President Obama’s personal expression of support for same-sex marriage on ABC is sure to galvanize a new wave of gay rights activism across the country. It’s a heady moment — where might it lead?

The vibrant coalitions that developed this year in North Carolina, where activists fought simultaneously against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and against anti-immigrant and anti-worker legislation, offer a vision for a more expansive and radically engaged form of LGBT organizing than the narrower struggles for marriage equality that have dominated the activist landscape in recent years. It’s a model that I hope organizers in other states will look to in this moment of renewed energy.

Even though the majority of North Carolina voters cast ballots in favor of the anti-gay amendment, which was worded so broadly that it could threaten domestic partnership protections for all couples, the fight against the measure has offered a sense of the sort of multi-issue coalitions that, if replicated on a national scale, could bring about significant social transformations. Before writing off the North Carolina struggle as a total defeat, it’s worth watching this video of North Carolina activists discussing all that was built and won, despite the loss:

After years of watching Obama make strategic compromises rather than use his influential position to rally mass energy around the idea of health care as a human right or the wrongness of torture, it was heartening to watch him take a principled stand on this issue, despite the political dangers and risky timing. Regardless of whether marriage equality is the right goal for LGBT activists to be focusing on right now (rather than, say, an employment nondiscrimination act), Obama’s announcement feels meaningful on a symbolic level. So often the gay marriage debate seems to stand in for a more basic discussion about whether queer and transgender people deserve the same compassion and respect as heterosexuals and people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. In this context, it does feel new and meaningful for a president to refuse to cave to right-wing pressure to paint gay people as somehow monstrous or less than human. Not that we needed his approval, but still…

Yet it’s important to remember that the direction that state-based organizing takes in the coming months — not Obama’s personal views — is what will determine whether today’s high hopes translate into policy changes in the future. This is particularly true because Obama’s statement of support, though welcome and encouraging, came with no active policy commitments. In fact, as John Cook pointed out in a hard-edged Gawker article, Obama arguably affirmed the notion that states’ marriage bans are valid and constitutional by stating that he believes the right to gay marriage should in fact be decided on a state-by-state basis, even though he personally thinks that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

One glance at the Guardian’s chart of the rights accorded to gay, lesbian, and transgender people in each state shows how grim the scene will be, not just on the marriage front, but on other fronts as well, if state decisions continue to determine the conditions of LGBT lives:

As tends to occur when the marriage fight rises to the fore, some queer activists are expressing ambivalence about whether marriage equality is the right fight to prioritize, when issues such as employment discrimination, police brutality, homelessness, a lack of access to health care, and transphobic attacks are so acute. The recent murder of Brandy Martell, a trans woman of color, and the racist and transphobic attack faced by CeCe McDonald, who is now facing jail time for having defended herself, are painful reminders of the many forms of violence that will not dissolve once same-sex couples can tie the knot. Dean Spade and Craig Willse’s 2008 statement on why they feel marriage is the wrong goal is once again being passed around by many who agree that “marriage is a coercive state structure that perpetuates racism and sexism through forced gender and family norms” and that expanding marriage “only strengthens that system of marginalization and supports the idea that the state should pick which types of families to reward and recognize and which to punish and endanger.”

While some of these concerns about the limitations of the marriage goal resonate with me, I’m most interested in imagining a dynamic new landscape of LGBT organizing in which the fight for gay marriage and the struggles against policy brutality, employment discrimination, and transphobia gain strength from each other rather than being pitted against each other. That is part of why I am so excited about the work in North Carolina, which offers a vision of how to incorporate the energy around marriage equality without falling into a narrow struggle that cuts out the concerns of transgender people, poor people, incarcerated people, disabled people, and others who are often marginalized within the most powerful LGBT organizations.

Southerners On New Ground (SONG), which describes itself as “building a political home across race, class, culture, gender, and sexuality,” is one of the groups that has worked intentionally to build a diverse, multi-issue coalition during the struggle against Amendment One in North Carolina.

In a lively interview on Pam’s House Blend, Manju Rajendran and Jade Brooks of All of Us NC, an offshoot of SONG, told the story of how the coalition against the amendment came into being:

We were interested in making this fight into an opportunity to encourage connect-the-dots thinking between issues of sexuality, race, class, gender, immigration, and ability. We decided to educate ordinary people across the state about the amendment and practice mobilizing our friends and neighbors to vote against it through respectful, honest conversations. During the first workshop we did after Durham Pride, we were overwhelmed by the enormous number of folks who showed up: church folk, veterans of the labor movement, parents, queers. We had planned that workshop in just a couple of weeks, but it gave us the momentum to create something beautiful, intergenerational, multiracial, queer, and people of color-led in the span of a campaign season.

All Of Us NC is an alliance of North Carolinians who stick up for each other when any of us has our humanity questioned. Our alliance builds on a long history of life-affirming courageous acts of our ancestors. We respond to direct attacks on families and communities such as the family discrimination constitutional amendment, anti-immigrant policies, anti-worker legislation, the voter ID act, and other attempts to disenfranchise any of us….

At our workshops we connect this amendment to attacks that harm all of us-as immigrants, as people of color, as workers and students and those out-of-work, as parents and single people, as women and transgender individuals-we’ve used this fight to strengthen our bonds with one another. All of our workshops incorporate singing, a lot of laughter and dirty jokes, big paper and markers, meaningful childcare, food, money for transportation, Spanish-English interpretation, and other welcoming practices. In practicing what we preach, we are teaching each other and learning how to build an inclusive movement….

Some of us in leadership have seen this fight go down in other states in disappointing ways- organizations that aren’t led by the people who will be most impacted if this harmful legislation passes; campaigns done in a cutthroat, unsustainable way, leaving burnt bridges and depleted resources; single-issue assimilationist messaging that doesn’t reflect the world we want to build. Here in North Carolina, it is important for us to center LGBTQ people of color, poor and working class people, and rural people. We want human rights for everybody.

Claudia Horwitz, the director of Stone Circles, a North Carolina organization that seeks to sustain activism through spiritual practice, reflected on the success of the coalition-building, even as she mourned the passage of the amendment in a Facebook note on Wednesday morning:

The level of coalition-building that occurred in North Carolina around this was unprecedented…. As awareness of inextricable links between issues and constituencies grows, so too does solidarity. When the NC chapter of the NAACP stepped out early on to endorse the campaign against the amendment, it paved the way for others to come out of the shadows of homophobia.The amendment’s proposed illegality of some families in the state eerily echoes the struggle for immigrant rights and to quote Alex Nogales from the National Hispanic Media Coalition, “when you ask for social justice, you can’t just ask for yourself. You have to ask for everyone.”

The day the amendment passed, activists such as Katy Munger on the BlueNC blog were already planning next steps, calling for those involved in the fight against Amendment One to continue the broader struggle by fighting “attempts to limit access to the ballot box, such as the voter ID bill,” fighting to keep the Racial Justice Act in place, boycotting local businesses that took a public stand for the anti-gay amendment, supporting businesses that fought it, and seeking to “hold the people who introduced this bill and who voted for it accountable for every penny” of the costs that will start racking up once this vaguely worded amendment lands the state of North Carolina in court.

I don’t think we’ve heard the last word out of North Carolina yet. Especially not with young people like these already engaged in the struggle:


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