There are too few friendships lesbian, gay,bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities of color have with national LGBTQ organizations.
Our marginalization stems not only from a discordance with the dominant queer culture’s imposed upon agendas for the entire LGBTQ community, but also the dominant queer culture’s nagging inability to cease
embracing and implementing diversity in tokenized ways.
However, within these institutions sometimes it takes a person who gets it and undauntedly implements an institutional sea change.
One such person in Greater Boston is Lee Swislow, Executive Director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), New England’s leading legal advocacy organization and a national leader on LGBT legal issues.
So her announcement this week of her retirement in 2014 comes as a blow for many of us in our LGBTQ communities of color.
While many will remember Lee’s tenure at GLAD for the major victories in litigation on behalf of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV, too few know of her indefatigable and successful efforts in combating the culture’s racism, white privilege, and single-issue platforms that thwarted efforts for coalition building within both straight and queer communities of color of Greater Boston.
My journey with Lee is worth repeating.
My initial encounter with GLAD was contentious. My opinions, and those of LGBTQ communities of color nationwide, were expressed weekly in my column The Religion Thang, for the now defunct Boston-based LGBTQ paper InNewsweekly.
In February, 2005 I was reporting that tensions here in Massachusetts were growing and, once again, there was a color line. The issue was marriage equality for same-sex couples. With the state legislature about to rev up again to debate the issue, and with very little time for white queer religious and political machines to colorize what had been since its inception a white movement, voices from African-American queer organizations and communities of color were speaking up about our absence from the conversation.
To the surprise of white LGBTQ organizations, both the African-American LGBTQ and straight community had much to say about the white queer political machine’s appropriation of the language of the black civil rights movement. Done without participation by people of color.
How the marriage debate should had been frame had not been given considerable concern. Communicating in a way that spoke truth to various LGBTQ communities of color and classes was not even considered.
The same-sex marriage debate had brought much consternation and polarization between black and white LGBTQ communities. Much of the finger pointing of the genesis of the ill-framed discussion was aimed at GLAD. Viewed by some as a lily-white organization, many people of color felt that GLAD replicated much of the same race and class divisions present in our federal judicial system.
While the marriage debate was strategically framed as an upper- to middle-class LGBTQ family issue, people of color felt that the “strategy won in court, but not in the court of public opinion, Dorchester African-American lesbian activist Jacquie Bishop told me that the “strategy won in court, but not in the court of public opinion.”
In criticizing GLAD for its approach, Boston local African-American lesbian scholar Dr. Marilyn Monteiro wrote to me in an e-mail: “I’ve told GLAD this as well—asking me for money to assist them in ‘their’ struggle; expropriating (and therefore exploiting blacks in particular) the civil rights movement rhetoric; strategies in their interests while still excluding us from leadership positions other than token appointments. Please! It certainly is this way in Beantown, for sure. GLAD asked me to evaluate their web pages. I did. Do you think there have been any changes of the kind I suggested? Hell, no!”
In April of that same year Lee Swislow, Executive Director of GLAD, came to the annual Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast. When GLAD reached out to communities of color, inviting a dialogue for an inclusive re-framing of the marriage debate, the collective anger and frustration that LGBTQ communities of color collective felt toward the organization began to dissipate.
Recognizing the need to look more deeply at diversity issues, a list of GLAD’s accomplishments was sent to me. In 2005 the GLAD Board asked the executive director to develop a diversity plan. There were very concrete actions associated with this plan. And in 2013, GLAD received the Boston Bar Association Beacon Award for Diversity & Inclusion.
While it is without a doubt that GLAD will continue on with the inroads Swislow has created and nurtured with communities of color, it is also important to remember her success in reaching out to us in those days when it was a road less travelled.