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Emotion Activated

Is contempt for California gay-marriage ban sparking a new generation of LGBT activists?

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About 450 attended the local rally against California's Prop. 8 on Nov. 15. - PHOTO BY JONATHAN DANIAL
  • Photo by Jonathan Danial
  • About 450 attended the local rally against California's Prop. 8 on Nov. 15.

Misty Harvey has become a gay-rights leader by default.

When Proposition 8 passed last month in California -- taking away same-sex marriage rights given to state residents in May -- Harvey, who lives in Erie, sought a way to protest. Within a few days she found herself the organizer of perhaps the biggest pro-gay demonstration in Pittsburgh in this decade, outside of the annual PrideFest.

Harvey, 30, is an out lesbian and had joined a few activist groups before. "But I've never organized one," she says. "My best friend in the whole world lives in California, and I was hearing step by step all of the discrimination and all of the hype" against gay marriage. "She can't be out [due to] her personal and professional lifestyle. I wanted to be a voice for her and everybody else who can't voice their opinion."

So, Harvey clicked on Jointheimpact.com -- which emerged within the week following Election Day as an online organizing force with the motto "1 Million for Equality." Acting much like a Facebook group, the Web site effectively channeled the energies of those separated by miles, but united by a cause: Most could not have voted against Prop 8 last month but hope they can effect change now.

Join The Impact was organizing Nov. 15 protests in major U.S. cities, and Harvey was the first to sign up for the city closest to her -- Pittsburgh. When she walked away from the computer, "they made me the organizer," she says of Join The Impact -- and when she returned, she was swamped with e-mails from people asking her what to do, and suggesting protest locations. (Join The Impact's suggested location, "city hall" -- the City-County Building -- would likely be deserted at the protest time of 1 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon.) Harvey didn't know Pittsburgh, but local university students helped her pick Schenley Plaza in Oakland -- and more than 450 people showed up.

The experience "just opened the door for me," Harvey says.

Harvey is hardly alone in seeing renewed energy and direction, nationally and locally, for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and their allies. Most credit Prop 8 -- as well as similar laws passed in other states to curb gay rights.

Pennsylvania law already disallows gay marriage, and Republicans in Harrisburg have tried repeatedly to incorporate that ban into the state constitution itself. But those efforts haven't riled such a crowd in years.

Join The Impact is trying to keep the momentum going nationally, calling for LGBT people to phone in sick to work on Dec. 10 ("Day Without a Gay") to point out the economic power of the community. The movement is also preparing a postcard-writing campaign to remind the Obama administration of its pro-gay campaign promises -- which include expanding federal hate-crime laws to cover LGBT people, creating civil unions and eliminating the "don't ask, don't tell" rule for service members.

Harvey, embracing her newfound role, is now considering seeking a local site and permit for a Dec. 20 candlelight vigil, another Join The Impact idea, memorializing the rights lost in California, where approximately 18,000 gay people married this year.

Local LGBT leaders are unsure how long the furor over Prop 8 will last, and whether it will mean the rise of a new generation of LGBT leaders and a less vital role for national and local groups that have traditionally organized the gay-rights movement -- such as the Human Rights Campaign, which led the unsuccessful fight against Prop 8.

"It seems like there is something psychologically rallied up in the LGBT community" now, says Pitt junior Nikolai Condee-Padunov, incoming political-action chair of the university's LGBT advocacy club, Rainbow Alliance.

He doesn't see a passing of the torch between generations of LGBT activists -- yet. "Without a doubt, our generation is significantly more tolerant of LGBT issues than previous ones, but the leadership itself is still that of the previous generation," he notes. "When we get the opportunity [to lead], I believe that is when the changes will really start to happen."

Nik Potase, another Rainbow Alliance organizer, says the process is already underway: "[T]he older generation is still there to guide us, but we are still able to take our own stand. The training wheels have come off, but they are still holding on."

And there has been some discontent with the Human Rights Campaign and other long-time leaders. Last year, the HRC tried to ease passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act -- which would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- by consenting to the deletion of protections for transgender people. The hope was that a pared-down bill would pass more easily, but it never even reached a vote in the Senate.

"It set up a major storm about trans people being left out," recalls Emilia Lombardi, local trans organizer. With Prop 8's failure, she adds, "it is shedding a light on the class, race and political divisions among LGBT communities."

 

The day of the Schenley Plaza rally, 33-year-old Squirrel Hill resident Christopher Hixson felt compelled to start a blog, "What comes after 8, Pgh?" (after8pgh.blogspot.com) -- his first bit of activism ever, he says.

"We are witnessing a turning point in the gay-rights movement here in the United States," he posted on Nov. 15. "Before Nov. 4, 2008, appeals [to] the memory of the Stonewall riots were made as a motivating cry," he added, invoking the police raid of an unlicensed New York City gay bar in 1969 that has been a gay-rights rallying cry. But now, "The sting of civil equality being ripped from our hands is all to[o] fresh; Proposition 8 on California's ballot changed everything across the entire country, including here in Pittsburgh."

Hixson, a post-doctoral researcher in the University of Pittsburgh's chemistry department, moved here from California this fall. He had married there in October --"after a government-imposed 11-year engagement," he wrote.

Numerous states have outlawed gay marriage pre-emptively, he says. But previously "[Laws] were always about banning something that hadn't happened yet." By contrast, Proposition 8 made him feel: "How dare they take that away from me?"

It's unclear whether such sentiments will translate into action.

"It's still early to tell if [Prop 8] is going to be a really significant event with long-term consequences," says Tony Silvestre of Highland Park, incoming president of Steel City Stonewall Democrats, which endorses local political candidates and advocates for pro-LGBT political change. He's been an activist since 1971.

And local leaders "are not capitalizing" yet on the post-Prop 8 enthusiasm for LGBT causes, says Sue Kerr, who blogs locally with Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents. "Maybe they didn't realize what was going to happen at Schenley Plaza and they're not using the technology to get the word out." Still, she says, "I was flabbergasted at how many people showed up [at Schenley Plaza] -- and I didn't know most of them. It was viral, post-modern organizing" through the Internet. "That's a lesson learned, hopefully."

But not yet. Ten days after the Schenley Plaza rally, 100 people showed up on an Oakland street corner to protest a trio of picketers from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. -- infamous for picketing military funerals carrying "God Hates Fags" signs, but doing little else. That evening, fewer than 10 people showed up to the less-incendiary but potentially more-consequential Allegheny County Council hearing on creating a commission to hear discrimination complaints (see News Briefs).

In Oakland, Point Park University seniors Ryan Morris and Wesley Edwards had decided to protest the Westboro clan after seeing the ugly sentiments on the church's Web page. It was the first protest for both.

Prop 8 "definitely kick-started" a desire to get involved, says Morris. "[I]n the coming four years, there's going to be a lot of change. But unless our generation is willing to get off our asses and do something, it's going to be the same old shit."

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