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Lessons Learned and Still to Learn

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Op-Ed

Originally appeared on Advocate.com on October 13, 2009

http://www.advocate.com/Politics/Commentary/The_Lesson_Youll_Hear_About_and_The_Lesson_You_Wont/


Lessons Learned and Still to Learn

For less money and half the time spent "organizing," Gay 2.0 pulled off a march many thought couldn't happen. But GLAAD's Jarrett Barrios and Rashad Robinson say we still need to improve effective outreach to minority communities.

By Jarrett Barrios and Rashad Robinson

October 14, 2009

The crowing began as the first marchers stepped onto the west lawn of the Capitol. “They said you wouldn’t come!” screamed a voice at the microphone. “This march is a passing of the torch to a new generation, a new way of doing things,” said another to a press scrum backstage.
 
Indeed, the young organizers of the National Equality March have a right to be proud. Proud for pulling us off our duffs, 200,000 strong. Proud of doing it for a fraction of the cost of prior marches. Proud of creating a more serious event -- less of a pride parade “celebration” and more of a focused, political affair. And proud of doing it largely on their own.
 
While the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation lent offices and other resources -- as did other groups -- to these organizers, without a doubt this “new generation” gets full credit for higher-than-expected turnout, and in a more lasting sense, for demonstrating that the rules of our movement are changing.
 
In the coming weeks, we will undoubtedly hear much more about this emergence of “Gay 2.0”: leaner, meaner, and more ready for the equality fight in 2009, some will argue, than organizations with more resources and longer institutional histories. Indeed, their use of today’s advocacy tools would seem to validate that claim. Almost the entire effort was put together on a shoestring by young activists online.
To the Gay 1.0 crowd, “online” often gets interpreted as sending out e-mails to Listserv or Facebook groups about actions we direct them to take. The same old “vertical” (that is, top-down) style of politics, but online.
 
To Gay 2.0, online means savvy uses of social media that engage “grasstop” thought leaders. These leaders aren’t elected by boards, but self-selected and eager to use their personal networks (when asked) to promote activism. As it did this week, the horizontal style of such organizing succeeds in pushing up attendance dramatically for less effort and cost than more traditional efforts.
Over the summer months, I’ve heard folks in the movement recall the 1987 march, the 1993 march, the 2000 march. Each of those marches, they remembered, required months and months of preliminary work to build consensus on themes, on speakers, on logistics -- on just about everything. Because of all this process, many thought it couldn’t be done with only four months.
 
Under the old rules of vertical organizing, they were right. Calls to action for each group to mobilize members and outreach to others, who in turn mobilize theirs if their leadership embrace the priorities and themes of the march. But the old, vertical rules were abandoned this time. In Gay 2.0, horizontal is the new vertical.
 
This take-away will be the obvious lesson of the National Equality March. For national LGBT advocacy organizations -- including GLAAD -- it will, or should, ring out as a wake-up call. Some will say it is about the tools we use, but in fact, it’s about the people. Digital activists are not “joiners,” but they can be roused to specific actions. Engagement with online communities isn’t about adding to member rolls or building e-mail lists -- it’s about building campaigns that harness horizontal power instead of leaving tremendous capacity on the table by not understanding and utilizing these resources.
 
A second important lesson emerged from the buses that rolled into the Capitol on Sunday. It was a cautionary tale for the digital dynamos of Gay 2.0 about demographics and politics. Shockingly few participants coming to Washington were African-American, Latino, or Asian Pacific Islander. The fact that the population of Washington, D.C., has one of the highest concentrations of African-Americans in the nation made that lack of diversity all the more jarring.
 
The persistent gaps that challenge our movement in terms of diverse outreach and leadership now threaten to undermine our embrace of digital organizing. Like the digital divide that excludes millions from robust access to digital technologies in this country, we must face and address our own networking divide. It is a divide that leaves many of our community members and allies behind because we have not done the work necessary to bring them into our networks -- and to become part of theirs.
Addressing that divide is naturally a matter of inclusion, fairness, and social justice, but there’s a practical political point too. Effective advocacy in 2009 has to include reaching out and engaging with all of those whose support we need to win our ballot and legislative fights. If we don’t, we lose.
 
To all those calling themselves the Post–Prop. 8 generation, take heed of these lessons. Latinos, for example, were 19% of the vote in California. During Prop. 8, almost no opinion research was done on Spanish-speaking Latinos, nor did adequate movement resources go into developing messages to this community. With the exception of some amazing local work in places like East Los Angeles, Gay 1.0 just didn’t get it.
 
In this way, the vulnerabilities of Gay 2.0 begin to look a lot like those of Gay 1.0. The networking divide means that an over-reliance on our old networks will predictably fail to engage those we need to prevail in our fight for equality. So if we like the new style of organizing, what are we going to do to make sure that we do it right?
 
Make no mistake: The failure of Gay 2.0 (just like Gay 1.0) to sufficiently engage our racial and ethnic diversity -- straight and gay-- is a point of political importance. It hurts us. Just go to blog posts by African-American thought leaders and read their thoughts on the LGBT community’s criticism of President Obama. Have we changed their hearts and minds?
 
A new way of doing things is cool. A new approach is seductive. Ideas and energy and nimbleness are all needed. "Horizontal is the new vertical" sounds swell and our hats go off to the organizers of the National Equality March. But between the excited cries of “Yes, we did,” there should also be some sober reconnaissance of what we didn’t do. Like the continuing difficulty in overcoming our own divides and exclusions.

Jarrett Barrios is the president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Rashad Robinson is the senior director of media programs at GLAAD.

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