INEQUALITY

Can GetEQUAL NOW Make the LGBT Rights Movement Less Racist, Transphobic, and Ageist?

Dallas-based activist CD Kirven is credited with naming the new activist group GetEQUAL. She attended its initial planning sessions, got arrested for sitting alongside four other members in Nancy Pelosi’s office, and has never strayed far from co-director Robin McGeHee’s side. When Kirven first joined GetEQUAL, she was most excited about its promise of radical inclusivity; she disliked the predominantly white male face of the LGBT rights movement and hoped GetEQUAL would finally address issues of representational inequality within the community itself. But instead GetEQUAL focused mostly on ENDA and DADT and slowly became like the mainstream gay rights organizations they hoped to differentiate themselves from, Kirven believed. When a GetEQUAL member told Kirven that she was dragging down the gay rights movement by constantly bringing up issues like racial inclusiveness, it became clear to her she’d have to form her own group, and that’s why she founded GetEQUAL Now. It’s only associated with GetEQUAL in name and tactics — and it’s forming a grassroots army of butch dykes, trans folk, poor old queers, and people of color to contend with Gay Inc. so “fringe queer culture” will finally get some representation in gay mainstream politics and culture.

While attending Michelangelo Signorile’s LGBT Leadership Town Hall this April, GetEQUAL member Chastity Kirven noticed two things. First, that mainstream LGBT leadership not only seems okay with the government’s slow movement on our issues but also wants other queers to accept it as well. Secondly, Kirven realized that in a room of 60 activists she was only one of three people of color. Even the panel itself had only one person of color — Pam Spaulding of Pam’s House Blend. So Kirven stepped up to the mic to ask how the LGBT rights movement could more fully represent the actual diversity existing within our community. But instead of having her concerns addressed, Kirven was told they didn’t have enough time to answer her, and would she please ask her question “next time,” whenever that was.

On the way home, Kirven complained about what happened and was told by one of her GetEQUAL cohorts, “Whenever you play the race card, you drag the gay rights movement down. We have too much to do and don’t have time to have this conversation now.” Kirven felt incensed. “[The LGBT movement’s leaders] are getting paid $250k and have spent years regularly cutting out transgender people and queers of color from their back room deals,” Kirven said. “Earning that much money, it behooves them to explain themselves when it comes to race and inequality. I’m not the one playing the race card; it’s already on the table and they’re acting like it’s not there.”

One needn’t look much further than their local gayborhood to see what Kirven’s talking about. On Cedar Springs, the gay strip in Dallas where Kirven lives, there’s only one lesbian bar and eight gay bars frequented mostly by white men. The gay bars have a black and Latino night once a month, but otherwise a gay person of color has to find a black or Latino bar far off the main strip. Cedar Springs has about five shops for gay men, but none for lesbians. In the magazine racks of the local video store, it’s rare to see a person of color on the cover of The Advocate, Out, Curve, Instinct, or any other gay mainstream publication that’s still around.

“There’s this idea that if you want a lesbian clothes store you should build it yourself, that if you want to be a member of this community you better have thousands of dollars for the price of admission, just to have access,” Kirven says. “But that doesn’t address the fact that queers of color often lack the education, the training, and the means to raise that money. We don’t usually get a seat at the table until it comes to needing our vote or needing tokens for a photo-op afterthought.”

Kirven and GetEQUAL Now co-founder Michael Robinson had both spoken to gay groups about such inequalities in the past, but they wanted a way to help queers of color define the queer rights movement rather than be defined by it. When it became apparent to Kirven that GetEQUAL wouldn’t deliver on the “radical inclusivity” and “grassroots activism” it first championed, she and Robinson independently formed GetEQUAL Now (albeit with McGeHee and Kip William’s blessing). According to Robinson, gay rights got wrapped up marriage equality long ago, but queer communities of color care more about keeping their jobs, health care, immigration, and school bullying a lot more than they care about ever getting married.

“When you see a muscular guy in a Pride parade dancing around in his underwear and covering his body in Absolut vodka, that doesn’t represent us, our community or our values,” Kirven said. “We want the gay rights movement to look a little more like the actual makeup of our community. As long as we have an older, single, gay, white face that’s obsessed with alcohol and sex, the mainstream is never going to embrace us. But when they realize that the queer community is as diverse as America itself, then they’ll begin to understand that we are more like them and that our struggles are their struggles.”

Towards that end Kirven and Robinson have the lofty goal of setting up up GetEQUAL Now organizations on every college campus across America, forming campaign coalitions with local organizations and national groups like Out Immigration, and using social networking to mobilize them in well-coordinated press events and acts of civil disobedience designed to get attention — something GetEQUAL has been doing since its beginnings. Furthermore, Get Equal Now plans on protesting HRC, LOGO and other groups in the gay establishment for their exclusion of people of color, and will continue to meet with community groups to collect new ideas, recruit members, and educate them about racial issues and the combination of 21st century net-activism and 20th century civil rights protest methods.

But if GetEQUAL Now is like GetEQUAL but with a focus on diversity, is it just the non-white version of McGehee’s original group? “No,” says Kirven . “First, our membership isn’t mostly black; we have Asians, hispanics, transgender people, older people and whites all working together. Also none of us are getting paid, all the organizing is out of our own pockets and we’re really reaching out to younger people and grassroots organizing rather than setting the agenda from above.”

Robinson feels GetEQUAL Now’s goals inevitably serve the mainstream gay community because anti-gay foes see the split between the predominantly white leadership and other races and exploit it to set our community against itself. “They’re consistently on message,” Robinson says. If you’ll recall Yes on 8 had Chinese, black and Latino outreach ads long before No on 8 did. After Prop 8 passed a lot of gays blamed the black community for the loss even though No on 8 organizers didn’t approach the black community until a mere 5 days before the vote. “We have got to look on the inside we’re the most diverse community in the world,” Robinson says. “Facing the challenges that divide us and that has been a difficult process, but it’s time to start mending those relationships.”

Kirven agrees. “A lot of other gays will say that our community’s too diverse and that there’s no way to get all the voices and people in. But our diversity is not a liability, it’s a strength. We have a representative in every racial, religious, and socioeconomic community there is, someone we can send to represent us and share our concerns, to reach out and let them know we are a part of them. But until we start embracing the true face of our community, we will be working against ourselves.

GetEQUAL co-founder Robin McGeHee tells Queerty that GetEQUAL Now is not an action or campaign solely directed at “Gay Inc.” but rather that “everyone, including GetEQUAL, has more work to do to become more radically inclusive in all aspects of organizing.” She also stresses that transfolk and queers of color often get lost in the shuffle of mainstream gay issues. “When we see images of marriage equality, we need to see all the communities of color that are effected by a lack of equal opportunity. When we witness servicemembers who are discharged, we need to be aware that African-American women are the largest group of people who suffer from Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell. When we address the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, we have to be clear that the trans community faces the greatest risk of unemployment and in relation, economic disparity, homelessness and harassment. When we discuss immigration reform, we must recognize that fighting for LGBT couples to be represented and protected is also intertwined with the public debate around immigration.”

Kirven predicts that a some community members will think that she and Robinson are just trying to start trouble, elevate themselves, or chase after windmills in addressing inequality amongst ourselves, but that doesn’t bother her. “Every civil rights leader gets criticized [for these things] in their day. It’s not until long afterwards that we recognize them for pushing the hard issues. But there’s nothing glamorous or egotistical in getting thrown in jail.” Kirven got tossed in jail for sitting alongside three other GetEQUAL members in Nancy Pelosi’s office to draw attention to ENDA. “Now I have a federal record that will keep me from getting jobs and am on 6 months probation. There’s nothing glamorous in that.”