Annual Update 2009 - Discrimination

July 17, 2009
LGBT Rights coalition in South Dakota.

Our work to pass a nondiscrimination bill in West Virginia and marriage in Maine demonstrates the value of building diverse coalitions of supporters. In West Virginia, we faced an uphill battle in a conservative state where the only LGBT protections could be found in the university town of Morgantown. But after logging many hours in phone calls to activists and advocates throughout West Virginia, followed by a nearly two-week road trip across the state, I felt convinced we could bring together an impressive array of individuals and organizations with the collective voice to pass a nondiscrimination bill.

In West Virginia and throughout the country, coalitions are the very lifeblood of our legislative work for LGBT equality. Legislative campaigns live or die by the ability to bring together a coalition of diverse and organized supporters representing a variety of constituencies and perspectives. Coalitions in their very best form represent power in numbers sharing a unified voice. The benefit to working within a coalition is that they include messengers from a variety of perspectives, representing diversity in the demand for equality. Coalitions in their very worst form can be a laboratory for infighting, extreme inefficiency, and insecure egos — and coalitions in the LGBT movement are no different.

Pull QuoteIn West Virginia, we were able to make considerable headway on our legislative agenda by bringing together professional groups like the National Association of Social Workers, advocacy groups including the Coalition against Domestic Violence and Citizen Action Group, respected civil rights organizations including the NAC P, labor groups including Service Employees Industrial Union local 1199 (SEIU), and civic groups such as the League of Women Voters.

But as anyone who has ever worked on a legislative campaign will tell you, this doesn’t necessarily mean that building and maintaining coalitions is easy or that the people involved will see eye to eye on every issue. With successful coalitions, the members find a way look beyond their differences and set their sights on a common agenda. This requires strong leadership, effective communication, and a clearly stated mission.

When a coalition comes together and truly focuses around its core mission, it feels like magic. Important to this structure is having achievable goals that are attainable by those in the coalition. For example, if membership includes active local unions, coalition leaders could consider asking union representatives to call their members to a rally at the capitol. But this would not be a good tactic if the members of your coalition were spread throughout the state, with no critical mass in the state capitol. In this instance, a coordinated letter writing and phone campaign could be a good idea.

Bringing a broad array of disparate voices together around a cause can wield great power when used within a legislative strategy. Coalitions also represent the opportunity to share resources. While one member group may have a long membership list to bring to the table, another may have an active base of volunteers, while another may have lobbying or communications expertise to contribute.

In West Virginia, labor groups served as a strong voice on the coalition and in the legislature. With a powerful voice representing workers from coal miners to health care professionals, the labor movement is a critical partner in our effort to prohibit discrimination in the workplace. As the AFL-CIO’s Pride at Work points out, representing all workers—including those in the LGBT community —is in the spirit of the union movement’s historic motto, “An Injury to One is An Injury to All.”

ACLU affiliates are an important part of coalitions that advance LGBT equality. As one of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organizations, the ACLU contributes a long-standing voice for upholding the constitution’s promises of autonomy, freedom of expression and equality. To have a voice at the table that represent civil rights for all —with a proven track record of standing up for religious freedom, racial equality, and gender parity to name but a few—helps drive home the point that laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation are not only necessary only for the LGBT community, but for the principles on which this country stands.

Because the ACLU works on so many different issues, we often have the ability to persuade groups and individuals who work with us on other issues to support our efforts to fight discrimination against LGBT people.

Other organizations that are often represented in our coalitions include faith-based, advocacy and business groups. All have a unique voice to bring to the table. All can bring their own membership/ constituency to bear on an issue by sharing their perspective.

While we did not succeed in West Virginia this year, we did build grassroots power and lay the groundwork to further LGBT issues in the future. Primary to this work was helping to build a statewide LGBT advocacy group, Fairness West Virginia. Our work putting together the coalition helped identify individuals who can support and lead Fairness West Virginia.

In Maine, the ACLU affiliate participated in the Maine Freedom to Marry Coalition that culminated in a joint legislative hearing on marriage. Leading up to the hearing, coalition members participated in a postcard drive (delivering 10,000 signed cards to the governor), public speaking engagements, op-eds, rallies and phone banks. Drawing on this momentum, the coalition was able to draw upon its membership and allies to line up testimony from a range of perspectives to have LGBT couples, parents and family of LGBT individuals, veterans, clergy members, mental health professionals, civil rights leaders, elected officials, school administrators and teachers present and testifying before the legislative committee. Supporters in the 4,000 seat auditorium wore red, making it clear that pro-marriage turnout was at least five times higher than the other side.

Because the coalition was thoughtfully conceived, faith-based leaders had a strong presence at the hearing. Wearing their liturgical robes and lining the entrance to the auditorium, these members of the clergy made a big visual impact for hearing participants, observers, and the media. Testifying as one voice for fairness, the faith-based contingent was an integral and necessary voice among the coalition.

When we talk about diverse coalitions, we mean to say that the coalition includes organizations/ representatives that are closely associated with the mission, as well as other groups and individuals who may have something—however indirectly —at stake. Two such examples from the legislative hearing in Maine include:

A once-divorced Catholic lawyer married 24 years spoke about her marriage to her Unitarian husband. Her marriage not recognized by the Catholic Church, she spoke of the necessary separation between civil law and religious doctrine. “This restraint your legislative predecessors enshrined in the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.”

A straight veteran testified before the legislative committee in Maine. As a man in a mixed-race marriage, his perspective was powerful, “It was wrong 40 years ago about interracial marriage and it is just as wrong now about same-sex marriage. The heart does not care about race, color or sexual orientation.”

While we didn’t meet our goal in West Virginia, we did walk away with marriage legislatively in Maine. We aim to keep this status. However, as I write this, our opponents are collecting signatures to repeal the law. Fortunately, a foundation for a ground campaign has already been laid. The extensive, tried and true legislative coalition will now shift to campaign mode.

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