Where Are Our Gay and Lesbian Leaders?

By Christian Michael Grantham

For many gay and lesbian Americans, this century's struggle to gain civil rights has been an historic challenge. Many voices have articulated this struggle in a mosaic of brilliant people too few know or honor.

The causes of fairness and equality for other minorities have yielded extraordinary leaders in our American history. Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony and Cesar Chavez all elevated the idealism of their movements above politics. Their dedication helped institutionalize the cause of freedom as a struggle to be joined equally by all people. Their understanding cut across class and other differences converging in the heart of a mobilized consciousness. The visible presence of this consciousness defined a movement and empowered the essence of equality.

The demands made by these movements that the government reflect the people's value on equality and fairness could not have happened if people fully ceded their political actions and desires to financial contributions to these leader's campaigns.

In fact, the difficulty for our community to recognize national leadership continues to be a challenge for that very reason. Leaders who made an impression on history lead committed people, not committed dollars, in movements that swept through America. The pervasive apathy currently being perpetuated in our community is keeping literally millions of people from defining our movement. In a political culture increasingly dependent on financial contributions to Political Action Committees (PACs), the era of leadership and idealism is about to get a challenge of its own.

I'd be the first to argue that gay and lesbian PACs have accomplished a lot of good for our community. Gay and lesbian PACs helped to secure federal funds for local AIDS/HIV care providers, elected fair-minded congressional leaders and lobbied Congress for civil rights. While we're honest, they have also helped advance individual careers through an exchange of contributions in-kind, provided mechanisms for political payoffs and supportive business gestures to major donors and generally injected our movement into the epicenter of an ill American political system. In a majority of the later cases, the will of the people came last.

In contrast, the historic leaders of past civil rights movements appealed directly to the people for social change. The spirit and actions of these leaders engaged the will of millions of individuals equally invested in the causes of fairness. Activist's money paid for buses and run down motels and created a visible presence that changed people's lives. Their movements were defined by people who modeled the leadership and ideals they sought for themselves. In these circumstances, a poor southern preacher was a vehicle for freedom shared by so many through simple and direct actions that transformed the power of the people into a movement toward justice.

In our modern gay and lesbian movement, however, are we allowing for these possibilities? The modern industry of political contributions has done some damage to the values of fairness and idealism. It continues to do so by elevating contributors to a form of leadership representing a respective body of wealth rather than a body of real people. Under current campaign finance laws and laws governing PACs, a person's ideas are becoming less a commodity to our movement as well as other greater-good-advocate communities. This may seem discouraging, but it's also being disarmed on a daily basis by the dedicated work of faceless grassroots activists.

Thousands of activists across the country are currently operating on field budgets that are slowly decreasing in favor of fundraising for PACs on a local and national level. The interest in providing the power of mobilized voters is being traded for the power of mobilized dollars. Gay and lesbian organizations now whip out their budgets in a locker room comparison rather than flexing their muscles in a field of mobilized activists. What's often left for our community is a field of lonely battles abandoned by most for the sweeping power of big dollar donations, but tirelessly fought by the true leaders of our community.

While many local PACs are sensitive to the fundraising needs of local communities, some national gay and lesbian organizations are not. National PAC fundraising often worsens the divide between grassroots activists and our movement's Washington lobby. A local community foundation's annual fundraiser that once took in $10,000 now takes in $1000 as people prefer the big ticket event from national visitors and their magnetic "glitz-power." Who wants to see the real work of a Juanita Alvarez honored when they can honor the "pledged future work" of Rosie O'Donnell and schmooze around in money?

The divide between grassroots and national lobbies was created when the value of "people numbers" got mixed up with "dollar numbers." That usually means that the "activist" in the bunch took the back seat to Mr. Big Bucks. There are all kinds of ways that smart people fix these things. Some of the less plausible usually work best. A sacrifice of 1%-2% of development budget toward community reinvestment programs (i.e. the creation of locally managed grant making bodies) is a fair tax for happy soldiers, mobilized votes and a long-term investment return in both people and dollars. But this means the head cheese has to stick around long enough for the credit. Was it ever this complicated? Did Rosa Parks first think, "I've got it! I'm sitting in the front of the bus this time. That should get me kicked off at the next stop and save my liberation army the cost of bus fare?" Well, not quite, and I realize we can't very well expect to pay other's way on this ride toward freedom. But we can and should expect to "give back where we take" and to become "equal partners in the well-being of our community."

If we're looking for national gay and lesbian leaders to merge with the burden of history, we should look no further than our own efforts to manifest the well-being of our communities. Through idealism, grassroots activists across the country have the power to change our movement inside-out and to refocus our values on ideals of fairness and equality. Our actions and demands that national organizations become mindful of local communities is the first step in empowering our communities and in creating the environment from which a mindful national leader can have a magical rendezvous with history.

Christian Michael Grantham is a consultant living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at grantham@kwiksand.com

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