Telling our stories, winning on our issues

Netroots Nation Minneapolis: June 2011During Netroots Nation I attended an LGBT strategy caucus. Our conversation focused on same sex marriage, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) repeal, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and Uniting American Families Act as case studies. What have we done well on these issues, where have we struggled, and what can we learn?

For me, the major take away from this conversation was the need to tell our stories. When a political issue becomes personal, when people understand it not in the abstract but as impacting real people, they’re able to empathize. DADT became humanized through the stories of folks like Dan Choi, and from hearing the voices of military personnel who wanted queer soldiers to be able to come out.

Belief in the power of coming out was reinvigorated for myself and many of the other caucus participants who got to hear from DREAM activists during Netroots. Many of these brave young people have come out as both queer and undocumented. I watched their stories create an emotional connection to the immigration issue for people who may not have been personally connected before.

Coming out can change opinion on a whole range of issues – I can imagine campaigns around abortion, sex work, employment discrimination, you name it.

As I said during the caucus, recent polling shows 90% of Americans think LGBT folks already have federal workplace protections. 73% support protections, but there’s not the public pressure partly because people don’t realize it’s an issue. To change this we need to share stories of workplace discrimination. And we need diverse stories, from folks across the queer and trans spectrum. We shouldn’t shy away from the fact that trans folks face the majority of discrimination. But we also need LGB folks to tell their stories of discrimination, especially since LGB folks have been more humanized to the general public already. It’s time for queer folks to win a victory in partnership with the trans community for once instead of leaving us behind again.

One topic that came up in the caucus conversation was the need to tell positive stories. Pam Spaulding brought up the good point that stories from employers who do have workplace protections for LGBT folks can show this is actually a good idea. And people may be understandably afraid to come out about losing their jobs. We do need to tell the stories of discrimination, though, so we need to create a context where people can feel supported.

I question how honestly we can say we’ll make coming out around politically volatile issues safe. If telling your story is definitely safe it’s probably not a story about an issue that needs political change. While we should certainly work to make sure people who put themselves on the line are as protected as possible, the DREAM activists facing deportation are a reminder making the personal political can be dangerous.

I’ve been thinking about Exhale‘s 16 and Loved campaign as a model for the kind of support that needs to go in tandem with political storytelling. When MTV decided to air a special called “No Easy Decision” in which three young women told their abortion stories, Exhale knew these young people could face the overwhelming hate and dehumanizing political rhetoric that so often surrounds this issue. So they put together a project to send love and support to these three young women.

I think projects like this are an important component of storytelling campaigns. We need people to talk about their lives and give a human face to political issues, and we also need to support these brave individuals.

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  1. Posted June 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Jos, a great write-up which reflects the most important conclusions I also got out of this session: the need to put a “face” on the issues important to us by telling our stories. Interestingly, discussions at three different tables (at least, out of a total of five tables) involving different participants all came up with this same conclusion.

    Your point about supporting people who put themselves on the line is crucial. Even when one is “accustomed” — if one can call it that — to the slings & arrows of homophobic/transphobic hate speech, it can still be rough on the soul. I told you about the personal attack posted to Bent Alaska when I was there: it was stupid (along with hateful), but it sure did a lot to raise my spirits that folks in community, LGBTQ & allies alike, showed their support. Much more so for people who are first coming out into that public world.

    I’m really glad to have met you, roomie — I’ll be staying in touch.

    • Posted June 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Mel! Great to meet you too :)

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