The Lesbian Avengers' Civil Rights Organizing Project (LACROP)

The Lesbian Avengers again broke new ground with LACROP. This grassroots organizing project was particularly notable for dumping the top-down organizing model of most organizations, for encouraging activists to be entirely out, and also for its incredible success in Idaho.

What they learned in brief — Basic Principles: Out Against the Right

Learning in Maine
In the fall of 1993, the Christian Right was attacking Lewiston's anti-discrimination ordinance and a group of New York Lesbian Avengers headed north to work with local lesbian and gay activists. While most of these Avengers had had experience in political organizing against the Christian Right, organizing in a small town was a different story.

While it seems self-evident that a large group of activists working together is more powerful than several little groups, one of the Avengers' biggest mistakes was agreeing to support the mainstream campaign against the initiative.

Coming from outside, it took some time to realize that the organization was alienating plenty of local queers by asking them to stay in the closet and enforcing a single message in the name of "campaign strategy."

When they finally broke with Equal Protection Lewiston over its support of the closet, they joined forces with independent lesbian and gay activists. It became a kind of apprenticeship.

We learned what it meant to coordinate a door-to-door canvassing effort in the town's low-income district; how to pull off a lesbian and gay "roundtable discussion" whose speakers were so powerful that audience members started unexpectedly coming out in front of the TV cameras; and what it felt like to watch previously closeted teachers, diner owners, and teenagers march down the street together for the first time in their lives.
—Intro: LACROP Organizing Handbook

Queers lost in Lewiston, and as outsiders, Avengers caught plenty of the blame. But it didn't deter them. In fact, their experience with independent activists inspired them to formally create in January of 1994, The Lesbian Avengers Civil Rights Organizing Project (LACROP) as a working group of the New York Lesbian Avengers.

Out Against the Right
At the time, anti-gay initiatives were springing up all over the United States. Instead of leaping directly into another project, LACROP spent several months reconsidering their experiences in Maine, researching the Christian Right and upcoming initiatives, writing grants, organizing fundraisers, and trying to figure out the dynamics of the typical statewide battle against initiatives sponsored by the Christian Right.

While their conclusions were based on organizing in the early '90's, they could just as well have been based on the failed campaign in California in 2008 against Proposition 8 which banned same-sex marriage.

.... in each case there was one unified state-wide campaign which had almost all the money and resources available in that state. These state-wide campaigns often shared a mainstream political vision which did not include or even permit any other kinds of organizing. We found that there were plenty of dykes wanting to do out, visible grassroots organizing, but they had no support. Many saw their only options as

(1) to work within the tightly controlled framework of the mainstream campaigns (one state-wide campaign actually required volunteers to sign agreements about what they would and wouldn't say and do during the campaign), or

(2) to try to work on their own without the benefit of any of the resources money, research materials, skills, and support systems that were provided by national mainstream lesbian and gay individuals and organizations.

Most importantly, LACROP noticed, that "These dykes, who wanted to fight the initiatives without giving up their political style or independence, were under siege twice: once by the Christian Right, which deliberately chose to target regions where queers were isolated and had relatively small support systems, and again by the mainstream campaigns, which wanted to control the strategy for everyone and were not willing to share what scarce resources there were."

The question then became how to empower local lesbians and gay men whose goal wasn't just defeating one anti-gay initiative, but creating community with a longer range goal of social change and liberation.

Before long, they had a chance to find out. In 1993-4, rural, conservative Idaho was largely lacking in progressive networks. When the Idaho Citizens' Alliance put an anti-gay measure on the ballot banning everything from antidiscrimination ordinances to queer books in the library, it seemed a slam duck for the Christian Right. And almost was.

Local queers responded in two ways. The No on 1 Coalition, a loose association of LGBT groups centered in the capital city of Boise, did what queers so often do. They hired a full-time staff and called on the Human Rights Campaign Fund, Gay and Lesbian Americans, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

These national organizations bankrolled and centralized the campaign, instituting "message control" whereby the executive committee carefully controlled who could speak to the press, or send letters and articles. Arms were twisted to get local groups to comply. And like the recent "No on 8" campaign, queers were shoved in the closet and the door locked after them. Television ads avoided the words, "gay" and "lesbian," and focused instead on messages denouncing government interference in private lives.

That was in the southern part of the state.

In the more rural, northern part, a tiny local chapter of Lesbian Avengers in Palouse decided Idaho needed rather different tactics. They called the Lesbian Avenger Civil Rights Organizing Project (LACROP) in New York to come help, and eight full-time and ten part-time workers arrived headed up by native Idahoan, Sara Pursley.

After their experiences in Maine, and months of planning, and with substantial financial and tactical support from the New York Avengers, LACROP did almost everything in reverse. Local lesbians and gay men were put front and center, encouraged to set their own priorities, come out in their communities and share power as widely as possible. Together, they organized speak-outs and kiss-ins. Some even went door-to-door to talk about their lives. Nobody was censored. And getting your voice heard and your life validated made it worth the risks of violence, vandalism, and fear. Queers made connections with each other, forged a place in their communities, oh, and won a bunch of votes.

The northern, rural region where the out and proud LACROP was active defeated Proposition One by a significant margin. The centralized, closeted efforts in the more urban and progressive area around Boise only narrowly defeated the measure, with the rest of the nearby counties voting overwhelmingly "yes" to adopt Proposition One. The extra votes in the LACROP region made the difference, along with Mormons who actually voted "no" because of bashing from the Christian Right.

Perhaps more importantly, this "out" campaign allowed LGBT Idahoans to take center stage in the battle, creating an LGBT community and infrastructure, laying the groundwork for social change.

The most complete account of LACROP's enormous efforts in Idaho can be found in Sara Pursley's, "Gay Politics in the Heartland: With the Lesbian Avengers in Idaho" in The Nation (January 23, 1995) pp 90-94. Download pdf.

An essential resource for any activist working on anti-gay initiatives is the Lesbian Avenger' Civil Rights Organizing Project: Out Against the Right Handbook, as useful as ever.

What they learned in brief. Basic Principles: Out Against the Right

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