LGBT Equality In Inconvenient Geographies:
The path toward victory for full, national, LGBT equality could not be clearer. National leaders know that in order to win nationwide, they need to start winning where it’s less popular. And that means changing how we fight for equality so we can win in less convenient geographies. It’s easier to fight for equality while swimming through deep blue waters. But for those of us who’ve chosen to fight for equality in the purple or red states, we have a bigger challenge ahead of us, but also a bigger reward. Because when we win in our inconvenient geographies, we know that the equality movement is winning the struggle nationwide. We know that the path toward full, national LGBT equality runs right through where we stand, and that we are the ones who need to lead the fight.
For allies in the progressive movement who desperately want to expand civil rights to their LGBT constituents, the challenges are the same. Without the coalitions in place to support equality, and without public support in geographies they represent, it is a challenge and a political risk, for an elected official to lead on equality if the campaign is not winnable. As progressives in moderate or conservative states, we need to focus where we can win, because we know we can’t win everything – at the same time, civil rights for the LGBT community cannot wait indefinitely. There is a balance that needs to be reached. If the LGBT community can work with the progressive community to build alliances while simultaneously educating the community at-large about our issues, then we can build public support as well as political clout with our allies.
This means that LGBT activists need to multi-task. On one hand, continue building public support and broader coalitions for equality issues and on the other, find an LGBT angle on the issues that are coming to a head more quickly, and those which are allies in the Democratic Party, organized labor, or other progressive organizations have been successful in bringing to the forefront. We need to continue building support for non-discrimination and relationship recognition – but with the realism that our issues may not be ready for a vote, and at the same time, assisting our allies in their efforts to pass progressive legislation they have fought hard for.
Doing this doesn’t mean taking a back seat, it actually means taking the passenger seat. It means that the LGBT community will be fighting side-by-side our progressive allies to win progressive reforms in moderate and conservative states. To be sure, not every issue is one in which it is appropriate for the LGBT community to engage itself. But for those of us who believe in intersectionality, that our struggles between communities are intrinsically linked, we know that by working together with our progressive allies, we are making our states more equal for all of us. And we can be sure that our allies will work just as hard when we have the ability to bring our issues to the forefront.
It’s hard for me to understand why we need to wait for LGBT issues to be ready for consideration. I grew up in Westchester County, NY, in a town 45-minutes north of New York City. Years before New York won marriage equality, the Westchester County Executive, Andrew Spano, had appointed a full time liaison to the LGBT community, was sponsoring an annual LGBT youth conference, and he signed an Executive Order granting county recognition to legally-performed same-sex marriages. Surely, there were fights to be had for full equality in New York, and there still are. But my experience as a New Yorker tells me that they continue to be on the fast track to equality, just as all of our deep blue states are. With that context in mind, it’s hard to understand why we in other states need to wait, even to bring up the most
basic of civil rights issues: non discrimination, hate crimes, and bullying in our schools.
The cultural context in which I was raised makes it difficult for me to understand people who don’t believe that every person is due equal access to opportunity. But the cultural context in Pennsylvania, where I now live, reminds me that in some instances I am the only LGBT person an elected official knows, and that we have so much work to do. Activists in deep blue states didn’t just wake up and win equality – they worked for years supporting progressive legislation tangentially related to LGBT equality, but more directly to the progressive movement. They worked for years electing candidates who supported equality, and they worked for years to educate the community in which they live about the need for equality, and the same strategy is needed in purple and red states today.
Pennsylvania, much like some states in the south and the west, has an identity crises. On one hand, we have socially-progressive Republicans in Philadelphia and it’s suburbs, and on the other hand, we have socially-conservative Democrats across central and western PA. We have Philadelphia Democrats who want to run for office on a marriage equality platform and we have Republicans from Erie who are sometimes better on our issues than Democrats from the same region. Pennsylvania is a big state – seven hours drive from Philadelphia to Erie – and there’s lots of room for diversity of opinions in every corner of Pennsylvania.
I chose to live in and fight for equality in Pennsylvania because winning here is harder than in a sea of deep blue. But winning here also means changing how we communicate our issues. It requires using different messages, different tactics, and in some cases, even different spokespersons. The reality is that the path from now to marriage equality is long, and just because our neighbors in New York and Maryland have done it, doesn’t mean that our legislature will move any faster. In Pennsylvania, much like a majority of southern and western states, we lack all forms of LGBT equality. We lack a nondiscrimination law to protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation; we lack a state hate crimes law to give local law enforcement the training and power to prosecute bias crimes against the LGBT community; we lack an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying law to protect LGBT youth in our public schools, and we have no form of LGBT relationship recognition. And yet, I feel that we are winning. It’s true that a statewide victory has not been within reach, but we have worked diligently to advance equality in an effective way despite the lack of state-level legislative success.
Our success in advancing equality has meant three things: 1) shifting our LGBT activist focus from statewide to local, 2) Becoming increasing involved in the electoral process, and 3) building political clout within the larger context of the progressive community.
In 2010, after Democrats lost the Governor’s race and a significant number of state legislative seats, we realized that we had no possibility of winning a statewide legislative battle. Rather than waiting it out, we shifted our focus to the local level, but outside of our progressive strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to our less convenient geographies across the state. We localized the state-level issues we were fighting for (namely non-discrimination and relationship recognition) and were successful passing over a dozen local ordinances regarding these issues. Doing so meant building new and less likely coalitions and making our case in a more compelling way than ever before. And in some cases, it has meant that we can’t be our own messengers, that the message is more compelling, in some instances, when delivered by an unlikely ally – a labor leader, a faith leader, a Republican, a corporate CEO. All of this is transferable to other states with inconvenient geographies.
By focusing where the LGBT movement is less likely to have the political clout it does in, say,
Philadelphia, we’re able to make more targeted wins into statewide victories. We’ve all heard about Vicco, Kentucky, a city in Perry County, Kentucky with all of 316 residents. When Vicco passed a nondiscrimination ordinance inclusive of the LGBT community, the world knew about it. Not because Vicco was the target of a lengthy campaign, but because it was an unexpected win along the theme of a statewide and a national issue: Non-discrimination. By taking a larger issue and localizing it, a tactic we have used in Pennsylvania as well, we are able to grow public opinion on these issues by demonstrating strong local support for commonsense reforms. And in Pennsylvania, we’ve seen the dominoes fall – once a few municipalities take action, residents in nearby towns and boroughs start asking their local elected officials to do the same. Currently, 30 municipalities in Pennsylvania have passed laws to ban discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation based on sexual orientation and gender identity, almost half of these laws passed in the last two years. Similarly, our legislature works at tortoise speed, and it would be a surprise if marriage equality were to be passed at the state level in the short term. However, the momentum from the LGBT community on this issue is strong, and the desire to see action is even stronger. The key to statewide success is growth in public opinion, so again the focus has been local, with municipalities enacting laws to grant same-sex domestic partner benefits and Mayors across the state endorsing marriage equality. These actions over the course of two years have generated positive media, including newspaper endorsements, for marriage equality and in turn, recent polling has suggested that public opinion for marriage equality has increased. The latest poll, by F&M, shows 52% support for marriage equality, and a recent poll by PPP shows 53% support among registered Republican voters for some form of LGBT relationship recognition (civil unions or marriage equality.) Previous polls had both of these numbers very low – and the public opinion surge is the result of the local media we’ve garnered across the state as well as the national trends on the issue.
In Pennsylvania, we knew we weren’t going to get a statewide non-discrimination law pushed through the legislature, so we hunkered down and passed more than a dozen municipal ordinances. We knew we weren’t going to get a marriage equality law through the legislature, so we approached Mayors of cities large and small and asked them to endorse marriage equality. Both of these tactics worked in our favor because both dramatically increased public opinion for our issues and created a farm team of local elected officials with a record on our issues, so that when they seek higher office, we have an assurance of where they stand.
Political power primarily comes from votes – so we formed an endorsement process and begun getting involved in electoral change. As a non-partisan organization, we endorse LGBT-affirming candidates from both parties, but significantly more Democrats seek our endorsement than Republicans. The same is true for Labor and environmental organizations that endorse candidates. We never endorse Democrats who are opposed to equality, but we have found that numerous Democrats who were previously noncommittal on LGBT equality, are willing to now say they support equality because they have seen our power at the voting booth. Likewise, we have helped to elect a few top-targeted Democratic challengers in the state, and the Democratic Party appreciates our efforts with their targeted candidates. Each candidate seeking our endorsement needs to be supportive of equality – but we also want them to win – so we set realistic expectations for each race we seek to endorse in regarding what our criteria will be, recognizing that winning statewide means that we need to have elected officials across the state who are warm to working with us --- not just in the urban centers. It’s also about building a farm team. In the past election cycle, we supported Democratic candidates for each of our three row offices, all of whom won. All are supporters of LGBT equality, but with varying degrees of an ability to make the changes we need. We are working with them to enact changes they are able to make, but we also are well aware that if any of them were to run for Governor in the future, we have a candidate who we know is fully supportive of LGBT equality. Just as we built clout with the labor movement, we have done so with the Democratic Party structure as well. And rather than working against the party, we worked with the Party. A number of openly gay Democratic State Committee members proposed a resolution for the party to endorse marriage equality. After it passed, we helped educate our community about the support the Democratic Party has shown. I am confident that it helped the Democrats on Election Day.
Part of the path to victory in inconvenient geographies, means that we can’t lead our supporters and our allies in the progressive movement down an unwinnable path. It’s not about compromising our core values, but it is about strategically considering what we can achievably win. If we can’t win on our choice of issue, then shouldn’t we join with our progressive allies on legislation that they can win on? If we don’t have the support to win the votes we need then a further pursuit of an unwinnable campaign will only empower opponents to believe that they’ve beaten back an attempt toward equality. On the other hand, if we partner with progressive allies on relevant state policy issues that indirectly relate to our community – but that are the issue of the day for the progressive movement, we win political clout and progressive policy change. For example, we joined a coalition pushing against a Republican plan to privatize
Pennsylvania’s liquor stores. The issue was sharply opposed by organized labor, and we joined with them arguing that privatization, in a state that doesn’t provide non-discrimination to LGBT employees, puts LGBT employees at risk for employment discrimination. We asked our membership to contact their legislators to oppose the privatization plan and certainly built some political clout with the statewide labor movement. Similarly, we joined a coalition to fight against the now-enacted “Voter ID” law. The law was passed by a Republican legislature, the house Majority Leader even stated that the bill was being passed to help elect Mitt Romney. The Democratic Party was most at risk with this bill, but so were numerous minority communities. We saw our allies at the NAACP and the AARP join the fights against the bill and we recognized that identification discrimination is very common for transgender voters, and that this legislation created a natural alliance with the Democratic Party to fight against the bill. By assisting the progressive movement with these legislative struggles, we build stronger alliances and we know that we can count on their support for our legislation when we have the votes to bring the issue to a head.
Winning equality means changing hearts and minds. It also means changing laws, but we can’t do that in a vacuum. Laws will change when we have done the work we need to do to educate elected officials about the lack of equality, when we have built the coalitions we need to advance legislation, when we have broadened public support on issues of importance (and have commissioned poling that demonstrates our success), and when we have built political clout to be able to call on our elected officials to prioritize our legislation. We can’t always hit the ground running, sometimes we need to strategize first. Sometimes we need to build stronger alliances with the progressive community, build more political power through the electoral process, build clout by having successfully supported other progressive legislation. LGBT issues do not exist in a vacuum, and LGBT-specific legislation isn’t the only way to define success – supporting labor, supporting voting rights, supporting family-sustaining wages, supporting education – these are all progressive issues that make us more equal.