photo by Sarah Stapleton-Gray
Over 800 activists braved blocked streets and closed metro stations in Washington, D.C., to attend NOW's "Lesbian Rights Summit: A Feminist Strategy Session for Lesbians and Allies." For three days, April 23-25 (the same weekend as NATO's 50th Anniversary celebration), activists participated in round table discussions, plenaries, caucuses and working groups to craft a feminist agenda for 2000 and beyond.
photo by BJ Davis
NOW's Executive Vice President, Kim Gandy (right), presents the Women of Courage Awards to longtime lesbian rights activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who kept the packed hall laughing, inspired and in awe.
Charismatic and charming by turns, Baldwin was fueled by acknowledgment of NOW's influential role in her election and enthusiasm about standing before a group of predominantly lesbian feminists and declaring, "You too can get here."
Hearing the inspiring idealism of a member of Congress empowering other lesbians to be visible and continue challenging society's restrictions offered attendees a vision of the possibilities that lie within our movement. Baldwin urged the crowd: "If you want a world in which you can walk down the street holding your partner's hand, do it and you will live in such a world. If you want a world in which you can put a picture of your partner on your desk at work, do it and you will live in such a world."
Col. Grethe Cammermeyer described her successful battle to stay in the military after acknowledging she is a lesbian, the challenges of running for Congress and the importance of visibility for our movement. Cammermeyer connected very personally with the audience, speaking movingly about coming to terms with her family after the disclosure of her sexual orientation and her feelings after her campaign.
Two long-time lesbian activists graciously accepted NOW's Women of Courage awards while recounting anecdotes from the past. After forming the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 and joining NOW in the 1960s as one of the few sources of community, Martin and Lyon left the organization over concerns about homophobia in 1979, but rejoined in 1988 and participated in that year's NOW Lesbian Rights Conference. At the Summit, they stood before the standing-room-only crowd and noted how far we've come as a movement. Martin emphasized the need "to unite as never before and face the grip that the extreme right wing holds over our country."
The evening also featured D.C. singer/songwriter Angie Head, and actor/writer Jacqui Sutton performed Audre Lorde's work, interwoven with her own words.
As plenary finale, the D.C. Lesbian Avengers took the stage with an empowering fire-eating ceremony. NOW President Patricia Ireland and Vice President-Membership Karen Johnson accepted the Avengers' invitation to join them in eating fire as the crowd shouted, "The fire will not consume us; we'll take it and make it our own."
Urvashi Vaid, director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, took the podium and advocated for a multi-issue lesbian feminist agenda, including sexual freedom. She criticized the sometimes short-sighted perspective of single-issue organizations which sacrifice larger civil rights principles to achieve narrow political goals.
Willa Taylor, chair of the board of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, followed Vaid with another powerful challenge to Summit activists. Taylor highlighted a dominant theme at the Lesbian Rights Summit-the need to construct a fully inclusive feminist agenda that welcomes and reflects the participation of all women as it crosses the boundaries of color, ability and class.
Ireland closed the plenary with a personal look at her own participation and investment in the lesbian rights movement, beginning with the Dade County Human Rights Ordinance in 1977. While Vaid and Taylor referred to the purging of NOW's lesbian activists in the 1970s, Ireland recounted with grace and humor her own exclusion from the front line of the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Rights. Ireland spoke out against in-fighting among organizations and asked activists to take a "yes/and" approach to tensions over strategies, including the false dichotomy between grassroots organizing and mass actions.
Poet Ana Lara delivered a riveting performance of her work, challenging the audience to think outside their comfort zone.
NOW designed these strategy sessions to allow participants to voice their opinions, priorities and concerns. Every voice was heard and valued, and everyone had an opportunity to vote on prioritizing issues and strategies.
When facilitators and listeners reported the results at the Sunday plenary, several themes dominated. Many participants expressed deep concern about violence and safety. In addition, multiple working groups urged education as a priority issue. Facilitators reported that the groups meant not only raising awareness about LGBT and women's issues inside and outside our communities, but also improving the educational environment for LGBT youth.
In one strategy group, addressing the ideological commitment to a broad-based social movement, participants reached a consensus that a profound shift in discussions of race and difference was needed. Echoing this concern, participants agreed that drawing the connections among all kinds of discrimination- and eliminating that discrimination-is a priority.
Using the political system to achieve lasting change also emerged as a dominant theme. Recruiting and electing LGBT people, women and people of color was expressed as an important goal, as was complete participation in the electoral process. Galvanizing a voter base to elect these candidates is a clear priority in a country where less than 40 percent of eligible voters actually vote.
On Saturday night, Bonnie J. Morris performed her one-woman play Revenge of the Women's Studies Professor to a packed room. A real-life women's studies professor at George Washington University and Georgetown University, Morris' show blended humor with her experience of being out in the classroom since 1986.
This attack spurred two actions by Summit participants. First, over 200 activists organized a zap action on Saturday night to "take back" the corner where the violence occurred. They also leafleted for a protest on Capitol Hill the next day.
On Sunday afternoon, regaining the energy in full-force from the previous evening's protest, activists stormed onto the sidewalks with chants and signs. They marched to the Supreme Court, in full view of the Capitol, shouting, "We're here. We're queer. We won't live in fear." Their voices echoed through the streets of Capitol Hill in support of the passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) of 1999 (H.R. 1082 and S. 622).
The HCPA would extend the protection of the federal hate crimes law to include those victimized because of sexual orientation, gender or disability. The Act would also strengthen the law against hate crimes based on race, religion and national origin.
Ireland told the rally crowd, "We are going to be everywhere . . . [and] say to these members of Congress, if they don't vote right, then they will be voted out." Summit attendees rallied to let Congress know that we refuse to allow the growing number of atrocities in this country to push women, LGBT people and people with disabilities back from the pursuit of justice.
For a full page of exciting photos from the Lesbian Rights Summit see http://www.now.org/nnt/summer-99/lrsphotos.html