Can We Talk? Creating Change, One Voice at a Time

Civil rights attorney Abby Dees discusses the LGBT equality movement as a civil rights struggle, and how you can speak up to help your community move forward

As a civil rights attorney, I used to work with HIV+ prison inmates, and my job was to help my clients tell their story to the right person. Occasionally, the tale needed a little extra muscle in the form of fancy lawyerish letterhead, but mostly it just had to reach the people who had the power to make a difference. A new understanding would open in the locked-down facility, opening the door for further discussion.

I thought about this pattern when I saw a Gallup poll published in USA Today that indicated positive attitudes about LGBT people are directly related to whether they actually know one of us. It’s a deceptively powerful concept: By simply sharing our lives—our stories—with the people we know, we create greater change than any lawsuit could.

In all civil rights struggles we have to be prepared for the fight: think of Rosa Parks, who studied non-violent resistance and strategized for years before she decided to sit down in the front of that bus.

There is also no substitute for seeking out more ordinary opportunities to be honest with the people in our lives. It may mean putting your girlfriend’s picture on your work desk for the first time, or delicately suggesting to your mom that your wedding notice should go in the family newsletter before the dog’s birthday party.

These baby steps amount to a marathon. We are finding a way to shine a light on who we, as LGBT people, actually are—and not reinforcing someone else’s illusion of who we aren’t. News coverage of Pride parades tends to focus on drag queens and leather studs, and that’s the only image that a lot of Americans have of us. In the worst-case scenarios, anti-gay organizations use those images to paint LGBT people as abnormal, radical and dangerous. It’s up to us to reveal the nuances of our entire community.

I can’t tell you when it’s best to speak up, but I can tell you that there are plenty of times I’ve regretted staying silent with my family and friends about who I am, and very few times that I wished I’d stayed quiet.

When it comes to picking your ideological battles, my core philosophy is this: If you and your adversary come from a place of respect, you can talk about this stuff. I also know that, like the guards I used to phone at the local jail, you shouldn’t expect lightbulbs to go off over your disapproving family’s heads. You can’t push them into the Pride march before they’re ready to wave a rainbow flag. What matters is that they can’t be in the dark anymore, and you aren’t struggling to fit another’s vision of you.

And since it’s Pride month, I’ll go a step further. Do you remember that old shampoo commercial where Heather Locklear looks into the camera and perkily says, “It was so good that I told two friends about it, then they told two friends, and so on, and so on…”? Soon there are a dozen beaming Heather Locklears holding bottles up for the camera.  This is what happens when we push our own boundaries a little, perhaps speaking quietly at first about something we could just let pass. In time, the act of talking about our LGBT lives with one person in any small way will change many more people.

A civil rights attorney, editor and author in L.A., Abby Dees has been involved in the LGBT rights movement for 25 years. With her book, Queer Questions Straight Talk (St. Lynn’s Press), she hopes to bridge the communication gap between the LGBT and straight communities.