There were thousands of demonstrators this past Thursday outside of California’s Supreme Court as justices weighed in on whether voters’ decision to re-ban same-sex marriage in the state last November was a denial of fundamental rights or whether it’s in the people’s power to amend the state constitution.
But Prop 8 isn’t the only issue facing LGBT communities. Ongoing battles across the nation continue for LGBT rights — hate crime recognition, adoption rights, immigration and asylum rights, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to name a few. Kim Ford has been an LGBT rights activist for more than 15 years, has worked extensively with community groups of color in New York City, and knows first-hand the myriad of everyday issues LGBT communities face. Here’s Kim…
How did you first become involved in community LGBT mobilizing work? And after 15 years of activism, what are some of the works you are most proud of?
I became involved after attending a meeting of the African Ancestral Lesbians United for Social Change (AALUSC) based in New York City. I would have to say that my first introduction to the LGBT community was through my first lesbian relationship. My partner was white so my experience was through her & her friends. Most were activists doing amazing work, but within the larger LGBT community. I realized that it was important for me to connect with other black lesbians. I did so with AALUSC & joined their board. My involvement with AALUSC gave me the opportunity to interact with other black and people of color (POC) LGBT groups.
One of the things I am most proud of is organizing members of AALUSC to join in a protest of Shirley Q. Liquor, a white gay man who does a drag performance in blackface. We were able to stop his performance in NYC. Another is my participation in the Counter-Demonstration against the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, who used their positions to organize a homophobic, anti-gay rally in the Bronx.
I am also proud to have been an organizer for Arms Akimbo — NYC’s first-ever Lesbian, Bisexual, Two-Spirit & Transgender Women of Color Organizing Institute; and a founding organizer for Black Pride NYC ’98 — NYC’s first Black Pride. I am currently on the board of The Audre Lorde Project, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color community organizing center in NYC.
From your work on the ground, what kinds of reactions have you received since the passing of Proposition 8 in California and the other anti-gay ballot measures in Florida, Arizona and Arkansas this past fall? Lots of folks have theories on what happened with Proposition 8 — Mormon money, not enough outreach in certain communities. What do you think were the key challenges that were not met? And how should we move forward to help ensure more rights are not taken away?
The reaction of the community at large has ranged from disappointment to anger. And with the majority of the media focused on the marriage ballots, the other measures including the anti-adoption measures were overshadowed. This gives the impression that marriage is the single biggest issue in LGBT communities. For some, I’m sure it is for a number of reasons.
There are ongoing discussions around what marriage means for LGBT folk. They include talking about who benefits from marriage as we know it, what does it mean to be included in the current definition of marriage, how can we and should we re-define the meaning of family. In NYC, for example, a statement was created to reframe marriage beyond a narrow binary definition and to strategically challenge pro-marriage advocates and their family values agenda.
Not living in California, I can’t say firsthand what was and wasn’t done in terms of on the ground outreach & organizing. From what I’ve read, the Yes on 8 folks had a very organized plan, great execution and funding. So did the No on 8 folks and I understand that there was research showing that efforts needed to be concentrated in a particular demographics, which was not POC communities. Yes on 8 folks were everywhere, but especially in religious institutions. They used religion and outright lies to sway folks in all communities.
One thing that’s become very clear is that the POC communities in general and the black communities in particular were not the reason Prop 8 passed. These communities did not make up the majority of votes for Prop 8. The majority of votes within these communities were for Prop 8 and that can be attributed not to being more homophobic, but to the work of the Yes on 8 organizing. Could there have been more work done in POC communities? Absolutely! I would have to say that the biggest error on the part of the No on 8 folks was in not doing on-the-ground organizing within POC communities to counteracting the negative propaganda. I think communities of color were still taken for granted – believing that POC folks would not vote in a measure that denied folks rights. They didn’t, they voted their fears. There needed to be a reframing of the issues and a direct counter to the lies.
Have you seen Milk? What did you think? Much has changed since the courageous works of Harvey Milk, while much remains the same. From an organizing perspective, what do you think our focus should be on now?
I haven’t seen Milk, but I do understand that it’s a very good movie. I think we have many issues and areas that need addressing. To pick one it seems, would be to say we are “one gay community” which we are not. Our issues, ideas, dreams, are as varied as the communities we come from. We still live in a racist, sexist, homophobic society. Within that we have to address poverty, immigrant rights, access to education, access to adequate housing, workers’ rights. The list goes on. I believe that it’s important to develop a multi-issue lens that allows us to connect our work for social, racial & economic justice.
How do you think the economic crisis is affecting members of the LGBT community — especially youth forced out of their homes by their parents? What can readers do to help?
For some of us, the effect is the same as other communities, but we are also more vulnerable. We already have less protection for our families, so the loss of employment or housing takes on greater significance. Funding is down and organizations are cutting back or closing altogether. We could be looking at a loss of basic needs services such as safe housing alternatives, education programs, and employment programs. We also have several communities that are disproportionally affected in any economic climate. They are the trans, youth & immigrant communities who historically have a harder time accessing housing and employment.
Young people forced out of their homes most likely will find it harder to find safe alternatives to the streets. There will be little to no opportunity to attend school, find employment or safe housing. Risky sex work becomes a way to survive. Folks interested in helping should find the local programs in their cities and see what they need. Of course, money is critical but think of creative ways to support them. Volunteer, organize a house party, create awareness campaigns.
Do you know of any anti-LGBT initiatives or campaigns readers should be on the look out for?
I’m not of aware of any just yet. I would say pay close attention to work being done on a state level, particularly around marriage/partner recognition. For every campaign that is working for inclusion, you can be sure there is anti-gay campaign at work.
Is there anything you would like to add? How about that out prime minister of Iceland?
I think this is an amazing time to get involved. Yes, we are in a hard place economically, but this is the time to be creative. We watched an old-fashioned, grass roots, organizing campaign coupled with new technology have an amazing impact. We should use this as a lesson about what can be done when we work together.
The prime minister of Iceland. What can I say. That’s great. But how about The Honorable Deborah A. Batts, the first openly lesbian, African-American federal judge? Or Dr. Marjorie Hill, the first African-American to become the CEO of a major LGBT organization?