Grand Divisions

Tennessee Equality Project seeks to advance and protect the civil rights of our State’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in each Grand Division.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Put down that Cosmo: The dilemma of GLBT involvement in state and local races

And by Cosmo, I mean the drink, not the magazine, although that would apply in some cases, too.

So what's the dilemma and what do Cosmos have to do with state and local races?

I'm talking about the dilemma of how you get the GLBT community involved in campaigns when there aren't nearly enough great candidates. Maybe the issue is no different for those trying to get straight folks involved. I'm not a sociologist and I may lapse into more stereotypes than Cosmo drinking in this post, so I offer apologies on the front end. But I know of one sense in which the dilemma is different for us. We have more to gain and much to lose compared to the rest of the population.

Not even close to equal: If you haven't noticed, we're not exactly equal. Trangender people can't change the sex designation on their birth certificates. Same-sex couples can't get married. And most people employed in Tennessee can be fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. We routintely face attacks on our adoption rights.

So why aren't we hopping all over every opportunity to get involved with candidates who could make things even a little better? In my bitter moments (yes, even publicly optimistic activists have them), I think, "Geesh, could we put down the Cosmo for a minute and spend an hour phone banking for a good candidate?" (Hence the title of this post) And in clearer moments, I still believe the social/party culture can be an obstacle, but I know it's far more complicated than that. Everyone is busy with family and work. We don't want to give up free time for repetitive activities like phone banking and holding signs for candidates on Election Day.

There's the dilemma. We have more to gain and a lot more to lose, but, as I said, there aren't many candidates that positively excite us. That's the rational part of our community's calculation. Will it really be worth our time to get involved?

It's SO worth it (if you do it right): Anyone who knows me knows my answer is already YES. I'll do my best to justify it. You have significantly better opportunities when you volunteer for or give to a candidate EXPLICITLY AS PART OF THE GLBT COMMUNITY AS A GROUP! It's in all caps for a reason. You all know I'm not an all-caps kind of guy, but I'll shout about this.

1st Level: A member of our community as a lone individual can make a limited impact for equality. He or she can help a good candidate win an election. Obviously working in a coordinated effort, we can do a lot more for a good candidate. That's simple. No argument.

2nd Level: But working explicitly as part of the GLBT community as a group (sorry, no caps the second time) can help move a candidate who's so-so on our issues to become a better candidate on our issues. Bundling checks for a candidate gets noticed. Producing 10 volunteers that the candidate knows are part of the same group gets noticed and it gets remembered when it comes time for casting a vote on an important issue. It's not magic. It doesn't determine the outcome. But when you produce numbers--money, votes, volunteers--for a candidate, you're a bigger part of the equation of connecting a candidate to an issue. We all already know this, but it's my job to say it all the damned time.

About that GayTM thing: At the national level, there's a big debate about shutting down the GayTM, in other words, stop giving to candidates who don't do enough to advance equal rights legislation. That makes sense in areas where those communities have longer traditions of giving large amounts of money and volunteer time in a coordinated effort to congressional candidates. But in a state like Tennessee, we have the other problem/opportunity. We don't have any extensive history of generating coordinated efforts to give to and volunteer for campaigns at the state and local level. I'd like to see us test the hypothesis of whether it would make a difference.

The preachy part: So my advice is simple. Be involved. Be involved in a coordinated effort. Let's do all we can to elect and reelect the great candidates and let's move some of the so-so candidates into the good column. And if you don't want to put down the Cosmo, bring it with you and bring enough for all of us!

And maybe that's part of the answer. Those of us trying to help with the coordination need to make it more fun. Duly noted! But here's a hint, it's a lot more fun when you do it as part of a group, and it's even better when your candidates win and they know you're part of the reason. Let's give it a try this year.

-Chris Sanders