Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cleve Jones and the LGBT & Labor Forum

Cleve Jones spoke yesterday at a LGBT and Labor forum hosted by Equal Roots and Unite Here! at West Hollywood's Kol Ami synagogue.

With a purpose to share and discuss the "building a powerful LGBT and Labor coalition to win full equality for members of the LGBT community and the community at large," the forum included a panel of individuals actively involved with the unions but were also part of the LGBT community.

With standing room only, the event was kicked off with an introduction by Cleve who reminded the attendees that the "queer movement began as a radical, liberal movement," and that change towards equality will "never happen with a click of a mouse but with the willingness to pound the streets, knock on doors and a willingness to be arrested." Referring to the Briggs Initiative that he worked against with Harvey Milk, he said, "That's how we won."

The proponents of the Briggs Initiative used the "same bullshit arguments" that are being used today to support anti-gay measures such as Proposition 8. Back then, polls showed them trailing, but in the end they defeated the homophobic initiative. And why?

The main reason: "Coalition."

Cleve related the story of how a Toronto union was planning on a strike vote against a Hyatt the weekend of the International AIDS Conference being held at that very hotel. He flew out to convince them not to do it that weekend because many of the hotel's rooms would be needed by those with HIV/AIDS who would be traveling very far distances and in need of rest. Crossing a picket line would prove extremely difficult, as would finding new rooms elsewhere.

Union members were at first resistant.

Many union members are immigrants coming from cultures with severe homophobia or at the very least, where homosexuality is a taboo subject. But with much hard work, setting up meetings between housekeepers and valet attendants and gay people, Cleve was able to remind them that members of their union were also members of the LGBT community, and some suffering from HIV/AIDS, and as a result, that this was their issue, too.

He was able to convince them to push the strike vote a week.

Many attendees of the HIV/AIDS conference stayed and picketed with them the following week.

That's coalition building.

Another example is the boycott on the Manchester Hyatt in San Diego. The owner gave $125,000 for the canvassing that led to Proposition 8. The local union and the LGBT community boycott has cost the hotel millions in dollars in business.


Unfortunately, during the No on 8 Campaign, many union leaders reached out to help but their calls of assistance were left unanswered by a campaign that lacked structure, strategy and any sort of capability of receiving such help. These unions are powerful with a long history of winning rights for their members. How could the LGBT community not have taken advantage?

Not wanting to diss the bureaucrats of non-profits who provide many great services to the greater LGBT community, Cleve said they're not the ones that should be fighting for our rights and running our political campaigns. The community should be. And the community needs to be building coalitions.

Members of the panel spoke of their own stories and how being part of both the LGBT community and the unions has given them a chance to build a bridge between the two. However, it's not always easy.

Yardeena Aaron, an African American lesbian of Here to Stay, spoke about how she helped unionize over 5,000 security guards in her area so they could receive better benefits from the employer, only to feel betrayed when the leaders of the unionizing campaign came out in favor of Yes on 8. She realized then that more work needed to be done and so began Here to Stay, a black LGBTQ group that's reaching out within its community that's made up of many union members.

The Latino community also makes up a good deal of unions, and Tom Walsh, president of the local chapter of Unite Here! had to remind them how they themselves felt discriminated against in their own unions when, years ago, they were told they couldn't speak at the meetings unless it was in English, and how the leaders refused to get a translator. And now, the LGBT members of their union feel they are being discriminated against in much of the same manner.

Douglass Marmol, another Latino LGBT member of Unite Here! told a moving story in Spanish about how he bravely stood up at a general meeting of his union and proclaimed, "We're fighting for free health insurance. For respect. So if we are fighting for everyone else's respect, we need to fight for our own. I am gay, and I'm fighting for my own."

Shortly after, the local union head helped Douglass come out to his own family.

After the panel spoke, the forum was opened up for Q&A. One person asked what the best approach was to building these coalitions with unions, especially its members who may be resistant.

Cleve responded many of them are people of faith and have deeply held beliefs, but we also have to remember how much they'd been lied to during the Proposition 8 battle. They were told their pastors would be thrown into jail if they refused to marry gay couples.

The lies need to be addressed.

But above all, the LGBT community needs to remember these people struggle together and fight together. They know about economic justice. About fighting backbreaking work for pennies on the hour. Tell them that LGBT rights is truly about economic justice, and they get it. And they'll fight with you.

And isn't that what the fight for same-sex marriage is about? Economic justice? Receiving the benefits in an albeit faulty benefit system that your fellow citizen already receives. Isn't it about being equals?

Despite a few differences, commonalities, or "intersectionality" abound. Like Yardeena said, "We want our rights. We want to feed our families. We want to move on."

There's the power of coalition. There's the power of the progressive movement.

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