22 June 2009

Democratizing The Dallas Principles (Part Two)

Dallas Principles

To be sure, some of these Dallas Principles haven't been completely thought out! The list itself isn't complete, either. A few more key concerns appear in the Goals section of the manifesto, a more specific list which hasn't attracted as much attention. Yet even there, some important issues go unaddressed. AIDS activists have criticized the lack of a statement mandating HIV education, prevention and research funding. HIV/AIDS isn't just an issue for Gay men, of course, but we've been so heavily impacted by this epidemic, it makes sense that we might want to address it in this context.

We've got more to worry about than just AIDS, though! What about breast cancer among Lesbians? What about black market silicone and other dangers to Transsexual health? What about the harmful effects of hetero-bigotry on our collective mental health? The Goals section does include a call for "affordable, high quality and culturally-competent health care without discrimination," but that language sounds too generic. I would've preferred more direct wording: There must be a national health care policy tailored to the specific physical and mental health needs of LGBT folk!

While I'm glad the Dallas group addressed education among their Civil Rights Goals, it's far too urgent an issue to have been slotted there. It should've been a Principle! Again, my wording would have been different. It's fine that they stress the need for identity-affirming instruction, free of the bullying atmosphere that exists for most Gay kids. There certainly is a need for that! However, our education-related problems aren't limited to elementary and middle schools. We have them at the college level, too! There's got to be transformative reform in our educational institutions, from kindergarten all the way up to advanced graduate programs.

That transformation necessarily involves overhauling heterosexist school curriculums, mandating sensitivity classes to address fear and superstition about LGBT identity, and demanding our inclusion in required Civics and History texts. The Stonewall rebellion should be taught alongside the Montgomery bus boycotts and the Berkeley free speech protests! What's more, every sex education class should include instruction about same-gender sexuality, and that instruction must be communicated in an unbiased way. When society remains ignorant of the presence, importance and contributions of LGBT people, we suffer for it! We must vigorously oppose religious Right Wing efforts to ban Gay topics from both the public and private school classroom!

However, we can't forget that a true revolution always begins at home: With the oppressed, and the way they think and talk about themselves. At the college level, we must insist that LGBT scholars choose a more respectable name for their discipline than "Queer Studies"; that they rid their discipline of its objectifying tendencies; and that they fully integrate it into mainstream Sociology. Intellectual segregation is just as bad as any other kind! My ideal Education Principle would read something like this: Every school must be transformed into a safe and affirming space for both LGBT students and LGBT curriculum!

What else was left out? A resolution defining the spiritual sadism of "ex-Gay" ministries as torture.  A resolution condemning passivity in response to religious Right Wing attacks. A resolution decrying sexual exploitation of our LGBT incarcerated. A resolution demanding senior living facilities that welcome LGBT elderly. A resolution denouncing media conspiracies of silence around closeted public officials. The proliferation of counter-productive Gay media (i.e. sexual slurs on magazine covers, quasi-pornographic images, and race-baiting headlines like "Gay Is The New Black") should also have been addressed. In my opinion, though, the most glaring omission from The Dallas Principles was this statement: The equality movement must always be conducted with dignity!

Whenever we confront the oppressor, we must do so in such a way that commands respect! That means not giving our enemies permission to speak of us with sexual slurs or think of us as crude stereotypes. It means no nudity or flamboyant costuming, no vulgar displays or self-indulgent behavior. I'm not suggesting we should turn out in business attire, but if the objective is speaking truth to power, it's not helpful if what we wear (or don't wear) gets more attention than what we say! And what we say about LGBT equality should always be serious, not peppered with "f*gsploitation" humor (got that, Max Mutchnick? Are you listening, Tom Ammiano?)!!! Inviting ridicule is not an effective way to deal with bigots!

Our role models should be the Civil Rights demonstrators of the 1960s who, despite their outrage and impatience with injustice, seldom conducted themselves in a less-than-dignified manner. The nobility they displayed turned them into international heroes. Dignity in battle: I believe this principle to be of such importance, the others are all but worthless in its absence!

Crucial omissions notwithstanding, reaction to The Dallas Principles has been mostly positive. Most people seem to think they're a step in the right direction; hundreds have already signed on to the document. The manifesto does have its detractors, though. Veteran activists Michael Petrelis, Jewelle Gomez and others denounce the Principles as an elitist attempt to take control of the Gay Rights movement. This quote taken from Petrelis's blog sums up the latter opinion:

I don't see much new in the so-called Dallas Principles . . . also, I find it somewhat arrogant that twenty-four Gay leaders (mostly from the coasts) can secretly meet in Dallas and come up with something the community is supposed to automatically buy into. Definitely not very transparent, when that's what everyone's complained about (in regard to California's) No on 8 campaign . . .

I don't know how secretive that Dallas meeting was, but its clique-ish approach to strategizing leaves much to be desired. The twenty-four participants didn't just forget to solicit input from rank-and-file LGBT folk. It was intentionally done! "We didn't seek to turn this into a convention," they claim on their FAQ page and add, with more than a hint of hauteur, that their, uh . . . convention "grew out of conversations among like-minded individuals." Of which there could only have been twenty-four? Bullsh*t! The manifesto's popularity suggests otherwise.

What was so odious about making the adoption of Principles a more inclusive effort? Couldn't there have been small-group strategy meetings staged in cities all over the country? International activists might've been invited to take part, too, and their contributions would doubtless have been invaluable. A tad more inclusiveness would've shielded this endeavor from charges of elitism. However, the drafters seem to have almost cultivated an elitist aura around themselves. Despite their lofty rhetoric about uplifting the LGBT "community", they clearly didn't want us involved in mapping out the future of our own struggle. I guess they didn't trust us enough. Or maybe "trust" isn't the correct word to use here . . . maybe I meant to say "respect"?

Yet the Dallas group assumes we trust/respect its membership, enough to let them steer our equality movement. Do we? I certainly don't! However, I do have respect for their agenda. I respect it so much, in fact, I think it should be expanded upon.

What's to stop multiple groups of twenty-four from writing their own manifestos? Why can't there be twenty-four drafting conventions staged across America? What if hundreds of like-minded people got together and brainstormed liberation strategy in every region of these United States? What if they were delegates chosen by ballot to represent each region's concerns? And what if the delegates convened in churches, symbolically reclaiming territory that's been in enemy hands for far too long?

Then, when these multiple manifestos were written, what if we gathered those documents together and merged them? (A conference committee comprised of delegates would perform the task.) What would we see in this blend of diverse voices? I think we'd see what democracy is all about, more forcefully than any Civics text could describe it. We'd see reborn the kind of resolve that produced our nation's Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Most important, we'd see with crystal clarity what it is we all really want and need from our governments, our schools, our news and entertainment media, our religious institutions, our law enforcement agencies, our health care providers, our employers, our families.

When all these LGBT manifestos had been synthesized into one coherent statement, we'd have a phenomenon like the AIDS quilt: An awesome patchwork composition that sends an incredibly compelling, unified message. No doubt the drafters of the Dallas Principles would question the need for such an endeavor; they'd complain that it was a waste of valuable time, that it undermined their efforts. I disagree. It wouldn't invalidate those efforts in any way, only refine them! Whether they realize it or not, their work needs refining! A call for sustained citizen action shouldn't be thrown together so quickly. Let's take enough time to do this job right!

I long for a list of principles that isn't just an expression of the downtown cocktail party fundraiser. It should also reflect the sensibility of the neighborhood drag bar fundraiser! In order to be workable, an LGBT liberation agenda must be truly representative; and in order to be truly representative, it must incorporate as many of our perspectives as possible. With this democratized manifesto, we'd have a grass roots agenda (remember Principle #6?) that many more of us could take personal ownership in. Ownership . . . that's a good thing, you know. If you own something, you're much more likely to maintain it!


  1. Don Charles, a thought just came to me. You said that east coast and west coast folks were key players in creating the Dallas Principles. What about those folks in the rural areas. What about folks from Memphis (not a trans friendly place to say the least), or Boise, Idaho or Columbus, Ohio. It may be just me but I see a lot of elitism ( I'm from New York).

    I see your point about some of the flaws of these principles.

  2. Not all of the Dallas drafters are from the Coasts (I know Pam Spaulding is based in the South). However, many of them hail from Gay organizations like HRC, Washington lobbyist-style groups which I feel are disconnected from everyday LGBT realities. It offends me that they'd presume to chart the course of our equality struggle while going about it in such an exclusive manner. Their manifesto as it now exists is anything but a grass roots endeavor. How ironic is that? They considered grass roots activism important enough to make a Principle! A Principle they clearly have yet to follow.