper plates, trash, utensils, whatever they could get their hands on. The officers fled to get reinforcements. When they returned, a riot ensued that shut down Main Street for the entire day. This was a decade before Stonewall!
And I bet you didn’t know that on Armed Services Day, 51 years ago this May, LGBT activists in Los Angeles held the very first demonstration against the ban on military service by people who are LGBT. A 13+ car motorcade of demonstrators wound its way through 20 miles of Los Angeles streets, much to the shock of many along the route. Each of the car roofs had four-sided, four-foot-tall signs with such messages as, “10% OF ALL GIs ARE GAY,” and “WRITE LBJ TODAY.”
Perhaps most astonishing of all: this June will be the 70th anniversary of the debut of the world’s very first lesbian “publication,” called Vice Versa, written by the late Edythe Eyde under the pseudonym/anagram Lisa Ben. Edythe was a secretary at RKO Studios whose boss told her she needed to “look busy,” even though she didn’t have a lot of work. So, she used her time to type issues of the 9-20 page newsletter on 5 carbons. By one account, she ceased “publication” the next year after learning that she could be arrested for sending Vice Versa through the mail; any discussion of homosexuality was then deemed obscene. In the 1950’s she began writing for the famed Daughters of Bilitis publication The Ladder, the first nationally-distributed lesbian publication.
I’m in awe of the courage of these early activists. They no doubt never imagined the progress that would be made by the movement they were birthing. And that progress happened because people got involved. That’s what we need to do again.
Even a cursory review of LGBT history illustrates that when we’ve worked together, mobilized ourselves strategically, refused to give up and even taken to the streets—no matter the opposition—we have consistently advanced. That kind of activism, that kind of strategic mobilization, is what we must revive given what we stand to lose at the hands of those in the Trump Administration and Congress who are hostile to our very existence.
That is part of the answer to the question I’ve been asked at virtually every gathering since Election Day. Everywhere I go, people are expressing a desire to fight back against the actual or anticipated initiatives of the Trump Administration that are anti-LGBT, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-healthcare and more. Everyone asks some version of the same question, “What can I DO that can help make a difference?”
As we’ve seen, people have already been doing a lot, including marching and posting on social media. I’ve especially enjoyed the multi-generational groups of women and men who may be bringing new life to the women’s movement.
Marches and working social media (and talking incessantly with our friends about all of this) are important ways to express our views. The Center has been doing this, too. But such actions alone are not enough if we really want to make a difference and impede the harmful policies being implemented or proposed. Unfortunately, very few national leaders on the progressive side of the ledger have given us a blueprint for what can be done. So, your Center is developing its own plan for those of us who really want to DO something more.
First, it’s clear that individually and collectively we must channel the boldness of Edythe, the audacity of those motorcade organizers and the anger and courage of the Cooper Do-Nuts and Black Cat Tavern protesters. We must dedicate ourselves to spending at least some of our time doing work that will protect LGBT rights, protect health and social services for the most vulnerable in our community, and other issues and services we all care so much about.
Second, our community needs to mobilize in pursuit of resistance, taking actions that are strategically designed to have an impact. That means all of us committing to get involved. As this issue of Vanguard goes to press, the Center’s Policy & Community Building Department is engaged in a mobilization experiment focused on protecting the Affordable Care Act. More than 300 people who came to our grassroots activism training on March 1 are being put to work to influence what happens with this vital program. We’re strategically targeting a few senators because if we can persuade only THREE of them (just three!), we can change the equation.
During this month-long experiment we’re developing strategies for the coming months to put thousands of people to work on a wider range of issues—whether you have two hours or 20 hours to give to the cause. And we know that this isn’t a sprint. We’ve got to hunker down for a long-haul marathon.
Whether you’re new to this kind of activism, or whether you have to dust off the cobwebs and return to your involvement of yesteryear, we need you. To find out more about how you can get involved, visit 100DaysAndMe.org.
April 12, 2017