LGBTs Connect At Netroots Nation

By Chuck Colbert

More than 120 LGBT activists, bloggers, organizations, funders and journalists from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico gathered in Detroit this past week for a day-long discussion about the future of the LGBT movement and ways to effect progressive social change within it and beyond.

Organized by Mike Rogers, vice chairman and managing director of Raw Story Media, the LGBT Netroots Connect program, now in its seventh year, has more than doubled its size from the initial 60-people meeting, which was then called the National Blogger and Citizen Journalist Initiative.

Since 2008, Netroots Connect has done "a great job," said Rogers, program director, in broadening the scope of the program and its participants. "Our team is no longer just bloggers, but also social media activists and more, from all over the country, engaged in social change."

"What's really important," he said, is "intersectionality," the connecting of LGBT concerns with broader progressive issues such as economic justice, immigration reform, the labor movement, reproductive rights, affordable health care, religious liberty and the environment, among others.

Enabling people to make personal connections, the face-to-face networking not possible through email exchanges and instant messaging, is also paramount, Rogers said, explaining, "My strength is the schmooze."

LGBT Netroots Connect was held on Wednesday, July 16, just one day before Netroots Nation (July 17-20), the annual political convention for American liberal-to-progressive activists, including mostly Democrats.

LGBT Protestors Interrupt Biden's Speech

The three-day convention drew 2,000 to 3,000 attendees to the Motor City's Cobo Center, including Vice President Joe Biden who addressed the gathering on Thursday afternoon.

"This is one of those moments that people get a chance to bend history just a little bit," he said. "And there are fundamental changes taking place."

Biden's speech touched on a number of LGBT themes: the importance of marriage equality, non-discrimination, full equality and more.

Sure enough, the vice president's remarks fell on receptive ears. "Because of you, we've recognized basic fundamental rights in the LGBT community," he said.

During Biden's speech, however, several immigration-reform advocates stood and chanted for a short time, "Stop deporting our families," before convention security and secret-service personnel escorted them out.

The protestors were from the activist groups United We Dream and GetEqual.

Netroots Connect participants said that Biden impressed them in his handling of the incident.

"I appreciate the vice president's hearing what was said," explained Todd Allen, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and Mississippi LGBT activist. "How many times does a politician have protestors hear what they are saying," and in effect say, "I feel your pain."

Sean Howell of San Francisco, founder and CEO of Hornet, a gay men's social network, said Biden's empathy touched him.

Howell was referring to the vice president's acknowledgment that he shared the protestors' sentiments, going so far as to give a personal story about "how terrible it must be to come home from school and wonder if you parents have been deported," Howell said.

That Biden said everyone should applaud the protestors resonated poignantly with Howell.

Netroots Nation also drew Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who delivered the keynote address on Friday morning. She was a big hit among attendees and received spirited applause after speaking.

Sounding notes of unity and populism, Warren told attendees, "If we join together, we win."

The convention also drew the Rev. William Barber, the fiery African American preacher behind North Carolina's Moral Monday movement, a grassroots response to a conservative Republican take over of the state's executive and legislative branches of government. Barber's Thursday evening opening plenary keynote speech focused on economic justice as a moral issue.

In addition to educational workshops, training sessions and panel presentations on a wide range of progressive causes, this year's Netroots Nation featured a full platter of LGBT-focused content, including caucuses for queer people of color, LGBTs and allies. Other relevant caucuses featured talks on equality legislation, as well as sessions about the labor movement, sex-positive talk, transgender military service, fighting religious exemptions and fake (or junk) science.

Altogether, Netroots Nation and LGBT Netroots Connect infused attendees with new energy and enthusiasm heading into the 2014 mid-term elections.

Collaboration Key For Netroots Connect Participants

"For me, the best part is the connecting with fellow LGBT journalists and activists," said transgender activist Rebecca Juro, media correspondent for Advocate.com and a Gay Voices contributor at The Huffington Post. At LGBT Netroots Connect, she said, "I participated in a group discussion on being fierce without being frightening, which was definitely a highlight for me."

For Juro, more effective advocacy for equality comes from uniting and working together.

That take away message resonated with Shannon Cuttle, managing director of Anti-Bullying Initiatives for Garden State Equality, a New Jersey-based LGBT advocacy and civil rights organization.

"Seeing so many activists from all over the country, grassroots and grass tops" along with "bloggers and journalists together in the same room was inspiring, impactful and powerful and speaks to the progress our movement is making," he said.

For Cuttle, in his work, a key take-away point from Netroots Connect is how "we are all in this together." he added, "That's true and has resonated through the whole conference."

Yet another attendee offered her take on the importance of the daylong gathering.

"My concerns that the LGBT activist community is fixated on marriage equality were, happily, dispelled by the Netroots Connect meeting," said Sue Fulton, a former Army officer and West Point graduate, who serves on the board of Sparta, an LGBT military organization. "I got to be part of spirited planning discussions about transgender military service, Southern strategy, immigration reform and countering myths about bisexuals."

Jason Parsley, associate publisher at South Florida Gay News, shared Fulton's outlook.

"It was refreshing to participate in a discussion that wasn't dominated by gay marriage and be able to explore other topics that face the community right now like immigration reform, LGBT youth, homelessness,and PrEP, among others," he said.

"I really enjoyed the interactivity of the day-long event. It kept me interested and engaged throughout the day," Parsley added. "As a member of the LGBT media, it just re-enforced the idea that there is still a need for vibrant and dynamic LGBT media outlets. There are so many issues the community is facing, and will be facing, that it's important for the gay media to be present and able to report and tell these stories."

Religious Liberty/Religious Exemptions Raise Concerns

The U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, a religious exemption in the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and legislative attempts at the state level in Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Oregon, Tennessee, South Dakota and Mississippi by social conservatives and the far right that would enable persons to discriminate against LGBTs and same-sex couples based on religious beliefs opposed to homosexuality -- all served to raised the level of concern among Netroots Connect participants about the harm religious exemptions cause in advancing LGBT equality.

At one session, 25 people voiced their concerns and discussed actions that ranged from education and outreach about First Amendment rights to adamant opposition to any exemptions that wall off LGBTs from non-discriminatory laws or policies.

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., the Court ruled 5-4 that the Department of Health and Human Services regulations requiring employers to provide their female employees with no-cost access to contraception violate the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In addition, advocates for LGBT equality maintain that the proposed religious exemption included in the current version of ENDA is unprecedented in civil rights legislation and would in effect gut the non-discrimination protections.

And a Mississippi law, which went into effect July 1, allows people to discriminate against LGBTs and others if they feel their religious convictions are at all compromised.

Jeff White-Perkins, president of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Lesbian and Gay Community Center, said "his general feeling as a Mississippi activist, of being alone in the work, has been lessened" by Netroots Connect and conference conversations over religious exemptions.

"I truly saw that, though Mississippi has a long way to go, we are being seen as somewhat the endgame for most of the issues that stand today from equality to even women's rights," he said. "That idea has me very excited."

"There has been real awakening in the community about how religious exemptions affect our lives and the lives of people we care about, the women in our lives, and the ramifications go far beyond what we ever understood until this year," said John Bare of San Francisco, who serves on the board of directors for GetEqual and chairs its governance committee.

"Now we are understanding that our own bill [ENDA], the one we've been fighting for 40 years, has those religious exemptions," which "are really quite obnoxious and could do a lot of damage beyond our own community," he added.

"There's a real understanding that we need to come out strong as a community opposed to that," Bare explained. "We need to start with education about what the First Amendment guarantees all of us in terms of our freedom of religion and in terms of what else we might describe as religious freedom.

"But our own private notion of our conscience and our religious liberty does not allow for going into the public square to discriminate."

GetEQUAL, a bold-action LGBTQ advocacy organization, Bare said, is "trying to get the word out about that," with a new #NoAsterisks campaign (http://www.NoAsterisks.org), which educates about full civil rights for LGBTs -- without exceptions.


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