by Rea Carey (NGLTF Executive Director)
Delivered at the 22nd Annual Creating Change Conference
February 5, 2010
Full video in 4 parts at bottom of page
A year ago, when we came together, we were digesting a couple of high-profile losses but at the same time we were filled with hope, our minds filled with possibility and promise.
Our sweat, votes, money and work had helped elect a new president and a more pro-LGBT Congress and finally it seemed we would be building a solid floor of legal equality from which we could reach the sky of freedom.
The Bush-Cheney years were behind us. Change was coming. It was no longer a question of “if” but“when.”
And for those of us who had been fighting for so long — and that’s every one of us in this room and millions of others not with us here today — “when” was sounding pretty good.
We believed…and why shouldn’t we?
He said, “I’m running for president to build an America that lives up to our founding promise of equality for all — a promise that extends to our gay brothers and sisters.”
He said, “It’s wrong to have millions of Americans living as second-class citizens in this nation … I will never compromise on my commitment to equal rights for all LGBT Americans.”
We agreed. We were eager to see what a “fierce advocate” could do.
But now, it’s a year into this new administration, a year into this new Congress. There have been glimmers of the advocate, but certainly not fierceness.
Speeches aren’t change, change is more than words; change is action.
If we really are all created equal…if it really doesn’t matter who we are or what we look like…or who we love…then it’s time this president and this Congress take concrete steps to ensuring that equality.
And since the president and Congress brought up the topic of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the last week, let’s start there. If the administration does, in fact, implement soon what it now states it can do under existing law, the lives of thousands of service members will begin to improve and the witch hunts will end. And, I thank the president for showing leadership in taking these steps. But, let me be clear, a yearlong study does not a fierce advocate make. A year is too long to wait and it’s time the president use the executive branch to stop these discharges now while the military and Congress move to bring this shameful and discriminatory chapter in U.S. history to an end.
Mister President, the ball’s in your court. You have the opportunity to go down in history as one of the few presidents who acted decisively to move human rights forward. Now, while we have criticized the president, we must hold equally if not more accountable the members of Congress who stand in the way of legal equality. Their hands are not clean.
I’ve been out and gay in America for 27 years, since I was a teenager. I know change doesn’t happen fast. But happen it must.
We’re in two wars, facing an economic crisis, we’re attending to health care reform, there’s climate change…things take time we’re told…look at the calendar, we’ll get to you.
Well first, I say, those issues concern us too, and I am looking at the calendar…and it’s 2010.
Should freedom have to wait any longer?
Should equality be something we schedule? Should we only act to end blatant discrimination when it’s politically convenient?
That’s why we’ve come together this weekend.
Because the change we seek must come from us, from our strategic work together. We thought we were finally going to have leadership that would stand with us, work with us and for us…but that hasn’t fully happened yet, and so it’s still up to us to push, and in fact, to lead.
We are agents of change. We have the power to compel change.
And while this struggle for change has become a political struggle, one used to divide people and turn groups in our country against each other…to rally electoral and political favor…if you step outside this entrenched political battle…at its most basic, this is about our humanity, our equality and the integrity of the country.
And when it comes to equality, full equality, you either have it or you don’t.
And we don’t.
Last June, we asked people to send us letters that we then delivered to the president, and when a schoolteacher wrote that she has to hide the fact she has a partner and two kids, and that she could lose her job if anyone finds out, she is not equal. We are not equal.
Equality is a moral imperative…because who we are and whom we love should not be the subject of political debate, should not be put to the political whim of voters and our lives should not be on trial.
There can be no compromise on civil rights, no piecemeal human rights.
These rights must exist unabridged and we stand with all those who seek the promise of equality and who still struggle for its fulfillment.
And I suggest, to those who say don’t push so hard, just wait — that sounds like advice from someone already enjoying the benefits of equality. Someone who can marry who they want; someone who can serve their country freely; someone who can enter a nursing home without having to go back into the closet; someone who doesn’t have to face the indignities of filling out form after form, deciding if they will cross off “mother” or “father” and write in a new word just to reflect the reality of our families.
I know the pain of how this invisibility affects our children.
And to that person asking us to wait? A little reminder — there is no such thing as being just a little equal.
What has gotten lost in Washington and communities across the nation is that this is not a political question.
This is a moral question.
Justice and freedom are not just American promises or LGBT promises, they are human rights.
And when the president says he is committed to equal rights and Congress takes an oath to uphold the founding principles of our nation — that doesn’t mean some rights, that means all rights.
It’s 2010. We’ve waited long enough.
And if we don’t leave here this weekend, together, pushing, focused on real change, last year’s “when” will become “if” once again…
Compelling change to happen is, as it has always been, up to us.
And, honestly, I take faith in that…because I’ve seen what we can do when we’re together…when we dedicate ourselves…when we decide we’re not going to settle for anything other than what we deserve.
So, while we wait for action — for the president to move beyond words and into bold actions and for Congress to find its moral compass — we’re going to keep pushing and keep working, and much of this change will happen in our own cities and states.
The work’s not easy. It takes sacrifice both personally and for our families. We in this room know that. We’ve seen long days…long nights. And while at the end of those days, there will be wins and losses. Regardless, we keep moving forward. We keep working together. We keep gaining more support and we keep getting stronger.
No matter what happens along the way, the dignity of our lives will not be denied.
That’s what the pundits missed in their post-election discussion and analysis of Maine. That one ballot measure wasn’t a reflection on our movement or our goals. Maine wasn’t definitive or a turning of the tide any more than it turns out California was. Do our losses hurt — particularly for families in Maine, California and elsewhere? Absolutely. Does it mean we are giving up, allowing a temporary loss to stand in the way of history? Absolutely not.
This last year, we gained marriage equality in Vermont, Iowa, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. We successfully fought back attempts to roll back protections in places like Gainesville and Kalamazoo. And in cities large and small, like Salt Lake City and Redding, Pa., we ensured nondiscrimination protections for thousands more.
Our grassroots support is strong and growing. Our progress on the local and state levels is definitively forward not backward.
And mark my words: We will regain marriage in California and Maine.
My grandmother has had a magnet on her refrigerator for as long as I can remember and I keep a copy in my wallet. It says, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Well into her 90s, this philosophy has served her well and our movement too.
We’ve seen that when we come together, when we focus, when we roll up our sleeves and dig in…
We create change.
In the past decade, through our work together —
The number of states recognizing same-sex relationships increased from two to 11 plus the District of Columbia.
The number of states outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation increased from 11 to 21.
The number of states outlawing discrimination based on gender identity and expression jumped from just one state to 13.
And, we have elected hundreds of pro-LGBT candidates and defeated those who are not our friends.
And in just this past year, through our work together:
We finally passed and got signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, which for the first time in our nation’s history explicitly covers lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in federal law.
And, through the advocacy of our New Beginning federal policy project, a collaboration of 20 organizations, we have already made tangible federal policy changes that will improve the lives of LGBT people, including seniors, people with low incomes and transgender people, and we have ensured that our marriages and partnerships will be counted and reported in the 2010 census.
This is what can happen, what does happen, when we work together, when we push together.
This year, I have been reminded again and again that our real inspiration must come from each other.
That’s who keeps us pushing, who enables us to get up day after day and keep working, that’s who truly inspires us and keeps us going…
It’s the transgender high-school student who goes to school every day dressed as she wants, no matter what is said, no matter what fingers are pointed; it’s the soldier, determined to fulfill his or her dream, and whose love for our country is greater than our country’s love for them; it’s the parents of those killed by hate who have committed their lives to stopping violence from happening in the first place; it’s the gay man working against racial profiling; and it is the straight neighbor who walks side by side with us in the streets of protest.
These are our heroes. These are my heroes.
For those of you who look at the last year and are angry, to those who are frustrated by the pace of change and the circuitous route it has traveled…
I say — So am I.
But that anger, unless channeled, will not bring change.
Nor will that frustration, unless redirected, move us forward.
That frustration, turned upon each other, is simply destructive. And may I suggest that’s exactly what our opponents want. They want us distracted and downtrodden. They want us splintered, sniping and arguing that one tactic will save the day over all the others. They want us disorganized, working separately and second-guessing ourselves.
Our opponents have seen what we can accomplish, united. And, it scares them.
And that’s why this year we will not ask for change, we won’t debate change, we won’t plan for change, we will not wait for change — we’ll create change.
There will be a day when people will wonder how our rights were even an issue. What was the big deal?
This state of inequality cannot be our children or grandchildren’s inheritance.
That means stepping up and answering the call that this moment in history offers.
We have an opportunity to lead. It’s up to us to define what must happen next, what will happen next.
If we do not step up with an expansive view of what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, if we don’t explain that being LGB or T is simply being human, we will be making a mistake.
Whose calling is that if not ours?
An agenda? Yes, I have an agenda.
Certainly, let’s fight the legislative battles including…
Let’s end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” overturn the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, pass both an inclusive employment nondiscrimination act and the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act for federal employees…and…state by state enact anti-bullying legislation to protect LGBT youth.
But let’s not be defined by those battles solely. Let’s not be limited to those ways of defining our lives. We can’t let others see us as just these issues.
That others see our struggle as more…as a movement for justice, equality and liberation…as a movement for human rights…is critical to our success.
And so as we step into this new year, let’s lead, really lead.
As of today, fortunately, there are no places that face an imminent threat of state or local anti-marriage or anti-LGBT discrimination ballot measures this year. However, if they come up, we will be there. And yet, with a Ward Connerly-backed ban on affirmative action on the November ballot in Arizona and the likelihood of a parental notification initiative on the ballot in California, and potential anti-immigrant measures, we must be at the ready to step up and work on these issues that affect our community as well.
Let us work for meaningful health care reform that protects LGBT people.
Let us stand with fair-minded people in Uganda to fight off homophobic laws and expand the global movement for freedom by working to add co-sponsors to the resolutions introduced just this week in the U.S House and Senate.
Our voices need to be heard in these fights and on these issues but not just on these issues. We must lead on all issues that affect our lives.
If we are truly a community and a movement committed to freedom, justice and equality then reforming our nation’s cruel and broken immigration system must be on our agenda for action.
Today, there are 12 million immigrants, including at least half a million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who are forced to live in the shadows of our society.
They are people like Harold, an 18-year-old gay man who came to this country from the Philippines with his parents when he was five years old. This is really the only country he has ever known. But today, because he is undocumented, he cannot get a driver’s license, cannot get a job, cannot get a student loan, and is in constant fear of being arrested and deported to a country where he has no connections, no prospects and where he cannot speak the language.
They are people like Victoria Arellano, an undocumented transgender woman who was swept up by the immigration system, put into a detention jail where she was denied HIV medications and medical attention, even when she was vomiting blood. This cost Victoria her life. She died, chained to a hospital bed with two immigration guards at the door.
And, of course, there are at least 36,000 binational couples who cannot live together here in this country because federal law bans recognition of their relationships.
So, yes, immigration reform is an LGBT issue.
At some point, the president and Congress will take up immigration reform. This fight will make the push for healthcare reform look like a walk in the park. It will involve incredibly hard choices, but let’s be clear: We will stand by our allies in the immigration reform movement come what may.
We need to make this next decade the decade our nation realized that we face far greater issues than who someone loves and wants to marry; that our strength as a people is weakened and lessened when we fight each other rather than the social, economic, environmental and global concerns that face us all.
The LGBT community is talented. We are skilled, we are creative, we are ready to contribute to a vision of inclusiveness and to a transformed society.
And if ever there was a time when we needed to work together, as one people, it is now. And believe it or not, there are still thousands of people who don’t know anything about our lives, to whom we are invisible.
So let’s start right now to create some change.
Please take out a piece of paper or your handheld.
Write down or type these things:
At the top, write “My Life”
Below that, write:
Now, as LGBT people and straight allies, I want us all to commit to taking three actions, every month, for the next year.
Each month, talk — talk to a neighbor, co-worker or family member about an issue that affects your life.
Each month, write — write a letter to the editor, write a blog, write on your Facebook page about an issue that affects your life.
Each month, meet — meet with your elected officials, meet with local nonprofits, meet with community leaders about an issue that affects your life.
When you get home, tape this up on your mirror or fridge with all of your other affirmations and reminders. Or keep your text in a handy place.
If all of us, just at this conference, commit to this, we will have taken 72,000 actions to move forward the visibility of our lives, to engage and to advocate. I follow some of you on Twitter, I am friends with you on Facebook, I know how far our reach is. And that isn’t even counting the people watching this on C-SPAN.
But that’s what we have to do. We have to take advantage of every available opportunity to push forward.
We will create change.
Last year, the right-wing organization Americans for Truth about Homosexuality (and believe me, there isn’t a whole lot of truth there) used a quote from my annual speech here at Creating Change in one of its fundraising letters. Like good activists, we turned around and used its letter in our fundraising efforts. Well, Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, here is your money quote this year: “We are still recruiting! We are recruiting a movement of people who care about freedom, justice and equality. And we will not stop until all people can live their lives without fear of persecution, prosecution or attack because of who they are or who they love. We are still recruiting!”
For 37 years, the Task Force has been at the forefront of change and that’s exactly where we plan to stay. And we want you there with us. As change agents, we want the Task Force to be your home.
For those of you who spend your days in public service — working for change as local, state and federal government employees — you are home!
For those of you who take action through blogs, social networking, or tweets, you are home!
For those of you who were in Act Up, Queer Nation, or take to the streets today…you are home!
For those of you who remember Stonewall because you lived it — you are home!
For those of you who like Elton John and Lady Gaga — truly one of the queerest moments in TV history…you are home.
For those of you who have the courage to proudly practice your faith, to take back your faith — a faith that may have rejected you or others…you are home.
And, for those of you who are straight and who see yourselves in the fight for LGBT equality and justice…you are home.
The Task Force has never been homogenous — we are diverse, dynamic and passionate — and because of that we’ve not always agreed with each other. But, together we always compel this country to pay attention to our lives. We always compel others to evolve toward fairness.
And that’s what we’re going to keep doing.
Let us inspire each other to lead, to create a society where equality is unconditional, where the acceptance of diversity is not a goal but a given, and where the concern is not who we love but that we love. Let’s create change!