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RGOD2: The state of equality is unequal

California has been a leader when it comes to protecting the rights of LGBT people and we owe this important transformation to a network of LGBT organizations and allies that have worked tirelessly for the past 50 years.

Over the past 35 years, I have worked in many of these organizations and they have shaped and mentored me. Californians have been generous in digging deep into their bank accounts to fund important legislative and community initiatives that have provided positive results across the country and indeed across the world.

Two of these organizations will have fundraising events in the next two weeks in San Diego. Human Rights Campaign (HRC) will hold a dinner on Saturday, Aug. 18, and Equality California (EQCA) will have a garden party at the beautiful home of Pamela Morgan and Joyce Rowland on Saturday, Aug. 25.

Both organizations have had their share of controversy and drama and possess enormous potential to do more good in the world. Equality California has spent the past year recovering from a leadership change that did not go well when former Executive Director Jeff Kors left the organization after 11 years at its helm. The record for legislative victories and social change during Jeff’s tenure is both impressive and a difficult act to follow. Based on a charismatic model of leadership, the EQCA model did not fully utilize the reservoir of talent on the board of directors beyond its fundraising role, and it is good to see the new board focusing on governance and sustainability issues for EQCA’s future leadership potential.

Agents for change from San Diego

We are fortunate to have some of the leading change agents in the San Diego community including Joyce Rowland, Scott Paine, Tom Maddox, Randy Clark and Susan Guinn, who serve as EQCA board members. Their commitment to bring a uniquely San Diegan collaborative model to LGBT politics and to also introduce the global aspects of EQCA’s work, remains an inspiration to me.

I have worked closely with these board members and EQCA for the past four years and it has been a remarkable “learning curve” journey for us all. Marriage equality was the overarching context during these years, and San Diego and Orange County became ground zero for the statewide battle. We learned about the importance of local initiatives, insight and strategy in EQCA that was over-centralized and San Francisco-centric. Many of my internal battles within the organization focused on the need for San Diego and Orange County voices to be heard and strategies from the grass roots to be applied. The San Francisco-based management had a difficult time with this conversation.

The second challenging area for me and also a growth area was the intersection of faith with secular issues. We have come a long way since Proposition 8’s tactic to win equality based on human rights and “fairness” while deliberately avoiding religious issues at all costs. I was part of 6,000 clergy in California who had been performing same gender marriages for years and our contribution to the battle was largely ignored. We are still paying for that strategic omission. It is still my belief that the future of marriage equality should be won on the grounds of religious freedom of conscience rather than trying to avoid it. Most LGBT people have been damaged by faith communities in some way, so there is an aversion at an institutional to engage them as partners in the struggle, preferring to use religious folk and their institutions as sources for phone bank volunteers and donations.

Lessons learned

Thankfully, in Minnesota where a similar anti-LGBT marriage ballot initiative is proposed, the California experience has not been forgotten.

The Rev. Rebecca Voelkel from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Emily Eastwood from Lutherans Concerned serve on the management committee. They have wisely hired faith organizers to engage issues of faith and marriage. It is believed the battle for marriage equality will ultimately be decided by Catholic and Lutheran voters (75% of USA Catholics are in favor of marriage equality, even though the Vatican and local bishops do not share this grass-roots position).

I still believe clergy, as gatekeepers for marriage in this country, are the secret weapon we have not fully utilized in the battle for marriage equality. By continuing to marry same-gender couples, clergy should complete State paperwork (even though it will not be recognized by the State) and send a registration check to the State’s Health Department to have these marriages recorded. This is itself an act of civil disobedience and creates an inevitable confrontation between the right of a pastor to bless and consecrate a relationship between two people within their congregation or for the State’s Health Department to deny me the right to do so.

Further, the action of the State, in not recognizing these relationships as “marriages” forces progressive and inclusive clergy to discriminate within our faith communities as to who can get married or not. The evangelical movement has argued religious freedom to marry and how marriage equality in California, would force clergy to conduct marriages that would be in conflict with their religious values. This is precisely what progressive clergy can use to allow us the right to perform sacramental marriages.

Currently, we are not permitted by law to marry those we deem to be called into this noble estate. The battle ultimately is about the rights of clergy and or congregations to decide how their own values are protected or inhibited by the State. Just allow the Health Department return the thousands of dollars of unspent marriage fees that we sent to them, and we have the beginning of a legal defense fund to bring the issue of religious conscience to the courts. We should not allow the Christian Right to stop us from blessing and hallowing these important relationships. We need to “lean into this” rather than avoid the religious dimension to marriage.

Domestic vs. international?

The second-most significant change that I have seen in the past four years is the growing connection between local equality issues and global issues. Our leading LGBT organizations like EQCA and HRC have been very slow to make these important connections.

It became increasingly difficult for me to work within EQCA fighting for marriage equality in California when I saw how the Religious Right was treating people like Bishop Christopher in Uganda. He was completely defenseless three years ago when we began working together and as we pushed hard for marriage equality here, it actually hurt LGBT people and their allies in places like Uganda.

My own learning curve has been challenging when we realize the same people and organizations that are fighting marriage equality and LGBT rights domestically are the same forces fighting Bishop Christopher. Three of the 18 organizations listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate groups are based here in California and mega churches like Saddleback continue to spew out their anti-gay messaging that influences 300,000 “Purpose Driven” churches in the Global South. Rick Warren has a lot of royalties to lose from his best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” if he changes his mind on LGBT issues!

Expand corporate LGBT leadership and bi-national couple issues

It has been important to work with individuals within HRC like Sharon Groves who heads the Religion and Faith Department and Josh King who has introduced us to many people on Capitol Hill and the State Department over the years, but there needs to be a policy change within HRC where domestic and international issues receive equal attention.

I have spoken to several board members at HRC who are sympathetic and with a new president, Chad Griffin, who is reviewing the international issues with the hope we can resource grass-roots organizations that are doing dangerous and heroic work abroad and need our solidarity. Money and priorities are constant challenges but I have two suggestions for HRC.

First, HRC could expand its leadership role in the Equality Index to assist USA corporations who have significant resources in many of the countries where it is illegal to be LGBT. Their inclusive personnel policies can be used as grass-roots leveraging of untapped resources in these difficult contexts to expand LGBT rights.

Another untapped resource for HRC is to make a significant commitment to bi-national couples in the USA as a bridge between domestic and international concerns. There are probably a million people in this country who are in LGBT bi-national relationships, often engaged in illegal activities so one of the partners can remain here. A few couples I know have tried a variety of means to get attention from our mega LGBT organizations. They deserve to have their relationships recognized but we have yet to see any significant LGBT organization taking up their important cause. Many of these couples also have significant resources and wealth and could be organized to fund a proposed international program within the HRC corporate structure. An expanded international program could make their issue of marriage recognition a priority for these couples while also supporting work in the 76 countries where it is still illegal to be LGBT. We need to move from an “either-or” model to a “both-and” solution.

I believe HRC would get the resources they need if the board and major donors made a commitment to move in this direction. We can no longer work for equality in one state or even one country in a world of globalization and multi-national organizations where neo-colonialism and proxy wars are an everyday occurrence. This may have been unavoidable in a 20th century model of LGBT activism and pushing for rights, but we are now in the 21st century. If our lead organizations like HRC and EQCA are to keep up with their constituencies and grow in confidence with their donors, leaders within these organizations need to make it happen or their future sustainability will be compromised.

EQCA is learning the hard way to pay attention to the margins and it is my belief, the future always comes from the margins. Good leaders can see this and to shape the direction of the board and organization so its mission can be renewed and it does not become extinct, but relevant and on the cutting edge. This is the oxygen for the life blood of any organization. Donors want their organizations to be successful and meeting a variety of needs. How we communicate the needs and successes is another challenge and EQCA and HRC often undersells the real work they are doing on our behalf. It is a real honor to work alongside these dedicated people and I can see the progress that is being made every year, but the real and deeper work is often hidden and is difficult to measure.

Be a part of the change you want to see

EQCA has a great track record of legislation to make equality that much closer for Californians and we would be much worse off without EQCA. Their website says this:

“In the past decade, Equality California has successfully passed more than 80 pieces of civil rights legislation for the LGBT community – more than any other statewide LGBT organization in the nation.”

Their recent focus on anti-bullying and a bill to sanction practitioners of so called “ex gay therapy,” particularly focusing on its harm to minors, is commendable. “Ex-gay therapy” is the underlying pseudo science behind many of the moves by religious organizations to further criminalize homosexuality in 76 countries around the world.

The recent opposition from religious organizations in California to SB 1172 is an indication we are driving a stake into the heart of anti-gay propaganda by outlawing “ex-gay therapy” for our children. There is significant international impact in this strategy and we need to keep doing these kinds of actions that will help “all boats to rise” in the sea of equality. Time will tell if HRC can learn from the recent challenging path of EQCA and create new policies and directions where the donors and the board can agree on future priorities without a serious loss of confidence and wasting valuable time in retooling the organization to meet contemporary realities. Where there is a (political) will, there is a way.

I am supporting both organizations this month with the faith that we can find this balance and courage together. We cannot coast on our past glories and victories. We and by association, our organizations, are only as good as our last significant achievement and donor support is always a reminder of the pressure of the provisional “yes” that we are all working under.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.