Putting the movement on the streets

From the moment that news spread of the passage of California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, a new movement for civil rights and equality began to stir.

Instead of reacting to this Election Day defeat with pessimism, LGBT people and their allies have been organizing and mobilizing for marriage equality with renewed confidence. The movement has spread from its strongest areas of support in California cities to rural areas of the state, and to other states across the country.

At the Socialism 2009 conference in San Francisco, four voices from the struggle spoke out to a packed audience in the Women's Building on July 3.

Here, Zakiya Khabir, a member of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME) and an organizer of the sit-in at the San Diego County Administration Building the day after Proposition 8 was upheld by the California Supreme Court, tells how the fight has developed in her city.

Supporters of same-sex marriage rights sit in at the San Diego County Administration Building to demand licences (Chuck Stemke | SW)Supporters of same-sex marriage rights sit in at the San Diego County Administration Building to demand licences (Chuck Stemke | SW)

I'M A member of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality, and there are a number of SAME members throughout the audience here. We formed just after the passage of Prop 8 and the huge November 15 march that brought 25,000 people out into the streets of San Diego.

San Diego is a conservative town, and we actually had one of the largest marches. We still don't have a complete understanding of why that happened, but it did. We don't have a huge strong left the way you do here or in New York or Chicago, but large numbers of San Diego's same-sex couples got married in the brief time when it was legal, so I believe the issue cuts quite close to home for them.

Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA) and SAME have been in the lead of the struggle for marriage equality in San Diego. Basically if you're new to LGBT activism, and you think door-to-door canvassing is the way to go, you go to MEUSA. And if you think that protest and direct action and visibility are more effective tools for change, you come to a SAME meeting. There are a handful of people that come to both, and the situation is a little more complicated than that, but not really much.

There's also the North County LGBT Coalition. San Diego is a huge county, so there's a great deal of people to the north of us who have their own organizing and a similar structure to what we have. And I do want to say--because it's not the case in every town--that we do work very closely with our allies in Equality California and MEUSA and the HRC (Human Rights Campaign). We're able to maintain our political independence, but we're able to work in coalitions with them very well, which I think has been a key to having a really strong movement down there.

Activists from up and down the West Coast spoke out at a panel discussion on "Prop 8 is Going Down! Winning Equal Marriage in California" at Socialism 2009 in San Francisco.

But SAME is based on the idea that all voices are valuable in this movement, and that the time for letting any organization, no matter how well funded, make decisions that affect us, and without our say--that time is over.

SAME, of course, is part of a new wave of activism all across the country that has been able to breathe new life into the gay rights movement in a number of ways. We've moved the front of the movement from the courtroom and back into the streets.

Of course, we're always happy when the courts rule in our favor, but by increasing our visibility, we've engaged the general public in a discussion about same-sex marriage. We've shown the world that our rights won't be taken away next time without a fight.

In San Diego, another thing we've done is begin supporting other movements as an openly LGBT contingent. We march in solidarity for rights for everyone.

For example, we've been steadfast in our support for labor and the immigrant rights movement. I don't know how many people are aware of the boycott of Doug Manchester's Hyatt hotel. That boycott is on because Doug Manchester gave $125,000 to the Yes on 8 campaign--and he also has horrible working conditions for his employees. So the connection has been incredibly powerful between labor and the LGBT community, because it brings attention to both issues.

Another positive outcome of the California gay uprising is that people are infused with a bold new confidence, and they're coming out of the closet in greater numbers, and engaging in conversations that they were too afraid to have before. I don't think happens with door-to-door canvassing, I think it happens because we're in the streets.

People who've never so much as participated in a march are now taking leadership roles within the movement, and a number of those people joined us on the day that members of SAME occupied the San Diego Country Administration Building Clerk's Office, and refused to leave until same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses. Half of two of those couples are here today, so give them a hand. They had to put up with a lot of cameras in their faces that day, so they deserve the extra credit.

To talk quickly about how the sit-in came to be: In early March, our group voted unanimously to participate in a sit-in if Prop 8 was upheld. The feeling was that we had already had three fairly large marches and rallies in San Diego, and if the courts had the audacity to say it was okay to discriminate, then we needed to do something to directly confront the system.

There were two forces guiding our actions. One side said that in order to make this successful and safe for the people participating, we needed to be as open and as large as we could be. The other side said that we needed complete secrecy--don't talk on the phone, no e-mails, shred the documents that you've used, use a secret code name to refer to this action, and, of course, be ready for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to beat the shit out of you.

And some of those concerns were important to have on our minds as we went forward because what we were going to do wasn't necessarily a walk in the park. But at times, it felt like we were actually planning the revolution. You can see the dilemma of trying to do an action that's never actually spoken about in public.

Thankfully, those who were arguing for openness won out in the end, because they found out that a group called One Struggle One Fight was advertising everywhere and letting everyone know that they were participating in civil disobedience--so it allowed our action to come out of the closet as well.

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THE SIT-IN itself was an amazing experience. At our height, there were 70 people in the room, but all day long, people came in and out. Some people sat for an hour or two, some stayed for five minutes. The room was packed. People told stories that were incredibly personal about why they were there that day.

It's one of the proudest days I've had as an activist, and also one of the more emotional ones. I hope everyone gets a chance to hear Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" read out while they're actually participating in an act of civil disobedience.

Around 4 p.m., the sheriff's department started getting antsy. They had given us a lot of latitude during the day, and they gave us the dispersal order--you all must leave, or you'll be arrested. And much to our excitement, 25 people were willing to stay and get arrested. Many of them weren't part of our original group who had planned this, and they were well aware of the consequences. They knew they could potentially spend six days in jail, but they were willing to stand there for their rights.

Then the sheriffs came in and said, "Hello, you're all under arrest, stand up and we're going to march you out of the building to be arrested." But what they actually did was let us out of the building. It was one of the oddest things that ever happened to me--to be surrounded by sheriffs one second and then just outside and not detained the next. We've been told by people inside law enforcement that they actually did intend to arrest us all, and it's my belief that our numbers kept that from happening.

This was a radicalizing experience for those who participated. I keep telling this story, but there was one guy who I had written off completely because he had said that protest doesn't matter, and all this stuff about visibility was from the civil rights era, and we don't need it now. And he was actually in that room, leading chants about revolution.

In the months since the sit-in, SAME hasn't slowed down a bit. We're still marching and planning vigils and town halls.

There's a new issue we're working on that hasn't broken fully. A sailor named August Provost was murdered at Camp Pendleton north of San Diego on June 30. He was openly gay outside of the base--there are reports that he was burned, and that he had been harassed for being gay by other members of the military. The Navy, of course, is saying nothing about this. But the feeling is that hate crimes happening on federal property because of one's sexual orientation have got to go.

That's just a short overview of what's happening in San Diego, and I feel like we're still at the beginning. The people have spoken on one thing--we're going back to the ballot with Prop 8 in 2010. To be successful, a massive amount of organizing has to happen beyond what we've done so far. We have to build coalitions, not only with other movements, but also with people within the LGBT community who might have different ideas about organizing.

But I also think there's space within that campaign to fight other battles as well. I know this isn't a surprise to those of you in this room, but LGBT people work, they're sent to war, they're losing access to health care, and they're also victims of hate crimes, obviously. And it would be foolish to abstain from those issues just because they aren't exclusively LGBT.

I was going to leave it there. But then I kind of stepped into a conversation earlier today where someone was making the argument that marriage is the wrong goal--that this isn't where our movement should be.

The right to marry isn't really about the day that you stand and recite your vows. Many of the rights that opposite-sex couples have protect them in times of tragedy: hospital rights, Social Security, health benefits, child custody and those sort of things. As socialists and as people who believe that everyone should be treated equally and fairly under the law, you must support the repeal of Prop 8.

Yes, marriage is a historically bourgeois, heterosexist institution. Yes, married people enjoy rights that single people don't have. And yes, eventually we will abolish marriage as we know it for everyone and allow civil unions for everyone, and I understand the desire to have all those things.

But to abstain from--or even worse, to be against--a movement that is simply demanding the right to enter into a legal contract with another person, and a right that they are denied by the state on the basis of their sexual orientation is just simply wrong, and we won't have it anymore.

Transcription by Matt Korn.