Activism

Should You Be Worried These Guys Didn’t Invite You to Fight For Your Rights?

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After everyone got done waving their posters and taking turns at the podium in Fresno, Calif., on Saturday, on Sunday “about 250 gay and civil rights advocates met in Fresno to brainstorm and plan their strategy to repeal the same sex marriage ban.” Did you know about this? Probably not, because you weren’t invited to this planning exercise. See, while you were busy recycling your “No On Prop 8” posterboard the day after the press-friendly Fresno event, leaders of Gay Inc. were figuring out how to claim your rights in the next battle for equality. Only problem? They tried this closed-door approach before, and it didn’t work.

Of all the criticism over how the No On 8 effort failed to stop voters from banning same-sex marriage in California last year, one element stands out the loudest: the approach to fighting for equality was organized — poorly — by a group of gay activists who refused to share the bulk of their planning strategies with the outside world. It was this exclusive, insiders club approach to fighting Prop 8 that became part of our downfall; without the involvement of the masses, an undemocratic push to to defeat the measure left us the California Supreme Court deciding our fate.

So now, a renewed effort. Except this time around, it sounds like more of the same: insiders only, closed door meetings, no outside input.

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Activist and bullshit caller Michael Petrelis has seen this before. Based in San Francisco, he’s been working for gay rights since at least the 1970s and maintains a fantastic minimalist website dedicated to chronicling even the tiniest of minutiae. So when Prop 8 reared its ugly head last year, Petrelis fought against the “organized” effort to block it. When that didn’t work, Petrelis joined others in calling for Geoff Kors to leave his post as the chief of Equality California. And now, when he’s not highlighting the atrocities suffered by gay Iraqis, he’s warning that history is about to repeat itself. In a very bad way.

Having already faulted The Dallas Principles for its exclusivity and closed door policy — Why should some 20-plus folks who get together in a Texas hotel room decide what’s best for the gay community?, he argues — Peterlis now sees a reported 250 gay leaders gather in Fresno … and there’s no press allowed, and a clipboard at the door. (He says he didn’t hear about the meeting until it was reported in the news. Neither did Queerty, and, frankly, practically every small town podunk meeting of more than three people where someone merely mentions the word “gay” finds its way to our inbox.)

“There’s a disturbing pattern here and it needs to be confronted,” says Petrelis, an anti-Gay Inc. voice who actually just got done applauding a recent AIDS Inc. meeting for its openness.

A supporter of the Jamaica Boycott, Petrelis represents what’s undoubtedly a large portion of gays who care about their rights: There is no need for a top-down, executive steering committee approach to fighting for gay rights; in fact, that strategy is harmful.

What’s the alternative? A grassroots approach, apparently. The endless stream of websites and YouTube videos (plenty of them posted on here) shows there’s momentum at the citizen level.

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But organizers like the Courage Campaign’s Rick Jacobs (pictured, right) and Cleve Jones (left) don’t see it that way. Or at least not entirely. That’s why the met behind closed doors in Fresno to plan a march on Washington on October 11, which is National Coming Out Day and will be nine years since the last GLBT march on the capital.

“The campaign’s next phase will train thousands of volunteers and faith leaders to canvass door-to-door to talk about the issue with neighbors,” the AP paraphrased Jacobs as saying. Quote: “We’re not doing what we used to do, which is meet in West Hollywood. We want people from all 435 congressional districts to tell their stories in Washington.”

That’s pretty shocking to someone like Petrelis, who responded in an email that’s circulating: “I’ve been wondering all weekend, what great group of queers committed to transparency and real community engagement met and decided to proceed with a march on DC? Everyone I asked seemed to have not received an invitation to the organizing meeting(s) for our next march on the nation’s capital. Where was the bottom-up, grassroots call and engagement behind the call to march again on DC? Well, it was the same-old top-down ‘We’ll tell you what you want’ approach that we saw fail so miserably in November for Prop 8, but just a different name of someone who wasn’t on the no on 8 exec committee. […] The medicine I get from my local club is not nearly as potent as whatever it is Cleve Jones and Rick Jacobs are smoking, and making the decision to not only march on DC in four months, but they’re part of the same crew that will also deliver us a new winning gay prop in 2010. What are Cleve and Rick smoking? I’d like to see their Courage Campaign pull off just one of the two big things: a successful prop or march on DC.”

And therein lies the dilemma: A massive, nationwide strategy does need leadership. We cannot afford to put every aspect of our civil rights up for a vote. Choosing a day and a place to meet, and who’s going to secure which permits, and who’s going to organize transportation … someone needs to make those calls. Whether it’s Jacobs and Jones or another crew is almost immaterial; but it must be someone, and these guys cannot be faulted for stepping up. That said, they can be held to the fire for this closed-door approach. We should be encouraging participation, not limiting it. We should be opening the doors of activism to all Americans, not cordoning it off to an elite group of veterans. The Internet (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blog ) and even the mainstream media should be tools of organization, not enemies of exclusivity. To be sure, Jones said organizing the march should be done “from the grassroots with a decentralized, Internet-based campaign,” adding, “The primary objective must be to turn out the largest possible crowd.” But that’s only after the good old boys in the smoke-filled back room sort everything else out.

We won’t know how this all pans out until October or, more accurately, until our rights are secured. And maybe Jacobs and Jones’ closed-door planning meetings with 250 activists was the push the grassroots needed to actually move.

But as we learned with Prop 8, we shut the doors on organizing and activism at our own peril.

(Fresno Rally Photo: Sean M. Haffey / U-T)