Marylanders who needed a break from the never-ending Republican debates were in luck this past weekend when the 24th National Lesbian and Gay Task Force annual convention came to Baltimore with Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, giving the keynote address.
Over 3,000 mostly young activists representing a rainbow of sexual orientation and ethnicities, crowded into the Baltimore Hilton Hotel, January 26-29, to learn ways to win LGBT rights and marriage equality, and push a progressive agenda in an election year.
"Creating Change" was the theme of the conference, and the fact that that change is already taking place was made clear by the NAACP leader's presentation.
If in the past civil rights and gay rights activists couldn't see how they to support each others' agendas, the crowd's enthusiastic response to the keynote speaker proved those days are definitely over.
Benjamin Jealous is the youngest person to lead the NAACP, but he has civil rights activism in his DNA.
His father was jailed in Baltimore in 1966 during the desegregation struggles, and he already made his own mark in history as a major force behind the abolition of the death penalty for juveniles in the U.S.
He is responsible for forming the LGBT Equality Group within the NAACP which partners with the NGLTF to change laws and work with African American churches on LGBT issues.
He used his own life as an example and symbol of the power of big tent politics (solidarity between LGBT and civil rights activists), describing his adopted brother Jason who has a "transgendered spirit." The two boys together learned to fight bullying, first because they were black, then later because of Jason's gender identification. He spoke of the moment when he realized that an injury to his brother was an injury to him as well.
This year in Maryland, he pointed out, the NAACP will be testifying for a marriage equality bill as well as pushing for the ENDA legislation federally. Jealous asked the audience for help to abolish the death penalty in Maryland, also up for possible passage in 2012.
He invoked the memory of Bayard Rustin, a closeted gay man whose organizational genius made the the March on Washington in 1963 so powerful. He then reminded the crowd that Julian Bond (former chair of the NAACP) came to Maryland to stand up for the right to marry interracially. He talked about the NAACP's successful efforts to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, telling the audience, "Haters hate; they don't distinguish whether their victim is poor, of another race or has a different sexual preference."
Paraphrasing Frederick Douglass who spoke against the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Jealous said the U.S. could because of its diversity, and should because of its Constitution become "the most perfect example of human unity the world has ever seen."
"History," the NAACP president said, "has taught us we can never win the fight for justice, equality and freedom as long as we act in silos." However in the U.S., the fear of diversity has resulted in racism in education, and job opportunities as well as the rampant criminalization of African Americans. There are seven million prisoners around the globe, a full two million of them are in prison in the U.S.
Then turning to a truly current crisis, Jealous focused the audience on the 2012 issue of voter suppression. "Historically, voter suppression always increases after there has been an expansion of the voting population - after the XIII, XIV and XV amendments, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and now after the election of an African American president," said Jealous.
The NAACP believes that 2012 is going to usher in a wave of voter suppression greater than any since before the organization's creation in 1909.
In Florida alone, the right-wing Republican Governor Rick Scott has reactivated Jeb Bush's voter purging tactics of 2000. This will guarantee that 500,000 Floridians who were able to vote in 2008 will be denied that right in 2012.
Jealous praised the vision of Rea Carey, the director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and her commitment to diversity politics. Ending his address, he exhorted the crowd that "The NAACP is there for you and we thank you that we are able to depend on you." His final quote came from Harvey Milk, who said "It takes no compromising to give people their rights. It takes no money to respect the individual and it takes no survey to remove repressions."
Judging from excited conversations overheard after the keynote speaker's address, opportunities for coordinated organizing will be blossomed at the NGLTF conference and beyond.. The NAACP leader's concept of increasing strength by recognizing diversity as well as joint commonality, energized the attendees and made them aware that all is possible with one other.
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