Thursday, January 1, 2009

I'm an Accidental Activist

While I became known as a citizen advocacy journalist (the high-falutin' name for a political blogger), when it comes down to it I see myself as an average person; a woman living in the Mid-Atlantic South who happens to be black, a lesbian and concerned about my civil rights. I'm not an activist by any sense of the traditional definition, never having worked for an advocacy group, run for political office or been a grassroots organizer. 

While many people now know I'm not one of those "big city gays," I still find myself in conversations with peers and they make an assumption that I must be writing out of DC or New York City since I'm a political blogger. When I say I live in Durham, NC, a number of people have a vague notion that it's located in a relatively progressive area of the state, others don't know where it is or what it's like politically. Many assume I'm not a native of the South since I don't have a very noticeable accent (neither does my brother, we're not sure why).

I am a native Bull City resident, born in Durham back in the stone age of 1963. My mother, brother and I moved to New York in 1976, specifically first to Hollis, Queens (aka, the home base of Run-DMC) and later to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which back in the 80s was not a wonderful place to live, with open-air crack deals, cars stripped in broad daylight, gunfire at night. That was from 1976-1989. When I visit my family there today, it’s a wonderful tree-lined block, one that won the Greenest Block In Brooklyn Award, and children play in the streets; the neighborhood is safe and integrated again in more ways than one. But that’s now.

My return to Durham in 1989 was for the slower pace and quality of life. I really didn’t think about my rights as a lesbian until I married my wife Kate in July 2004 (Vancouver, British Columbia Canada). We tied the knot at a time when out-of-state residents couldn’t marry in Massachusetts, and the window of opportunity to marry had closed in California. On return to North Carolina we knew our marriage would legally cease to exist the minute the plane touched down.

 2004 was a meaningful year because I married and started Pam’s House Blend. I realized that what I needed was my civil equality -- and I didn’t want to have to move from a state that I love to do so. Marriage amendments in 2004 was part of the Republican strategy to achieve the re-election of George W. Bush.

My (now-former) wife Kate (who hails from Birmingham, AL) and I realized that we could pack up and move to a Blue state where our Canadian marriage was recognized, but we love Durham, the people here, the interesting political environment, and the fact that we can live a pleasant existence in our progressive bubble as we work to make more of our state Blue and LGBT-friendly. Someone has to do it, we can't all leave the places that need more, even difficult work to move closer to equality. I started my blog.

And that’s how I became an accidental activist.

In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at all that I fell into activism, thinking back to my own family's history during the civil rights movement, a no less-important struggle for equality. The Spauldings (my father’s side of the family have played a role in the rich political history and life of North Carolina  -- in electoral politics, education, business, race relations.

Notable family members include businessman C.C. Spaulding, part of the team that founded what was for a long time the largest black-owned business in America, The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Asa Spaulding, Sr.,  and Elna Spaulding were my late paternal grandparents, and they broke racial barriers; both elected to serve as Durham County Commissioners.

In particular, my activism in the LGBT rights movement most resembles my grandmother's; she found herself bridging social boundaries during the 1960s, forging communication between groups -- black and white women -- who did not interact politically, but drew together to ensure Durham did not descend into violence during the stress points of the civil rights movement. That grew into Women-In-Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes, a community development and charitable organization in the city.

So it was a family steeped in one segment of politics, and as a kid I was so nerdy that I used to go into my closet and read the World Book Encyclopedia. Every. Single. Volume. I watched the Sunday political talk shows. I sat engrossed in the evening news. I repeatedly asked my mother if we could have Walter Cronkite over for dinner. Since he never came over I figured he was just too busy to make the time.
I was a strange child.

But having spent formative years in the South and the North, I can say that it gave me an interesting personal perspective in regards to race relations, and later in how issues related to sexual orientation were handled.

B. Starting Pam’s House Blend

So I started PHB in July 2004, during that horrible year when state amendments banning same-sex marriage were passed in Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah.

And in 2006: Virginia, Wisconsin, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota joined that motley crew.

On the bright side, when I fly into Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire and the District of Columbia I am married.

So getting back to the blog itself, I PHB began as a solo endeavor, a journal to think aloud about the political state of things. I didn’t blog to interact with anyone. Occasionally I would cross post my content onto Daily Kos, a large progressive blog that allowed users to contribute diaries. From there I would link back to my blog.

So about a year later, I had a few people who stopped by to leave comments on my stuff, and had a readership of about 300 people a day. Very modest, actually miniscule numbers. But since I didn’t have a goal of wide readership, this was just interesting information for me. But then more and more people started stopping by.

At this point I have more than 300K monthly visitors from all over the world.  The bottom line is that again, I'm not unique at all, just an early adopter whose audience grew over time. I’m sure that some of PHB’s success is because of my writing style or how my personality translates through my writing, but a lot of it has to do with timing and luck. It’s hard to break in with a blog now; the Internet is saturated with unique and talented voices that don’t have the numbers PHB has.

With the rise of social media, I now find that I garner many more comments on Facebook and Twitter. On the former, I have more latitude to inject commentary on an individual post. I’m nearly at the max number friends on Facebook (5K), so I also have a fan page. On Twitter there isn’t a limit on people who follow you (I have over 7K followers), but you do have a limit on what you can say - you only have 140 characters to convey a message, link or photo. You might have seen on the flyer about this talk that I landed on Politics Daily's Top 25 Progressive Twitterers list. It’s really about being the most effective use of 140 characters about progressive politics.

Many journalists have had a hard time making the transition from political long-form and feature writing to blogging and using Twitter, but they’ve really had no choice but to adapt. Many people are now getting their news from blogs. One thing to understand is that independent blogs -- group or individual blogs that are not supported by a traditional media institution -- have a symbiotic, not competitive relationship. We cite and point to the mainstream media sources. By and large, independent blogs do not have the funds to do original reporting unless its in our backyard.

And that’s where indy blogs can shine. While I was in the very first group of LGBT bloggers/reporters to be invited to the Obama White House for a policy briefing, I’m much more proud of the work I did in the 2010 U.S. Senate campaign in my home state. After a gay-media blackout by then candidate and now-Senator Kay Hagan on LGBT issues in 2008, I resolved that in the next cycle, 2010, this was not going to stand.

I invited the top Democrats vying for Republican Senator Richard Burr’s seat to do live chat with me (and Blend readers) to take on questions about how they would vote on issues that were not hypothetical -- DADT, DOMA, ENDA, etc. It would all be on the record, and requested that they display their positions on their campaign web sites.

Candidates Attorney Ken Lewis and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall immediately accepted, and prior to the liveblogs updated their web sites to include LGBT issues. The favored party establishment candidate, Cal Cunningham, didn’t respond after multiple contacts. This actually surprised me because I had met him before the other two, at an HRC dinner where he was trolling for cash from the LGBT community. He greeted me warmly and said he was quite interested in a dialog with PHB readers.
Time continued to pass as the primaries neared and still no answer. The other liveblogs went off like a hitch.

So what did I do about Cal? I put an image of him on a milk carton and titled my blog post, “Where's Cal Cunningham on LGBT issues?” and on the animated graphic said

“Last seen promising a liveblog with NC's LGBT community on Pam's House blend. Why is there no LGBT section on Cal Cunningham's web site? Why are requests for LGBT information ignored?”

Less than 2 hours after that went up, my cell phone rang and it was the campaign manager, trying to kiss my posterior with BS excuses that he was so busy and apologized for not getting back to me sooner. I told him, look this isn’t about me, don’t you want your candidate on the record?

Cunningham, to his credit, eventually did the liveblog, but only after early voting had occurred, and after I endorsed Marshall.  He lost the primary. Burr went on, unfortunately to be re-elected in the horrible 2010 midterms.

However the liveblogs garnered national attention and set a precedent in North Carolina -- politicians running for office will now be asked -- and are expected to answer -- questions about their potential votes on issues that affect the LGBT community. We are not just an ATM.

C. The glamorous world of the A-list political blogger
I laugh when people think that I’m some sort of celebrity. My guess at what makes someone a successful political blogger is largely based on: 1) building an audience over time or doing something to make a big splash to get noticed by the mainstream media; 2) getting to appear on one of the major news channels; 3) high frequency of posting (that’s essential).

My observation is that you don’t reach the stratospheric stage of political blogging unless you are 1) absorbed/bought out/hired by a mainstream media outlet or 2) write a book.

Yes, dead tree publishing still carries cachet with the mainstream media because bloggers are seen as gunslingers in the wild west of the unedited Internet, with no editors or reviewer to vet your work, even if it’s commentary. If you pull together a year’s worth of post and get it published as an edited volume, then you magically seem to gain some sort of additional credibility.

Many people fail to realize that the matter of accountability in the world of citizen journalism and blogging is the reaction of readers, commenters and critics. We are called out to correct errors, and readers will abandon a blog that is fast and loose with the truth.

But on a day to day basis, most political bloggers are not awash in cash. In fact most of us have day jobs to support our second job as a blogger. I work at Duke University Press, an academic publisher as IT Manager, completely outside the editorial sphere. I squeeze in PHB content late at night, on a spare moment during lunch (which I eat at my desk or don’t have time to take). That means less opportunities to be a real A-lister.
I’ve been on CNN live, both times on a Sunday and I had to drive all the way to Raleigh to a cold studio to be on satellite. And once I was able to leave work to do a recorded piece for CNN.

I’ve been called to do TV or radio many times and had to turn them down with the excuse “I’m sorry, I’m at work.” Most times they are befuddled as if they think people can make a living blogging. Very few do. And the visible LGBT bloggers you do see tend to be white, gay men who live in a major metro area where there is easy access to go on satellite on short notice. That contributes to the lack of diversity you see on the air; it’s not that engaged and informed political POC don’t exist (or even don’t exist on people’s rolodex) - we don’t have the luxury to be able to do what we want to do on a full-time basis. And no one has figured out how to easily make that happen.

When I go to LGBT conferences, I’m usually one of the few black people there, and almost always the only lesbian from the South. At progressive conferences and online listservs, I’m definitely a multiple minority; this can’t be good for our fight for equality.

The other glamorous part of my life as a political blogger is that I’m sleep-deprived a lot, and turn down at this point probably 20 appearances to be on panels or speak at events like this a year because I simply can’t schedule any time to go. I’m so glad that this chance worked out!

D. A little bit about the relationship between the media, the White House, Beltway organizations and "bloggers.”

I find the statements that describe with little variation, citizen journalists as  “pajama-clad, Cheetos-stained fingered individuals living in the parents’ basements” a tired stereotype. These terms of derision are designed to make the public believe that we’re incapable of producing anything than armchair commentary (lie #1), are uneducated (lie #2) and are social misfits undeserving of any respect. That last one is a half a lie, because I’m pretty sure that many bloggers are could be social misfits but many are simply introverts. I know I am. While some of you may find that hard to believe, the main distinction in my mind is that extroverts thrive on being in crowds as a social butterfly. By contrast a real introvert can manage to get the gumption to be social, but it’s incredibly draining. Retreating to safe space to recharge is relished after the excitement.

Most of the DC Beltway organizations that represent the LGBT community to government -- Human Rights Campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, etc.  have tried to figure out what role bloggers play in terms of an activism platform. LGBT bloggers have often found themselves in situations where they are critical of the strategy of political gay-for-pay organizations with access to the White House and Congress. This usually revolves around the glad-handing, cocktail party circuit that runs parallel to political lobbying and activism. The enabling of politicians, including the Obama White House, that wanted to delay action on pro-equality policies, such as the repeal of DADT has really been a sore spot in terms of broken and embattled forms of communication. But even these organizations have to admit that without the push of grassroots blogging and activism from direct-action groups like GetEqual, DADT repeal wouldn’t be where it is today. Blogs have influence, not power. We band together at times to do group actions called blogswarms to draw attention to an issue, but we certainly don’t meet and collaborate to destroy the professional organizations working for equality. Bloggers generally don’t have access to those making the decisions, but we can influence matters by amplifying the voices of average people who are directly affected by those in the rarified, um, stale air of the Beltway.

The one thing that I can safely say that is a downside to being a high-profile LGBT blogger is you have to have a thick skin from the onslaught of attacks and threats from anti-gay, often fundamentalist crazies who think you’re akin to Satan. I’ve received death threats, general nutty condemnations and engaged in Twitter battles with some of the luminaries of the right-wing.

I seem to hold some fascination in the mind of one Peter LaBarbera, the head of an outfit called Americans for Truth Against Homosexuality.  He’s the only fundie that actually tried, unsuccessfully, to have me fired from my day job, holding a national email, phone and fax campaign to the President of Duke University’s office declaring me the enemy of Christians everywhere (with Duke’s approval).

Now this didn’t go anywhere because the administration issued a strong statement of support for free speech, but think about it - unlike Duke, North Carolina as a state has no employment anti-discrimination laws on the books for LGBTs. If I worked for the state or for a private company without enumerated protections, I could have been fired, effectively silenced. That’s why I take my role as an activist seriously; I can openly speak for so many who cannot.

E. LGBT Rights, Race and Religion in the South
I can safely say that the most color-aroused place I’ve ever lived is in NYC. This was a time where neighborhoods, ethnic and racial, were places of stark conflict. If you were brown or black, you needed to have your posterior out of Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, or Howard Beach, Queens before sundown. A scan of the stories covered during the tabloids at that time revealed violent, race-based beatings and murders for “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

And as I’ve remarked to my friend and gay journalist Michelangelo Signorile multiple times, I cover more stories about LGBT-bias beatings and murders in NYC than I ever see occur down here in North Carolina. We have our crazy GOP politicians spouting inane bigoted nonsense that makes the mainstream media (you all know what I mean - could anyone make up Gov. Bob McDonnell or AG Ken Cucinelli?).

What I have learned about myself and my own political awakening as a lesbian of color living here in North Carolina, is that the fight for civil equality often conflicts with the role of religion in the South, specifically the socially conservative black church. It leaves many black gays and lesbians in the position of straddling cultures in a no man's land. Since I have been out for many years, and only tenuously connected to organized religion as a non-practicing Episcopalian, I did not have the coming-out process that caused a crisis in faith. That is not true for many other POC.

Already fearful of losing connections, friendship and emotional shelter provided by their faith community if they come out, black gays and lesbians in the church now know that the homophobes in the pews and choirs, along with the pastors spewing intolerance, feel empowered to destroy those ties because of their own fear and ignorance. It makes you want to weep.

Also, the fact that religious opposition to civil marriage equality is irrelevant seems to escape some in the religious communities, even when they hold public office. I experienced this alternate reality first-hand when I participated in Equality NC’s Day of Action at my state legislature in 2009. This was an event where average citizens gather and are instructed on effective ways to meet with their lawmakers about equality issues.

It was eye-opening when longtime social justice activist Mandy Carter and I, along with several black gay and lesbian attendees, visited two members of the NC legislative black caucus that day. I will preface this by saying that these members are strongly there for us on other pro-LGBT issues, but the matter of the state marriage amendment bill by some members of the black caucus is clearly a land mine -- North Carolina is the only remaining state in the South without an amendment barring lesbian and gay couples the right to civil marriage. To our faces we were told by the caucus chair that “LGBT issues are not the caucus's issues." Another elected official who said she supported the marriage amendment bill, justified it by saying that she is a minister.

That last statement by sucked the air out of the room -- I was stunned, as were the rest of the LGBT  in the room. To have an elected official answer a constituent's question by indicating she doesn't understand the separation of church and state is tragic. When I wrote about this incident for my blog's readers, many asked how did we maintain our composure in the face of answers like this.

Honestly, when we left and sat down to talk about what we experienced, the shared feeling was how hurtful it was to be rendered "less-than" to our faces. I think the day taught us all a valuable lesson that spending "face time" with lawmakers to share our stories is essential, and for black LGBTs it's critical -- it's not an option to be rendered silent and invisible.

By the way, in 2011 there was quite a different experience at the Day of Action.  We returned to the office to meet with the now-former head of the legislative black caucus. In 2009, we had the majority, and there wasn’t any way that an amendment was going to come up to a vote; this year, after the midterm debacle of 2010, our legislature is Republican controlled -- the first time since Reconstruction. This meant a vote on a marriage amendment was likely, and now it was time to see if “our social justice issues” were still “not her issues.” We were told that she was on the phone, so some of us parked ourselves in front of the closed door. Clearly she had to come out sometime. About 30 minutes later we hear sounds by the door.

I kid you not (I have witnesses), she threw open the door and literally ran away from us. She’s tall and I’m short and she used her long legs to run all the way to the elevators and disappear to avoid answering any questions about her thoughts regarding a marriage amendment now..

And that should teach people a lesson - emails and faxes are helpful, but what your lawmakers do remember is constituents holding them accountable in person.

Religion itself is not to blame for that lawmaker who said she’s a pastor; in Durham, it is a beautiful sight during NCPride to see so many affirming allies of faith present to counter the image of religious "bigotry by bullhorn" and the "turn or burn" crowds that believe that hell and damnation await us. It is the very presence of these open and affirming houses of worship that proves we will win this fight for equality. The problem these anti-gay churches have is their myopic worldview -- they believe that there is only one Christian point-of-view that should govern how all of us should live (I say Christian because they never think beyond that).

In the end, that limited thinking is going to sink the bible-based movement to deny LGBTs civil rights. Activists outside of the South often want to ignore or write off working for change in the region because it is steeped in religion; I think it's short-sighted. Many members of the LGBT community have indeed been so rejected and hurt by the hateful messages blasted from the pulpit that they reject faith. That's entirely understandable. But for many, they want to reconcile the faith and traditions they cherish in an environment that affirms they are human, that they are loved as they are. And that's OK too.

When one encounters someone who cites their religious beliefs to justify opposing the civil right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, people should stop and ask them a couple of questions. 1) Do they realize that unless the couple has obtained a marriage license issued by the state, a religious marriage means nothing in the eyes of the law? and 2) Do they truly believe that there isn't separation of church and state in this matter? If so, they are effectively asking the state not just to prevent us from marrying on that basis, they are also affirming state discrimination against the churches and denominations that DO want to marry those same couples. That's discrimination based on religion and I hate to break it to them -- that is unconstitutional.

Those opposing equality haven't any other card to play except to say it will "change" the definition of marriage, as if it hasn't changed over time. Years ago, marriage meant women were the property of men. And then the definition of marriage changed.

Several generations ago, blacks couldn't marry a person of the same race (because we were property), let alone someone of another race -- and the bible was used to justify that. And then the definition of marriage changed.

It's painful to see people of faith cite passages in holy texts to justify oppression of LGBT people when the same public admonitions are rarely delivered to the adulterers, thieves, and fornicators sitting in the pews, or worse, the person standing in the pulpit.

F. Wake up, people...we need more accidental activists
And so it all comes back to that notion of being an accidental activist. It’s sad to say that it’s almost considered activism to get your behind out to vote. It’s shameful that most LGBT citizens, as we are institutionally discriminated against, don’t stay informed and alert enough to stop bad candidates from being elected and supporting change not just at the federal level, but  elect pro-equality candidates at the municipal, county and state level.

I see how thousands upon thousands of us show up for a Pride crawl and Parade, but perhaps only a couple of hundred care enough about their own civil rights to show up to a Lobby Day to speak with the lawmakers that represent them.

Why the apathy?

Too many LGBTs in our community are in the closet waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting and LEAD. Many of us work for private businesses or institutions that provide protection from being fired for being openly gay, yet so many are still in the closet. They are socially out on the weekends, but have no interest in being out during the week.  They don't want to get active in even the most politically benign way -- but they are keen to show up at events or a club, but have no interest in lobbying their state legislator -- that's considered too "political" or becoming an "activist. " We can do better than this; I know we can.

I also know talking to your delegate isn’t sexy or fun, but it’s not rocket science that you need to leave to a professional lobbyist. It’s pretty simple, actually.  Call their office, you can make an appointment to see them; they work for you.

And the same applies to your federal elected officials in Congress. Instead of signing an email petition to get their attention, the best way to be effective is to show up at their local offices here and let them see you in person - a real live LGBT constituent in the flesh who is affected by what they do in the maelstrom of DC. They are much more likely to remember you if you write a letter to your local paper (their assistants pore over the local media), and go to a town hall and ask your questions about equality.

We also cannot gain full equality without the help of straight allies. Many potential allies aren’t clued into the issues, so you have to be in order to ask for their support. Allies often need information in order for them to “come out of the closet” as an ally when they confront bigots spouting homophobia. Allies need to steel themselves for being homo-by-proxy, and learn what it feels like to be “outed.” They need our support to be able to speak for us, to let their friends, colleagues and neighbors know that homophobia is unacceptable and that they believe if the right for us to marry, work without fear of being fired and participate in society in every way they do.

There are risks and rewards for coming out as LGBT or an ally. What I can tell you is that even with the pain of potential or actual rejection, it’s hard to find any gay person who’s sorry for coming out. And those who participate in small acts of activism, accidental or not, aren’t sorry either.