True Coalition: A Conversation with Lisbeth Melendez Rivera
Lisbeth Melendez Rivera is the Director of Development for Stonewall Democrats, and a founder of the National Coalition for Latino/a Justice, now a project of Unid@s, a national Latina/o LGBT human rights organization. She spoke with Sara Burke, Co-Editor of Peacework, on 3/19/07.
What are the key ways you and other Latino/a activists are finding to work within Latina/o communities to increase awareness and understanding of marriage equality?
For Latina/o communities, organizing is very regional. On the west coast, the history of legal restrictions on interracial marriage is well-remembered, and was painful for Latinas/os and Asian Americans in the same ways that it was for African Americans. Talking about these barriers can be a way to begin a conversation about honoring our differences, much as it has been in the African American community.
Religion, though, has a very different tradition among Latina/o communities from the role it has played among African Americans. Mainly, religion among Latinas/os has meant the Catholic church, and the church's position has been very clear on homosexuality: You're a sinner, you're going to die. Yet, there have been some openings for conversations about LGBT issues in faith communities. Often those who are ready to engage with us are Catholics from countries in which Liberation Theology played an important role. Because the Liberation Theology tradition was itself so anti-establishment, people are willing to accept the possibility of difference.
How are LGBT Latinas/os organizing at the national level?
About three years ago, the national organization LLEGO ended. This left a deep wound, but even as our community mourned we also organized. I was working with Freedom to Marry; I and others realized that there were almost no people of color at the table for the planning of this major, national, long-term movement. Freedom to Marry was very supportive in helping us to convene a national group of leaders called the National Latina/o Justice Coalition to focus on marriage equality; however, we soon realized that the need for a larger, multi-issue organization was still great, and that if we tried to start two separate groups we would be spread too thin. So the group Unid@s was formed, and the marriage equality work will continue as one of several projects of that group.
What possibilities do you see for coalition work on marriage equality?
So many people think that because we're oppressed we're exempt from oppressing. We have to have a better understanding than this in order to work in true coalition.
In New York, the Empire State Pride Agenda has created a wonderful program called Marriage Ambassadors, which gives people training to go out into the community. These "ambassadors" include everyone from ministers -- of all races and colors -- to recent immigrants.
True coalition work means not just "let them come stand with us" but "we must stand with them."
What can we learn from the tensions that arise in our movements between tailoring our image to win mainstream approval, and trying to gain acceptance for our diversity?
Activists across the country have sought ways to address what Evan Wolfson calls the "moveable middle" -- the sector of Americans that is neither already prepared to accept LGBT equality nor intractably opposed to it. To do this sometimes they have promoted images and arguments that are familiar to this "middle," rather than honoring the difference that makes up the quilt of America.
In 2001, I worked in Miami on the Save Dade campaign to fight the repeal of an anti-discrimination ordinance that protected LGBT residents. The original organizers made many assumptions about the Latina/o population of Miami-Dade county and saw no need to reach out to these voters. It took a bunch of us getting together on our own to create an alternative campaign that prepared bilingual materials and targeted the Latina/o community -- closing the support gap by a crucial 15 points in one largely Latina/o precinct. We also approached local Republicans, many of whom were first- or second-generation immigrants, and who were able to understand about the discrimination. You have to be creative!
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The same tensions arise again and again, between national and regional groups, between white organizers and organizers of color. We need to speak about these differences from the get-go. We need to seek our commonalities in our goals and objectives instead of in strategy -- no single major social justice change has ever been won with only a single strategy.
You have a national perspective on electoral activism. How can people work most effectively to influence our government?
I believe the most important thing is to elect fair-minded candidates who can be moved on our issues, even if they're not with us yet. I already know I'm equal ñ what I want from our elected officials is for them to use the legislative process to make a country where my humanity can celebrated in all its glory and all its complexity.
Get involved in the political party process -- run for delegate, get elected to your party's local affirmative action committee or whatever its equivalent is. National party platforms change when all fifty state platforms have changed. Stay informed at the local level -- every time we stop a locality from taking away rights, those are instances in which we gain ground. Local involvement brings on national change.