Grassroots Coalition Building:

Lessons from North Carolina

by Mab Segrest, Urban/Rural Missions, World Council of Churches
It is inevitable that gay and lesbian responses to right wing attacks begin in crisis mode. Nobody wants to have to give up one weekend of their life, much less a year, to respond to right wing ballot initiatives. Facing grassroots anti-gay campaigns can be terrifying. The dangers are real.

But so are the opportunities. While the religious right is genuinely homophobic, they are also targeting us because they think they can build their constituency and power base in the process. We can use their attacks to build our own base and forward our own agendas. Coalition building is one of the chief processes as well as a chief payoff for us if we can turn crisis to opportunity. Coalitions help extend our networks of friends and allies and empower our own people in a time of danger by showing us that we are not alone.

I learned this the hard way. In 1986, a group of lesbians and gay men in Durham set out to organize a Pride march and celebration, only the second such event at that time in North Carolina history. When Wib Gulley, the recently elected progressive mayor, signed an "Anti-Discrimination Week" proclamation that spoke highly of Durham's gay citizens, fundamentalist churches (encouraged by Jesse Helms' Congressional Club) organized a recall campaign. If they could get 14,000 signatures of registered voters in s ix weeks, they could get a recall election. The Recall organizers soon had a massive grassroots campaign going: tables at shopping malls, on street corners, folks going door-to-door in public housing projects. It took "our side" a while to realize that we needed to mobilize. There was a tendency, which I think is not atypical, to minimize the potential effect of such a populist campaign with the rationale that "giving them publicity" would only fuel the fire. It is generally the nature of such campaigns, h owever, that they have plenty of fuel already and the longer folks stand around, the bigger the flames they eventually have to confront. In a dry forest, there is no such thing as a safe little blaze.

I was working for North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence at the time, and NCARRV called together a meeting of community organizations and concerned individuals to forge a response. Much of my work at NCARRV had been to counter the "Far Right," a whole range of Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups with racism at their ideological core, rather than the "religious right," usually organized (on the surface, anyway) around issues of gender and sexuality.

Even though one organization usually convenes an initial meeting of organizations, it is very important to quickly establish a sense of joint ownership. For us, that meant being sure that all parties with any interest in the Recall (progressive electoral organizations in the black and white communities, gay/lesbian groups, liberal and moderate religious groups, for example,) should be at the first meeting. It also meant convening a steering committee out of the first meeting that allowed for representation of diverse viewpoints and interests. It was also important to continue to hold public meetings to which interested individuals could come to find out what was going on and how they could participate. We eventually had participation from unions, Central America solidarity organizations, the ACLU and similar civil liberty organizations, and churches and sytnagogues.

Coalitions depend on bridge-builders who have worked in multiple communities and can bring those prior relationships of trust to seed the process. Coalitions who do not have these kinds of people in them from the start are much more likely to fail. Gay and lesbian people of color and Jews were particularly valuable in our coalition because they understood and interpreted these constituencies' concerns and had connections that would prove valuable when endorsements were sought. Coalitions (and communities) that give only token voices to their bridge-builders rob themselves of the opportunity for broadened alliances.

We learned fast that we had to fight fire with fire. We had a tendency at first to use the tactics that the electoral organizations use in their election campaigns: for example, big advertisements in the city's daily newspaper. It soon became clear, however, that our opponents were getting to people other ways, and to people who didn't necessarily read the newspaper. So we also developed radio ads, which we ran on gospel and country stations. And we organized volunteers to set up tables next to the Recall tables to facilitate open discussion of both sides of the issue.

We quickly moved to isolate the opposition by painting them as extremists. The first element of our coalition to engage in this strategy was clergy, as a group of moderate ministers began denouncing the opposition's tactics to the media. We also worked up four more radio spots, our spokespeople carefully chosen to show a cross-section of the community and to undercut the various currents of homophobia: a pediatrician, a teacher, a civil rights activist, and a well-known local artist. Fortunately, the Recal l folks inadvertantly cooperated with our strategy. On television and in public meetings, their spokespeople often foamed at the mouth. They were our best illustration of the dangers of homophobia. Extremist opponents make a clearer target. When possible, flush them out.

Our campaign quickly became a laboratory to test out the effectiveness of various responses. Heterosexuals who had never had to confront homophobia before found themselves engaged in dialogue and arguments on the way to the post office or with their colleagues at work. They compared notes, and there was an ongoing discussion about which arguments were persuasive, and which were not.

Don't write anybody off. Many people who were not part of the original group of convening interests came forward out of a sense of outrage and common decency. We must never assume that "certain types" of people will not be on our side.

The people with money are usually not the people with organizing skills and they should not be allowed to control the campaign. Many of the more affluent gay people in the community who had never before been involved in gay causes came forward with money, but did not yet have the skills or experience to shape the arguments or strategies.

Whenever possible, try to find ways to accomodate various interests within the coalition without compromising the principles on which it was founded. Within our campaign, the white electoral faction favored a campaign based on the idea of tolerance; African-American organizers more often wanted a campaign against discrimination; many white gay organizers wanted the focus to be on homophobia. The arguments inside the steering committee were at times bitter, but they resulted in a range of public responses reflecting some elements of each position. The combination made the whole effort stronger and broadened the base of our support.

Realize that there will be a strong tendency for the gay and lesbian community to fragment over differences. Some of this will be on issues of genuine principle and will be unavoidable. But much of it will result from the pressure of internalized homophobia. Make community building a major emphasis, and without ever giving up, develop a direct response (a legal challenge, town meeting, organizing strategy) if the coalition loses. In the event of a loss at the polls, help people articulate the gains in orde r to regain strength and carry on the battle.

The last day of the Recall campaign, the fundamentalist leaders called a press conference at City Hall to announce that they had received 13,000 signatures -- about 1000 short. They promised to be back in future elections.

But they had failed, and the coalition that assembled to defeat their Recall campaign helped to generate a far greater climate of acceptance for lesbians and gay men in Durham than the original Pride march, by itself, ever would have. Wib Gulley went on to win a second term by a landslide, and homophobia was blunted as a strategy in local elections.

As activists, we had gained a clearer strategy, more educated allies, an increased funding base, an expanded sense of possibility, and a claim to the public sphere. The Pride march and anti-Recall campaign proved to be a training ground for local leadership, and several members of the steering committee went on to become full-time organizers. There was commitment from many lesbians and gay men to do our part when other communities came under attack. When Harry Gantt, an African American, ran against Jesse Helms for the US Senate, lesbians and gay men in North Carolina poured money and energy into his campaign and helped generate national support. Gantt lost by 5% of the vote, a hard defeat by any measure, but the level of queer organization in the state had taken another quantum leap.

For more information or to request a complete Fight the Right Action Kit, call NGLTF at 202-332-6483, TTY 202-332-6219.