Daily Kos diary: ‘Who Are The LGBT Community?’ I ask: how do we address leadership?

Posted on 31 Aug 2010 at 12:44pm

There is a must-read diary over at DKos by GLBT and Friends that covers some ground that we discuss here in the coffeehouse fairly often – can we define a single view of what the LGBT community is? And even if we can’t all agree on what “the community” is, who is currently effectively representing it? The logical and thorny extension of the latter is who is now qualified to represent the LGBT community.

The African American civil rights movement has a similar history in its organizational development. The early organizations of the Urban League and the NAACP were born in the progressive era and originally partook of the rather paternalistic philosophy of the times. The membership was composed of middle class African Americans and their middle class white allies. The ferment of the 60s had a similar impact on that movement as well. New organizations such as CORE and SNCC came along to challenge the leadership and philosophy of the older groups.

Up until recently The Human Rights Campaign has attempted to present itself as the voice of the LGBT community. Its primary focus has been on fund raising for political campaign contributions. It has always had a preference for glitzy fund raising events attended by designer clothed celebrities. They were pursuing the beltway inside track. Since they were providing politicians with money and very modest requests for social change they made non-threatening mascots for the Democratic Party. The Republicans had the Log Cabin Republicans who followed a similar approach. More recently there has been a growing impatience with such a gradualist approach and organizations with a more aggressive approach have emerged. Two groups that have been very publicly visible are The Service Members Legal Defense Network and Get Equal.

There are literally hundreds of LGBT organizations in the US. Many of them are focused on particular types of associations such as professional, occupational or religious interest. Others are limited to particular geographic locations such as cities or states. There are several that have focused on providing specialized legal support such as Lambda Legal and The National Center For Lesbian Rights. Also the ACLU has a special section dealing with LGBT rights issues.

There really aren’t any organizations that can plausibly claim to speak for all LGBT people.

And the plethora of LGBT advocacy groups shows you that it is not possible; however the reality is we all know that if there is breaking news about the LGBT community, the tattered rolodexes of lazy producers usually means a call to HRC’s Joe Solmonese. Notable recent exceptions were the Prop 8 verdict, where more air time was given to Freedom To Marry’s Evan Wolfson, and attorneys Olsen and Boies, as well as legal analysts; and for DADT, usually the MSM turned to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network or organizations directly tied to repeal.

What the diary also touched upon, but did not delve deeply into was the red alert item of class and its impact on both public perception of the community and who represents the face of LGBT America.  The luxury of time and money means many who are working in the movement are likely 1) single, 2) have no children, 3) are independently wealthy or committed to the cause and willing to work for less than they could in the private sector (see “Between Floating and Leeching: The Financial Struggle of the LGBT Activist“).

More below the fold — addressing failed leadership.
If you’re in a leadership position, money obviously isn’t the problem as EDs are compensated at a higher rate than the average working stiff, but being tied into the “A-list” political network is critical, and it’s often less how much you know, but who you know. That’s no different than the rarified air in corporate America, it’s just less frequently acknowledged as creating the gulf between leadership and those they purport to represent.

That’s not, however, a call for pay cuts or heads to roll for poor, middling, or great performance, it’s to point out the class glass ceiling for many potential leaders at the grassroots who are closed off from these networks. That’s how the cycle of stale, clueless thinking occurs. It results in poor judgment at the top about “the community’s” reaction to a recommendation by an organization. There’s no one in that stale-air network that is capable of doing a “smell test” regarding an initiative.

It happens to almost every “change agent” organization at some point; good leadership seeks challenges to convention to keep adept and nimble in its mission. Poor leaders attempt to stifle or ignore change because of fear of loss of power or access. The strange thing about the latter is that in this mode, the weakness in leadership is quite obvious to the very people an organization is attempting to influence, or change policy or raise money from. That leads to isolation, a defensive posture, and ultimately one is discredited or a leader is toppled.

Of course that doesn’t solve the problem of an organization in distress — that leader is usually replaced by someone breathing the same stale air and nothing fundamentally changes.

That’s what spurs renegade organizations to form because they see the system is broken and too incestuous to change.

And that’s why there are simply too many organizations; we are a diverse, fairly non-cohesive population trying to stay banded together politically when class, race and cultural diversity can and does sometimes work against that by default.

It doesn’t mean it’s an insurmountable matter, it only underscores that those who lead need a level of self-awareness and self-disclosure that is uncommon - too many of us don’t like to examine our privilege (or lack thereof) in the context of how we lead and what barriers may need to be broken down to do an effective job.

And I doubt that is a question asked in any interview.
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