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An Open Letter to the GLBT Community Regarding NGLTF’s Commitment to Racial Justice Work

Date: 
December 21, 2000

An Open Letter to the GLBT Community Regarding NGLTF's Commitment to Racial Justice Work

From: Elizabeth Toledo, NGLTF Executive Director

Dear Friends:

We welcome the chance to discuss the work of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the questions and concerns raised in the Open Letter we received from some activists who attended the 13th National Creating Change Conference. (The full text of that correspondence is at the bottom of this letter.) We have every hope and expectation that an open discussion on these topics and others will continue throughout the next 10 months of preparation for Creating Change 2001 in Milwaukee. More broadly, the issues raised in the Open Letter deserve serious and ongoing public dialog in the many facets of LGBT social justice work.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is a progressive voice within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) movement and sees our work as part of a larger social justice movement. This understanding compels us to continue the ongoing process of incorporating racial and economic justice work into our programming and into the agenda of the GLBT movement.

NGLTF remains fiercely committed to racial and economic justice issues. These commitments are at the heart of our political agenda and will continue to guide our work in the years ahead.

In the last several years, NGLTF has taken strong stances and has dedicated resources to what too many in our communities deem "non-gay" issues. NGLTF has been publicly accused of practicing "reverse discrimination" because we are explicit about being a multi-racial organization and about our hiring policies. Whether it is criticism of our positions like opposing the death penalty, favoring affirmative action, or endorsing the IMF/World Bank protests, we are continually a target for those who do not share our progressive definition of our movement.

But we firmly believe that our movement has mistakenly avoided a racial and economic justice framework. Instead, it has focused on securing non-discrimination protections, basic inclusion in civil rights measures and remedies for discriminatory acts. These are all critical goals that need to be in the GLBT movement's agenda. However, we have not also systematically studied, analyzed, and acknowledged - let alone addressed - economic, racial and age disparities within the GLBT community. Because the GLBT movement is increasingly not directing itself to economic and social justice and because of the lack of knowledge on how poverty and economic disparities affect GLBT people, the mainstream of the GLBT movement has not weighed in on the debates raging today on economic policy issues such as welfare policy, child care, public schools, housing and homelessness, mental health, prison and criminal justice policy and other racial and economic justice issues.

We recognize that NGLTF, like the movement we are part of, has a long way to go in addressing issues of race, poverty, and ageism in society and we want to see that change. This is why the NGLTF Policy Institute last year launched the Racial and Economic Justice Initiative (REJI). REJI is a five-year project that works to further integrate these issues into the various programs of the NGLTF and to contribute to increasing the level of awareness and organizing among GLBT political organizations on ending poverty, dealing with issues affecting old GLBT people and ending racism. In developing REJI, NGLTF has consulted with over 30 GLBT/same-gender loving/Two-Spirited organizations and countless individuals.

For the last year and for the next five years, REJI will focus on researching and documenting the realities and policy needs of people of color, low-income people and seniors; ensuring the addition of racial and economic justice to the agendas of targeted grassroots GLBT organizations; and adding GLBT populations and our issues to the agendas of key civil rights organizations working on poverty, aging and racial justice working in non-GLBT contexts.

We also know that the GLBT movement has not supported GLBT leaders of color nor removed obstacles that stand in the way of emerging GLBT leaders of color. Our movement currently lacks an institutional consciousness of the intersections of racism and homophobia in the lives of GLBT people of color and in society at large. The groups working on issues of racism are largely those groups that are comprised of people of color. The larger institutions in the GLBT movement, with few exceptions, have not yet made it a priority to address racial injustice and racism inside our communities nor in the broader society. However, some national, state and local organizations have expressed support for affirmative action and diversity and are also working toward integrating racial and economic justice into their work on GLBT rights issues. The challenge before us as a movement is to translate support and good will into action that creates change.

As we stated earlier, we recognize that NGLTF has a long way to go to fully integrate issues of race, poverty and ageism into every piece of our work. It is not sufficient to be satisfied that we are doing more progressive work than most of the national GLBT organizations. Rather we need to continually strive to better incorporate a complex analysis of racial and economic justice issues into every facet of our work. Doing this is a long-term commitment, not a quick fix. Along the way we have made mistakes and we will make more, but we will not stop attempting to fulfill this goal.

I am proud of the work that NGLTF has done on race. It is one of the reasons that I committed myself to this organization. And the reality is, the Task Force can do better. Some decisions and programs have been right on, others have missed the mark. Was the impulse to tackle issues of race and adoption a good one for the Task Force? You bet. Even with the best intentions, did the planning and implementation of the workshop at Creating Change on this topic include some critical flaws? You bet. What's important about next steps is that we have the courage to recognize mistakes, the strength to keep taking risks, and the commitment to let activist voices shape the work. I urge you to check our website for a more detailed discussion about Creating Change organizing for 2001 and for a more comprehensive analysis of the Task Force work on racial and economic justice.

This year's Creating Change conference generated a variety of concerns, in particular various cost issues, the flexibility of programming, and the need to create more space for diverse voices.

NGLTF pledges to continue incorporating people of color voices and youth voices into conference planning. For several years, Creating Change has benefited greatly from the participating and programmatic contributions of an ad hoc committee that organizes, facilitates and presents the People of Color Organizing Institute and a track of workshops during the main body of the conference. NGLTF is open to a discussion with interested members of that ad hoc committee about whether and how the current relationship can be expanded, amplified or extended.

NGLTF also is planning on offering a speak-out session during next year's Creating Change conference in Milwaukee. We agree that it is well past time to establish as part of the Creating Change conference program elements that realize more fully its unique contribution to the movement as a "queer public square." Therefore, we envision holding a speak-out session as the primary activity during one of the conference's four plenary sessions.

A vast majority of the conference workshop content is planned and presented by organizers and activists who volunteer their time to the conference. Each spring, we distribute a Request for Proposals asking individuals to submit workshop abstracts for consideration. Our staff reviews the submissions, works to ensure that we have covered key topics adequately, and programs additional content based on our organizational priorities and needs. We work with a large number of outside constituents to evaluate submissions and program the conference. With over 200 sessions, we work to develop a comprehensive and diverse program that takes into account the needs of our movement. Our deadlines are set to allow us to advertise the conference content in advance and to print materials to be available on site. We have been requested to be more flexible with these deadlines, particularly the ones for youth sessions, and we will work with constituents to program this content closer to the conference to allow for more flexibility. However, we still encourage those who are able to plan further in advance to use the Request for Proposal process that begins each spring.

Creating Change is a financial break-even event for NGLTF. We have consistently prioritized keeping the conference affordable and accessible, rather than to use it as a vehicle to raise funds. We realize, however, that despite our best efforts the conference will remain out of reach for many people in our movement who could greatly benefit from attending. We do our best to remove the barriers we can and are open to suggestions on how we can better keep the conference accessible.

The registration fees for Creating Change are the lowest fees for a conference of its size in our movement today, bar none. We're proud of that fact and we work hard to keep the registration rate as low as we can and still cover our expenses. Recognizing that the cost still may be out of reach for some attendees, each year NGLTF dedicates several thousand dollars toward scholarships, and voluntary contributions often double the total funding available. We choose to administer this fund as a way to discount registrations for the largest number of people possible rather than to make housing and travel stipends available to a smaller number of attendees. The scholarships are available exclusively to those who would be unable to attend the conference without assistance and who are doing political work in their local communities.

The conference is very large and in order to meet complex facilities needs, the event will likely be held in a large hotel in the foreseeable future. There simply aren't other facilities that meet the complex logistical requirements we need to produce a conference of that size. We acknowledge that hotels have significant drawbacks, however, and we continue to attempt to work around those challenges each year. The largest barriers are the cost of sleeping rooms and food.

Typically, about half of the conference attendees stay on site in the conference hotel. Most of the remainder stay in alternate housing. Our contract with the conference hotel prevents us promoting less expensive hotels until the host is sold out, but we know that our attendees are creative and persistent about seeking other options. The local host committee also organizes a network of no-cost, hospitality housing. Over 100 people are accommodated annually in community housing. Even though there are inconsistencies in the levels of convenience and comfort, we will continue to rely on this solution to the problem of too-expensive hotel rooms. Because we rely on the local community to manage the local host housing process, it can be inconsistent from year to year. We will continue to work with local organizers to develop a stable base of community housing in the host city.

As a general rule, hotel food tends to be more expensive than outside establishments. Hotel contracts forbid the sale or distribution of outside food in public areas of the hotel, so we are unable to utilize donated or discounted local food at the conference. Since 1997, with the support and assistance of the local host committee, we have provided free meals to youth during the conference at an off-site location. In Atlanta, we faced particular challenges that hampered the no-cost food operation, including the lack of a stable distribution site, lack of a nearby off-site distribution point, and donated food that was not varied or high-quality. We will strive to do better with this aspect of the conference and are already making plans for next year. Free meals for youth, however, do not address in total the food needs of limited income attendees. We will continue to explore options on how we can address this need.

While there are problems to overcome, we believe Creating Change is a unique event and its place in our movement is unequalled. It is always, however, a work in progress. We are open to suggestions as to how the conference might be improved and welcome that feedback year-round, not just at the conference. We welcome those who want to work with us to improve the conference and keep it an invigorating experience for all who attend - invigorating and challenging.

Before I close, I would like to thank and commend the progressive youth activists for their vision of our movement as well as their demand that the movement include anti-racism work. In the Open Letter that we received, activists stated, "As queers in the United States, we are all caught up in a racist, classist, ageist and otherwise oppressive system, despite our good intentions to be otherwise." This is a sentiment that we at NGLTF share completely.

My door is always open to those who wish to discuss how to build our movement for meaningful and genuine social justice. I consider our dialogue to be a very real and crucial learning opportunity.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth Toledo
NGLTF Executive Director

__________________________________________________________________

The text of the original open letter follows:

December 4, 2000

An Open Letter to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Regarding Silencing People of Color and Youth at Creating Change 2000

To NGLTF Board, Staff, and Others in the LGBT Movement for Social Justice:

Several weeks ago over 2000 community activists convened in Atlanta, Georgia for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference. We are an ad hoc group of white youth and adults who, as attendees of that conference, are also white witnesses to the silencing of people of color that occurred there. While we do not presume to speak for people of color, we have heard how each year many people of color leave feeling connected to other LGBT people of color, but remain rather disenfranchised from the rest of the mostly white movement. This year was no exception. We are writing this letter to ask for reflection on that conference and for change in the future. Our primary goals in writing this letter are to name a racist and adultist situation, stand in solidarity with people of color and youth, and open up a public dialogue with the larger queer community on racism within our white-dominated organizations.

Some dialog in this letter will address concrete events of the conference, but mostly, we want to discuss how the racism of the conference is really a microcosm of the LGBT movement as a whole, and how it responds to the needs, realities, demands and visions of queer people of color.

As queers in the United States, we are all caught up in a racist, classist, ageist, and otherwise oppressive system, despite our good intentions to be otherwise. We believe that Creating Change is produced by good people with good intentions who could benefit from taking a critical look at the structure and values of the conference. The conference must be accessible to and be accountable to those who are regularly disenfranchised, including youth and seniors, people of color, poor and working class people, fat people and people with disabilities.

This year an instance of disenfranchisement occurred when several people of color protested a workshop on transracial adoption (which focused on white queers adopting children of color) and when young people, people of color, and allies continued the protest in a plenary, and in both cases were systematically shut down. In the workshop when a young black lesbian asked the four white workshop presenters to respond to a particularly virulent attack on people of color, the workshop leaders flatly refused to be accountable to her request or to the anti-racist sentiment behind her request. Later at the plenary, the white workshop leader was able to present her take on the workshop, and the Task Force denied the cries of people of color, youth and allies to express their feelings about the situation. A white woman was given the floor at a plenary to justify an earlier racist incident while people of color were simultaneously disallowed to raise so many critical issues. Several people of color, young people, and allies tried to address these concerns and issues in strategic ways, but found that over and over again those voices were either silenced or ignored. People of color and youth were forced to be "disruptive" because the structure gave them no other choice. And then, as is so common, their dissent was disparaged for not following "appropriate" channels. Their challenges were trivialized and their specific demands ignored with a pat response about the importance of protest. Regardless of how white people feel about transracial adoption, we can never justify the oppression, domination, and silencing of people of color in regards to these issues or any others.

People of color should not have to fight to be heard.

We, as white queers and predominantly white organizations, should be straining to listen.

We, as white queers and predominantly white organizations, should support what we hear.

In the LGBT movement, it has become vogue to talk about the intersections of multiple oppressions. Partially because of the strong presence of people of color within the Task Force, NGLTF has been able to craft some space for and focus on issues affecting queer people of color and racism. For example, the Task Force funds daylong institutes to discuss institutional racism and white responsibility. For this, we are grateful. Unfortunately, however, when it comes down to consciously creating a structure and process for all voices to speak and be heard (including the voices of dissent of people of color and young people), the Task Force has not yet succeeded. This must change quickly if we are to survive as a cohesive (albeit tenuously so) movement for social justice. We stand divided as a movement on many, many issues, but let us offer a uniform front against racism and other oppressions, both within our community and to the larger culture.

The continued perpetuation of racism in this conference, in this community, in this culture, robs each person of their dignity and humanity. This vicious system of advantage and punishment based on race inherently weakens the communities on which we all depend. It provides false notions of validity and superiority, and is eventually devastating (for very different reasons) to both people of color and white people. Although this conference offers one of the few places for progressive queer people with radical politics to convene and strategize, when there is so much silencing of people of color by white people and white modes of being, we all are harmed.

White people cannot speak for what “accountability” means to people of color. We do however have some suggestions that we as white queers working against racism can offer to interrupt cycles of racism: 1) conduct or re-commit to on-going dismantling racism trainings for all board and staff (the Peace Development Fund offers exceptional ones); 2) consult with people of color individuals and organizations to discern what type of leadership and advisory role people of color want to have in relation to Creating Change, and to develop concrete steps for people of color inclusion, thus safeguarding against tokenism; 3) request that each workshop submission answer how it will address issues of racism, classism, sexism and other oppressions in the workshop; and 4) provide a speak-out session with equal time given to people of color as white people and to youth as adults at the end of next year's Creating Change. We want Creating Change to live up to its espoused ideology of representation, inclusion, and parity. The whole of NGLTF is accountable to racial justice, and it is the job of white people as those with institutional power to make that happen.

In our movement as a whole we would also like to see change. The time is right for a call to action for all white people of conscience, for all white people of progressive vision to look within to "do our own work" and then to talk honestly and searchingly about LGBT racism with our partners, our friends, and with our local and national communities. It is also time to act, time to work for personal and institutional change, and time to reexamine our principles from a perspective of privilege and responsibility. It can be a painful struggle, but if we can't address this plight of racism in our community, then our movement will further splinter and inevitably fail, as we compromise our progressive ideals and continue to devalue people of color. As the progressive arm of the LGBT movement, NGLTF needs to be a leader in holding itself and others in our movement accountable on these issues.

We encourage the Task Force work with us, and more importantly, to work with LGBT people of color and organizations to address these issues for the benefit of our entire movement. We recognize that at times we are all fragile and prone to failure, but we also expect that the Task Force and individual white allies will take this moment to be vulnerable, to be open to change, and to actively nurture dialog and action to undo interpersonal and institutional racism in the movement. Racism is part of our history and a part of our present, and unless we recommit ourselves to actively fighting racism wherever and whenever we confront it, however painful that may be, it will endure as part of this conference, this movement, and our future.

Sincerely,

River Allan, NC Lambda Youth Network, Durham, NC
Charity Crouse, National Queer Commission of the DSA, Chicago, IL
Ann Flescher, Lansing, MI
Daniel Hall, Queer White Allies Against Racism, Chicago, IL
Cat Jefcoat, Queer White Allies Against Racism/Color Triangle Coalition, Chicago, IL
Rachel Lanzerotti, San Francisco, CA
Sara Leedom, Minneapolis, MN
Heather MacAllister, Triangle Foundation, Detroit, MI
David Mariner, Washington, DC
Cynthia Newcomer, Takoma Park, MD
Matt Nicholson, Kentucky Fairness Alliance, Louisville, KY
Cori Parrish, San Francisco, CA
Roi Ann Philips, Chicago, IL
Susan Raffo, Minneapolis, MN
Greg Smith, Fort Wayne, IN
Amy Sonnie, RESYST, San Francisco, CA

–30–

The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.