This article was originally published for The Retiree Advocate at psara.org in August 2014.
Growing up in a very conservative religious household in the 1960s, I “learned” that homosexuals were sinning against God and male homosexuals were child molesters. I was truly ignorant. Today I am an advocate for equal rights for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters.
How did my views change? Many things led me out of my ignorance, but one incident has remained with me for almost 40 years. In trade school I became a study buddy with a lesbian. We began talking from our hearts about the pain and challenges we had faced: my growing up poor and her facing endless discrimination and fear. One day she shared how much she loved her partner and her fear of being assaulted by homophobic bigots while walking down the street holding hands with her partner.
I was stunned as I felt what it would be like to be fearful of being attacked for holding hands with my girlfriend in public. She was also afraid of being fired for being a lesbian. Her fear and pain filled me with anger and sadness. I thought about what I should do to stand with her and other gays and lesbians in their demands for equality. In my youth, I was naïve and ignorant, but more importantly my heart was open to being touched by the injustices and pain put upon gays and lesbians. Her courage and willingness to share her personal story changed my life forever.
In 1972, PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) National was founded, bringing together parents, families and friends of lesbian, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons to stand up for justice. Part of their strategy was to encourage members and allies to speak out about the human pain and suffering caused by the injustices to LGBT people. A few years ago my wife and I saw a movie which showed an 80+ year old man denied the flag from the coffin at a military funeral of his deceased partner of 50+ years. We were deeply moved and pushed to stand stronger for justice.
In 2007, PFLAG founded Straight for Equality, “a national outreach and education project to empower straight allies. Their personal stories of how and why they came to support equality for LGBT people are a significant advantage that straight allies possess, and we’d love to help you learn how to share that story.” Bottom line: Our personal stories of the heart will change people. Is it working?
In 1973, 75% of the American people thought sex between same-sex partners was always or almost always wrong; 11% said it was not wrong at all. By 2010, these numbers were 48% to 41%. On gay marriage, in 1988, only 11% strongly agreed or agreed; 68% strongly disagreed or disagreed. By 2010, it was 46% to 40%. In 2013, 52% of Americans said they would vote for a federal law to make same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states; only 43% were opposed. Many factors contributed to these major changes, but do not underestimate the power of tens and hundreds of thousands of people telling stories from their hearts to move other people toward justice year after year.
Does this story of courage and strategy have relevance for organized labor? Between 1965 and 2012, the percentage of Americans who approved of unions declined from 71% to 54%. Relentless attacks in corporate media are central to this decline. Organized labor, working people and our allies don’t own huge media outlets. But we do own our stories of the heart and our voices.
Between 2000 and 2009, the National Labor Relations Board found that 246,000 workers were fired or denied employment illegally for exercising their rights to organize unions, and the employers were required to pay back pay. How many more had their rights violated? Every year hundreds of thousands of workers are illegally denied their legally owed wages. We have our own stories and the stories of many others who are victimized by corporate injustice and greed.
Today organized labor has 16 million members. If one percent decided to use the PFLAG approach of “tell your heart story to move people” and talk to two people a month, we would reach four million people in one year. Let’s think big, 3% talking to three people per month would reach 17 million in one year. In five years, 85 million.
Do we dare to dream big like the founders of PFLAG in 1972? Obviously the oppression of our LGBT brothers and sisters is different from the oppression of workers. However, their courage to stand up can inspire us. Let’s learn from them, share our stories of the heart, and move our families, friends, community members and co-workers by the millions toward greater justice for working people and their families.