Tooling Up for November

Task Force hosts people of color training, puts activists on the streets in Harlem

On Saturday, July 17, Gerard Cabrera, an attorney at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and Jose Jorge, a community organizer for the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), arrived at a housing project on West 115th Street in Harlem with a daunting task ahead of them.

They were among 35 canvassers conducting a door-to-door voter identification drive as part of a workshop led by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) to train lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) organizations in building political power in communities of color. The challenging part, even for these professional activists, was to speak the words “gay and lesbian” in conversations about the electoral process with strangers whose attitudes toward homosexuality—and gay rights—were unknown.

“When I talk about HIV and AIDS, I feel completely on my moral ground,” said Cabrera, carrying a clipboard with a list of registered voters generated by the Board of Elections, several voter registration forms, and a script identifying him as the member of a gay advocacy group. “But when I say the ‘g’ word, I’m automatically going back to the days when I didn’t feel comfortable saying that.”

Jorge concurred. But the two closed their ears to any inner naysaying and listened instead to what the voters had to say.

After 90 minutes of canvassing, the group of 35 tallied its results. Three hundred and nineteen conversations had been had and not one homophobic comment or reaction was received.

“Imagine if you did this every week,” said NGLTF senior field organizer Jason Cooper. “That’s one of the biggest messages of the training—we have to challenge our own assumptions.”

The four-day workshop, entitled “Naming Our Destiny: Training for Political Power,” was conducted at the LGBT Community Center in Manhattan, and co-sponsored by ESPA and the Out People of Color Political Action Club (OUTPOCPAC). It stressed an important point—that political organizing in the LGBT community must engage with heterosexuals in order to get the numbers needed to pass or defeat legislation.

The workshop, which focused on groups of color, drew representatives from organizations such as Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) and Mano a Mano, a citywide umbrella organization for LGBT Latino groups.

“The attendees are 75 percent people of color,” said Cooper. “At the same time, we wanted to let other people in because you can’t work in isolation.”

The training gave “people the tools that have been instrumental for us to not only defeat anti-gay ballot measures over the past three years, but also to help communities across the country build political power,” read a printed statement distributed at the workshop.

Participants came with varying levels of experience in the political arena. Recent college graduates were joined by veteran politicians like John Shields, mayor of Nyack, New York, who made headlines earlier this year when he filed a lawsuit against his own municipality for denying him a marriage license to wed his male partner.

In addition to the voter identification drive, attendees were trained in how to organize a political campaign and conduct fundraising for political action.

Recent months have seen unprecedented victories for the LGBT community. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry in that state, and a proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to specifically ban same-sex marriage was defeated, at least for the time being, in the Senate.

“But the anti-gay backlash has been substantial, now more than ever, with race being used as a divisive tool to rally anti-gay sentiment” and votes, the Task Force statement read.

Conservative groups in 12 states are redoubling their efforts, in the wake of the Senate defeat of a federal marriage measure, to get state constitutions amended to prohibit marriage between members of the same sex. Eleven states have already approved amendments that will be put before voters this year—as early as August 3 in Missouri and September 18 in Louisiana, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay rights organization. Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Loiusiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah will vote on amendment proposals at the time of the November presidential election.

“This election year is crucial for organizing and mobilizing communities,” said Thalia Zepatos, deputy director of organizing and training at the Task Force and co-author of the book “Women for a Change: A Grassroots Guide to Activism and Politics.”

The Task Force has led training sessions on increasing political expediency for more than ten years, said Zepatos. A recent training in Boston drew in excess of 300 participants, as did one in Atlanta in June. The New York training was one of five major political empowerment workshops the group conducted nationwide this year.

“When we do this kind of canvassing, we outperform what the polls predict by 15, 20, 25 percent,” said David Fleischer, NGLTF’s director of organizing and training about the impact of the group’s efforts in recent state and local voter referendums. “That’s got to change your outlook.”

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