LGBT activists gather for S.F. conference

April 29, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO--Activists gathered for the Building Bridges: Struggle, Solidarity, Equality conference in here April 17-18. The conference was planned in response to a call for action by Equality Across America (EAA) to build a grassroots network of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists and organizations in Northern California, as part of the broader struggle to win full federal equality.

About 100 local activists participated throughout the weekend, contributing to workshops that covered a range of topics, from "Immigration Reform and Its Relevance to the LGBTQ Fight for Full Federal Equality," to "The History of Transgender Resistance: Lessons for Inclusive Activism Today," to "The Equal Rights Amendment: Uniting the LGBT Civil Rights and Women's Rights Movements," to discussions on LGBT labor issues and how to plan successful civil disobedience.

Reflecting on the weekend, Pamela Reed, a transgender woman who is active around trans visibility with speakers' bureaus and at her workplace, felt that she "got some great contacts for further action in our struggles" and also remarked that "it was great to also get new information on things I didn't know much about, like the Uniting American Families Act, the local chapter of NOW and many others."

One Struggle, One Fight, a San Francisco grassroots direct-action group, hosted the conference. In addition to unaffiliated people who attended, several groups were represented throughout the weekend, including Katrina's Dream, Out 4 Immigration, UNITE-HERE Local 2, National Marriage Boycott, Marriage Equality USA and the AIDS Housing Alliance.

Adrienne Johnstone, a teacher and member of Educators for a Democratic Union in San Francisco, commented, "The serious budget cuts and the attempts to break our unions are going hand in hand with an increase in targeting of LGBT people, so this was a great opportunity to build relationships with other union members."

Saturday was capped off by a rally against the proposed sit-lie law in San Francisco, which would make it a crime to sit down on a sidewalk anywhere in the city, from early in the morning until late at night.

In addition to the myriad ways this law can be used against any person or group the police may want to target, the law is specifically aimed at homeless youth, 40 percent of whom are LGBT in San Francisco, and is modeled on a law that was used by the city in the 1970s to target gay men.

About 35 people joined the rally, chanting, waving a giant rainbow flag and passing out fliers about the proposed law to people walking by. Unfortunately, the rally was interrupted by a few aggressive bigots, who threw beer and trash on the flag, screamed slurs and spit at protesters. The rally stood its ground and the bigots left, but it was a difficult and unsettling experience for many.

The organizers of the conference specifically wanted to protest sit-lie in the Mission District of San Francisco to highlight how our struggles intersect. If sit-lie passes, not only will LGBTQ youth be targeted but also day laborers and young people of color who hang out on the street because of a lack of access to jobs, after-school programs, social services and education.

Cuts to many social programs in San Francisco are on the rise, given the deepening economic crisis. But the display of bigotry during the protest showed that the solidarity needed to fight these attacks needs to be actively pursued and built. This was a strong thread throughout the conference weekend.

SUNDAY FEATURED a town hall-style meeting that aimed to continue with the community-building of the day before. Some exciting next steps came out of the meeting, including a clear desire to continue organizing together, beginning with helping to sponsor the May Day immigrants rights protest and organizing a contingent in the march; and building events for Harvey Milk Day on May 22.

The meeting also voted to take the money leftover from fundraising to pay for space and materials, and donate the funds to a local LGBT homeless youth services project.

The politics of solidarity ran through every workshop presented, and that was very much reflected in the conversations about next steps forward. There was also some much-needed frank conversation about the challenges grassroots activists are encountering, and the frustrations that flow from those challenges.

As Lauren Sage, an activist on Local 2's boycott committee and a member of One Struggle, One Fight put it, "The conference was really great as a platform for next steps and in giving room to vent about what has worked and what hasn't...A lot of people were inspired in different ways--even if not all their questions were answered, they left hopeful."

There was also honest conversation about the issues this new movement inherits from the movement of the previous decade, which notably include a sometimes tokenizing approach to people of color and to transgender people. The question of how to build real inclusion, rather than just representation empty of true solidarity, came up several times throughout the weekend.

It seems that conference organizers had begun to answer this question in practice: a transgender activist commented in one of the sessions that this was one of the most inclusive spaces she had been in, and that clearly a lot of thought had gone into making it that way. Reed concurred: "The best thing I got out of the conference was acceptance!"

Though the conference was smaller than hoped, those who participated throughout the weekend came away with stronger, clearer ideas about the history, challenges and opportunities for building a united movement based on active solidarity, where the fight for labor rights, social and economic rights like housing and immigrant rights are not outside a fight for LGBT rights, where transgender inclusion should be real and not in name only, and how we need to continue to build a movement-based grassroots activism together.

Robin Yorkey, a teacher in the San Francisco school district, was struck by the spirit of solidarity and inclusion:

I have really been thinking about how the movement as it has been in the last 15 or so years has really disrespected transgender people. So wrong. I was also inspired by the diversity of the people there, so often in a LGBT can seem as if there is only one kind of queer.

This is of course never really true but I think people can feel this way, especially if they do not fit into the what has become traditional lesbian woman/gay man roles...Diversity of age was especially noticeable to me. Got me thinking about possibilities for an all encompassing movement...The time is now.

Derron Thweatt and Ashley Simmons contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives