Monday, September 21, 2009

An Open Letter to Cleve Jones from the Equality Federation

Dear Cleve,

We don't really know each other, but I've always respected your work, especially as a leader working on HIV and AIDS issues. And I know that hundreds of thousands of LGBT people still look up to you, especially since your early days of activism have been immortalized on the big screen.

But over the past year, I've become increasingly disillusioned by your comments in the press about the work of our movement in the states. You have repeatedly said that "the state strategy is a failed strategy." Cleve, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Over the past three decades, our movement has passed hundreds of laws at the state and local level. By way of contrast, we have been unable to pass any laws at the federal level that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT people, let alone bring us closer to equality.

Cleve, it is a fact that the only success our movement has had in securing equal rights for LGBT people to date is at the state level, even as most of our movement's resources have been focused on the national level. Your claim of a failed state strategy simply is not supported by reality. Without our work to achieve equality in the states, LGBT people in this country would have no rights at all.

Federal vs State Level Rights

In twenty-one states and the District of Columbia, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are protected from employment discrimination. Transgender people are protected from employment discrimination in 13 states and DC. Currently, federal law provides no employment protections - and even after ENDA passes at the federal level, hundreds of thousands of LGBT people will still be protected only under state laws, because ENDA won't apply to most small businesses.

Relationship recognition is also currently only available at the state and local level for same-sex couples. Marriage, for example, is governed primarily at the state level. And while only six states currently allow same-sex couple to marry, the federal government does not currently recognize those marriages at all. Increasing numbers of states and localities are beginning to recognize domestic partnerships, as well - so at this point in history, only state and local governments provide any recognition for LGBT people and our families.

Other family law issues - from adoption to domestic violence - are also covered under state (and not federal) laws. Hate crimes laws exist at the state level, but not federally. Safe schools and anti-bullying laws are passing at the state level - but not yet federally.

Are the protections we currently have in some states enough? Absolutely not. Do we need to take advantage of the opportunity to begin passing the federal laws we have been unable to pass since the Stonewall riots 40 years ago? Absolutely.

But, Cleve, your repeated denouncing of the work we have done in the states over the past 40 years shows a surprising lack of understanding of the history of our movement, as well as a lack of sophistication about what has been required to put our movement in a position to pass federal laws.

Federal Legislation Begins Locally

The work we need to do begins in our neighborhoods and continues in our nation's capitol. Federal legislation - and litigation, for that matter - does not succeed in a vacuum. Given your years of experience, you must know that elected officials follow their constituents far more often than they lead them. One of the best predictors of a federal legislator's support for LGBT issues is the status of LGBT laws in that legislator's home state.

Indeed, a thoughtful look at the history of every other social justice movement shows us that winning policy changes in at least a majority of states is almost always a necessary precursor to legislative and legal victories at the federal level. It is the work we've done in the states that has brought us to this moment of opportunity federally and it is the work in the states that will keep pushing our movement closer to full equality.

Cleve, the federal strategy you support is absolutely critical for taking this movement even further toward equality. This is a strategy that most activists in the states support. In fact, most of us who work and collaborate on strategies for equality believe that we have to work at all levels of government - local, state, and federal; legislatures, courts, and the ballot - if we are going to be successful in achieving the equality we seek. You seem to suggest that we can do it all at the federal level - but I don't know anyone else in this movement who believes that.

Still, I do agree with you that now is the time to pass federal legislation. I could be wrong, but I think we also agree that sustainable change has to happen from the ground up - not from the top down. If we don't begin the education work in our own communities and neighborhoods, we will never be able to make change in Congress. Working for change at the local and state level gives us the opportunity to build relationships, recruit allies, and educate the public - all necessary components of any effort to create change.

The work on the ground is something state equality groups have been doing for a couple of decades now (some have been doing the work for a lot longer and some are just getting started). Without this strong history of local and state-based activism, we would not have been able to coalesce as a community to reject a top-down strategy directing that we take transgender people out of the federal employment nondiscrimination act.

In fact, the reason we knew that removing gender identity from ENDA would be a failed strategy is because we had already learned that lesson in the states - and because we had already built support in the states for including all members of our community in legislation affecting our community. That's not what Washington wanted to do - that was what people on the ground demanded.

We Have Achieved Key Victories

Cleve, we are not so far apart in that we have both been moved by the amazing increase in grassroots support for equality since the passage of Prop 8 in California last fall. Certainly we both believe that the energy and passion of young activists can carry this movement to the next level.

New strategies and new tactics can be a good thing, and every movement needs to consider and employ a wide range of both. But it is, quite frankly, an irresponsible waste of resources and talent - not to mention insulting to thousands of activists who have been doing this work for years - to suggest that we have had no successes in this movement, or that we should ditch our work in the states, or that we cannot learn from our movement's history.

That's what troubles me most, Cleve. Your place in history is assured, but I am struggling with the way your statements about work in the states actually revise history in a way that is simply not accurate. I am shocked that you have so little respect for those activists and advocates who have been working for years to give us the protections that we do have in this country - and that set the stage for the federal solutions you are now seeking.

So let me make a very public request of you, Cleve. Could you please stop saying that the state strategy is a failed strategy? Instead, could you acknowledge that we have achieved key victories for equality in the states? I understand that you believe the time has come for a federal strategy, and I'm not challenging that opinion here or suggesting that you modify your views. I am, however, asking that you get your facts straight.

As a public figure and as someone celebrated by many as a leader in the LGBT movement, you have been given both a gift and a responsibility. You can use your position to help others understand our history, or you can rewrite history to serve your own agenda.

Cleve, I believe that you are promoting the March for Equality and a new federal strategy for the same reason that I work to promote the work of state equality groups. Both of us want to see full equality for LGBT people in our lifetimes - in every state and throughout this country. But I think you diminish your own role as a leader by disrespecting the work of thousands of activists in the states who have also made a huge difference for this movement by bringing the LGBT people in their states very real protections and rights. So let's disagree on strategies or tactics, but support the work of all activists who are working for equality.

The movement needs all of us.


Toni Broaddus

Toni Broaddus is the Executive Director of the Equality Federation. The Federation is the national alliance of state-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organizations.

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