Taking action on Harvey Milk Day

May 26, 2010

Reports from actions around the country for LGBT rights on Harvey Milk Day.

ACTIVISTS FOR LGBT equality took action last week, culminating in protests and activities on May 22--which is Harvey Milk Day, in honor of the murdered gay rights activist. According to the Equality Across America network, which made the call for Harvey Milk Day actions, there were demonstrations planned for 26 cities in 20 states nationwide.

The protests came at an important time, with pressure growing on federal officials to repeal the discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy in the military, and Congress to take up the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) protecting the rights lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people on the job.

In Los Angeles, nearly 200 activists rallied downtown under the banner "Out and Proud for Full Equality." The young, multiracial group marched to the Federal Building demanding full equality under the law in all 50 states.

Speakers--representing different aspects of the way federal law discriminates against LGBT people--demanded immediate passage of a trans-inclusive ENDA, repeal of DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act, health care access and treatment, and equality for LGBT people under immigration policy. Other speakers shared their moving personal coming-out stories and the daily impact of discrimination.

Two students from the DREAM Activist network, which fights for the rights of undocumented students, spoke about the connection between the struggles. "Our movement takes inspiration from Harvey Milk's message to come out," said Nanci, one of the two. "It's something that unites our communities--to come out as undocumented students, to put a human face on the issue, to show that people that you know are hurt by these unjust laws."

The march and rally capped off a week of activities coordinated by an ad hoc group of LA-area activists from Equality Across America, Equal Roots, International Socialist Organization, Pride at Work, The Dream Team, Latino Equality Alliance, Bienestar, Unite HERE, Equality Inland Empire, and South Bay LGBT Center.

In Boston, about 150 people came out to a rally in support of the MA Trans Civil Rights Bill, a trans-inclusive ENDA and repeat of DADT. This rally was also the culminating event of Harvey Milk Week.

People came to the rally to support specific legislation, but also to demand that trans people be seen and treated as human beings. This was particularly embodied in the signs and chants of "I am somebody. I deserve full equality."

Amara from Jobs with Justice said she came because "everyone has the right not to be harassed" for being who they are. Another woman said she came "to give my support to the trans community because I have a transgender granddaughter. We need to speak out more and do more education and be persistent, and argue that being transgender is not being a freak but being who we are."

Speakers and participants at the rally gave a clear picture of what transphobia looks like. Logan Ferrara, a young trans man in the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth, spoke about his experience being fired for his gender identity and wanting to be treated like everyone else.

Activists talked about the local fight for the Trans Civil Rights Bill and the need for continued pressure on politicians. Gunner Scott of the MA Trans Political Coalition said that activity around the legislation has won more support in the legislature, but continued action is needed.

State Rep. Carl Sciortino spoke at the rally about the right wing's attempts to use the trans bill as a wedge issue for those who sympathize with the Tea Partiers--and to diminish the legislation by calling it a "bathroom bill." He argued that the grassroots movement can help redirect the discussion to one about including trans people in all non-discrimination legislation.

This rally was a really important show of solidarity within and without the LGBT activist community for trans rights. After rallying, the demonstrators marched through downtown Boston, stopping at Sen. Scott Brown's office, where a protest the day before targeted Brown's opposition to LGBT rights, and an army recruitment center, where loud chants of "Don't ask, don't tell! Take your ban and go to hell" could be heard from across Boston Common.

In New York City, about 200 people participated in a march that started out at the LGBT Center in the West Village and went to several different locations, ending at City Hall.

There was a wide range of speakers, including high school LGBT activists, a trans professor, activists from an organization fighting for marriage equality and speakers on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. One, who was speaking for the first time at a protest, was a veteran who was discharged after serving 13 years--and after saving her commander's life.

Planning for the event was in the works for weeks, but it really began to gain momentum in the final weeks with endorsements from Marriage Equality New York, a housing rights group and a gay-straight alliance.

The racially diverse crowd was spirited, and moved by the speakers and the issues they raised. Dozens signed up to get involved in future organizing.

In Austin, Texas, about 200 people rallied Saturday to march from the City Hall to the state capitol building, chanting all the way: "Gay, straight, black, white, same struggle, same fight!"

At the rally at the Texas Capitol, speakers included feminist movement veteran Zoe Nicholson and Emmanuel Winston, an Austin softball player who was bashed earlier this year. Winston's moving speech emphasized his resistance to violence and participation in the movement as a representative of other survivors.

Other speakers stressed the need to pressure the Obama administration and other politicians in demand of our basic civil rights. Every speaker invoked the life and work of Harvey Milk, who refused to be patient or passive in the face of oppression.

The march was just one highlight of a weekend of events in Austin, including a conference spearheaded by the Equality Across America network that drew over 100 people from up and down the state of Texas. Participant discussed and debated the way forward for equality, and took up issues ranging from immigrants' rights to student activism. On Sunday, 50 activists from a half-dozen cities and towns gathered to form a Texas statewide activist network.

"This is awesome," Austin activist David Estlund said. "Once you start something like this, it's not going away."

In Coronado, Calif., on the San Diego Bay, about 60 protesters converged on an intersection near a Navy base in a spirited demonstration called, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Don't Fight for Freedoms You Don't Have!"

The San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME)--an affiliate of Equality Across America (EAA)--organized the protest, which had its origin in the local EAA kickoff meeting in April. San Diego activists felt that given the prominence of the military here, the demonstration should highlight the demand of repealing the ban on LGBT servicepeople, as well as general demands for full equality nationwide.

The protest was exciting and highly visible, and succeeded in bringing together new and seasoned activists, including some Coronado folks who joined in enthusiastically. There were rainbow flags, handmade signs and plenty of bullhorns. Among several banners was one memorializing a gay armed forces member, August Provost, who was murdered at Camp Pendleton in July 2009.

Growing in confidence from the honking support of passersby, some protesters stepped out into the street during red lights to display signs to the line up of cars--until the cops showed up to put a stop to it.

In Rochester, N.Y., 80 people gathered at City Hall May 21 to demand the right to same-sex marriage.

The day began with a rally outside and energetic crowd-raising chants of "Hey, Obama! Let mama marry mama!" and "Gay, straight, trans rights: same struggle, same fight!"

After waiting for the crowd to grow, organizers of the Civil Rights Front (the local Equality Across America chapter) put out a call for same-sex couples to form in a line and enter the building. The plan was to disrupt the distribution of marriage licenses with a nod to the Woolworth sit-ins of the 1960s. Participants were to apply for marriage licenses and inevitably be denied, but to then circulate to the end of the line and do it again.

Paul Lauricella, a student at SUNY Brockport and Civil Rights Front organizer said of the day, "We had 15 couples go in today! The clerk was really supportive and friendly to the cause."

Couples were first denied licenses on a technicality because they did not have the proper identification with them: no birth certificates or valid passports. Within 15 minutes, organizers pulled together the documents needed for one couple to be legally married, barring their same-sex relationship. The entire rally then flooded City Hall to support the couple and bear witness to New York State's denial of equality.

Melissa Kelsey, a Civil Rights Front organizer, said the day was a success. "It can always be bigger," Kelsey said, "but our next step is to build a contingent in the Pride Parade and keep up the fight."

In Seattle, about 40 people rallied downtown to demand that Congressional politicians move immediately to repeal DADT and pass a trans-inclusive ENDA.

The rally kicked off with Ela Barton, a local queer slam poet and Navy veteran, performing a clever and moving piece laying out the contradictions between serving on the front lines in life-and-death situations, while having to keep one's sexuality in the closet.

Dave Freiboth, the head of the King County Labor Council, expressed his solidarity with the LGBTQ movement and described his work in pushing the official labor movement to take up the struggle for ENDA and against DADT. Julz Carey, a Coast Guard veteran and leader in American Veterans for Equal Rights, spoke about the damage DADT does to the lives of gay and lesbian servicemembers.

The most inspiring and powerful speeches showed the real-life human impact of these discriminatory policies. Ryan Blackhawke and Breanna Anderson of the Ingersoll Gender Center told heart-wrenching stories that they've heard in the gender support groups of people being fired, given wage cuts and even being forced to present management with photos of their genitalia.

Meighan Doherty, a long-time local social justice activist, spoke for the first time in a public gathering about being fired from her job with AmeriCorps for being an out and proud lesbian. As she declared in closing out the rally, "No one should be fired because of who they love. No one should be discharged from the military because of who they love. And no one should be humiliated and forced to live in poverty because of who they are."

In Champaign-Urbana, Ill., local LGBT activists in eQuality Champaign-Urbana gathered on May 21 to present Rep. Tim Johnson with almost 400 letters demanding that he change his stance to be in support of a transgender-inclusive ENDA and other pro-LGBT legislation. Along with the letters, the eQuality also presented a demand for an official reply from Tim Johnson's office within 10 days, and it promised further action if his stance is not changed.

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