Race Bannon’s recent column in the Bay Area reporter, “Rallying the ‘Differents'”, left me with feeling of both excitement and frustration. He clearly understands the weight of our current moment, and offers up a much-needed call for unity as well as an equally-needed directive to keep being who we are, as loudly and proudly as ever, in the streets and the sheets. But as the tone climaxed to something just short of a call to arms, I felt let down as his fiery proclamations of strength in numbers and the power of coalition gave way to calls for individual action. Building our movement must come first.
As diagnosis of the threats now facing the LGBTQ, kink, and leather communities it is both clear-minded and much-needed. Given what we already know, we can expect renewed attacks on our public and private lives based on accusations of immorality, sinfulness, and supposed public risk. The impacts of mass moral panics like this are many. They exist on an individual level – such as harassment in public, the workplace, or online; violence committed by emboldened bigots with less fear of retribution; and targeted campaigns against private and public individuals that can destroy one’s career, living situation, social network, or basic sense of safety. They also exist on the societal – such as changes in sexual education policy, ‘Religious Freedom’ laws that give workers, both public and private, license to discriminate at will, and enshrinement into law conservative cultural norms, rigid familial structures, and damaging stereotypes that damage our ability to function in society and set back the fight for liberation. We must resist these shifts, and be ready and willing to offer ourselves up as examples of a strong, dynamic community that operates as a force of social good not just in spite of, but thanks to our embrace of nonconformity.
But a diagnosis is not a cure, and recognizing the enormity of the storm coming will not keep it from blowing us away when it makes landfall. The power of any community can only be expressed to the extent that it is organized and directed, all at once, at a shared goal or common enemy. What is to be done? Race calls on us to be political: join movements, run for office, support politicians and organizations that share our values and goals. Yes, obviously. And in order to accomplish any of that in a meaningful way, we need a coalition of our own. What force on earth is weaker than the feeble power of one? Race acknowledges this, but not in much detail and to no specific end. We must go further.
What happens when we assemble our rainbow tent? We must work quickly to establish a purposeful unity. It is crucial to recognize that to fight for our common goals, we must set down the exclusionary tendencies that often define our social structures in the LGBTQ and kink communities. There can be no compromise on the equality of everyone in our fight, and we must explicitly state points of unity and a mission that reflect that. Once we’ve accomplished this, we gain access to tools that can truly make an impact. Conscious consumption becomes an organized boycott. A few people on the street corner becomes a march to City Hall. Your phone call to your representative (who, for most San Franciscans, is Nancy Pelosi, just yesterday chosen again to be House Minority Leader) becomes a communication shutdown. But there is no power without powerful unity, and to start anywhere but there is to waste precious time and effort.
And we must not only look at the coming storm, but also the shaky ground on which we stand. We can, and should, celebrate the ascension of LGBT people to seats of power in government and positions of prominence in industry. But we cannot ignore the realities we face at home of a city that becomes a little less queer on the first of each month, of our bars and businesses and playspaces facing uncertain futures, of a community that is more fractured beneath the surface than our rainbow crosswalks and sidewalk placards suggest. Any movement that we build must face these realities and seek to mitigate them practically and politically. San Francisco is a place where so much LGBTQ history is written, and will continue to be if we are the ones to make it. But lasting change cannot come from above. If our leaders capitulate to power, if the corporations that sponsor our parades and festivals abandon us, we must be willing and able to hold them to account by whatever means possible. We have to leverage the force of everything we do to make San Francisco a haven – the bars we pack every weekend, the fairs and festivals we host for visitors to throng at in the summer, the businesses that bring in the venerable “gay dollar” – and use that to the advantage of all of us.
Race named a few organizations worthy of our support at this time, ones who seek to protect sexual freedom from the meddling hands of reactionary prudes. I would suggest that we look at a couple others as well, as models of how to organize in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We don’t have to go back in time far at all to see how, when facing existential threat, our community rallied to defeat someone powerful – among the many electoral disappointments from November 8th, there was a victory against Proposition 60 worth celebrating. Facing an insurmountable spending gap bankrolled by Michael Weinstein’s AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and an ugly campaign that tapped into societal disdain for sex work and sex workers, as well as moral panic over widely-misunderstood public health risks, the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee and the Free Speech Coalition organized a campaign that defeated a measure that many thought was sure to pass. We should read their playbook as we prepare for the political fights that are coming.
So, in summary: Race is right. Now’s the time to act, but we cannot waste our time going about it alone. Let’s build something together – something that takes the anger and fear and hope we feel now, and converts it into change by combining it with every skill and strategy we have to offer in the presence of radical ideas. A machine, powered by the hearts and minds and hands and feet of ordinary people with a common cause. We must assemble ourselves, keep our people safe and our institutions intact, and find our points of unity that will define our work – not just now, or for the next few years, but for the rest of our lives. The work will not be easy, but it will be made easier by the fact that we are doing it together. Will you join us?