A few days after Proposition 8 passed in California, life for Joe Townley had already changed considerably. The 30-year-old gay man had donated money to “No. on 8” before Election Day, but now he found himself leading marches through L.A.’s streets, co-founding a small grass-roots group called endH8now and thinking up new protest strategies with other young people. A British immigrant and former captain of the British army, and founder of his own Internet business, Townley saw himself as a unique asset for the post–Prop. 8 generation.
“I’ve seen a lot, I’ve done a lot, and I know a lot about human nature,” Townley says. “I know how to get things done.”
Two weeks after November 4, with the anger in the streets quieting down, Townley senses the possibility of a newly empowered gay-rights movement, with a potential leading role for young folks.
“[Older gay leaders] keep talking about including the younger grass-roots movement,” says Townley, “but I don’t see that happening. I don’t see a passing of the baton.”
Young people like Townley are moving forward by organizing their own protests, forming different types of networking groups and seeking the advice of longtime gay activists who also want the gay-rights movement to do things differently.
“I tell people, first all of all, to never ask for permission,” says Rick Jacobs, a 50-year-old gay man and founder of the Courage Campaign, a kind of MoveOn.org for California politics. “You don’t need any input from the established gay organization. These are young people who are angry and motivated, and if anybody tries to cap it, we do ourselves a great disservice. We don’t know what they’ll do, but it can’t be any worse than the “No on 8” campaign.”
In fact, the failures of that campaign, run by entrenched gay elders, along with stripping gays’ right to marry, are the driving forces behind this nascent gay-youth movement.
“The response in the street has been something of a repudiation of the [gay] leadership,” says Vincent Jones, a 32-year-old gay man who worked for Senator Barbara Boxer’s 2004 campaign and now handles youth-outreach programs in Southern California for Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.–based political-reform organization.
Some longtime gay leaders have apparently heard the message. At a 14,000-person rally in front of City Hall on November 15, West Hollywood City Council member John Duran and L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean, both of whom worked on the “No on 8” campaign and still remember the dark and lonely years fighting for gay rights, publicly reached out to younger folks.
“This is the day we pass the torch to the next generation,” Duran told the downtown crowd filled with 20- and 30-somethings.
After suffering one of the most devastating political defeats in 20 years, gays and lesbians — young and old — increasingly want action rather than words. People are just not sure who will lead the call, and whether the youthful passion in the streets will peter out or grow.
But a consensus is emerging, at least among gay activists, that some kind of new gay-rights movement — this time reborn in L.A. — is playing out.
“The moral authority of the movement has shifted,” says Dave Valk, a 21-year-old UCLA political-science major. “It’s no longer with the people running the big organizations.” Not too long ago, Valk interned for Equality California and the Victory Fund, two major players in the gay-rights movement. But after he helped to lead marches throughout L.A. and co-founding endH8now with Townley and others, his perspective changed.
“I never knew how powerful I was,” Valk says. “I also realized you don’t need a lot of money to affect change.”
Valk believes the campaign didn’t effectively reach out to his generation. So he’s now thrust himself into the middle of the post–Prop. 8 struggle by meeting with black and Latino student groups at UCLA and creating a Web site, www.wontogether.com, for “open and transparent” communication between different minority groups and people his age.
“We’re not really just fighting Proposition 8,” says Valk. “We also need to open up this dialogue with people who didn’t support us and people who supported us but weren’t in the streets.”
Valk says he suspects gay power brokers want to back him and other young people. “If I was a big donor to the ‘No on 8’ campaign,” says Valk, “I’d be pretty frustrated.” Instead, he says, “I’d want to place a bet” on the younger people protesting in the streets.
He isn’t off the mark. David Bohnett, a Beverly Hills technological entrepreneur and philanthropist, who regularly donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates and heavily contributed to the “No on 8” campaign, says big donors in his circle of A-list power gays are closely watching the emerging movement. “We have been keeping an eye out for young leaders in the gay-rights movement since November 4,” Bohnett writes in an e-mail, “and we would consider funding a youth-based group.”
Coming from Bohnett, who carefully chooses when he wants to speak to the press, that statement is a major, and very public, vote of confidence. It may act to keep longtime gay leaders on their toes, especially people who served on the executive committee of the “No on 8” campaign, like L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Lorri Jean.
Jean says the recent spike of activism “has been unprecedented since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.” Grass-roots organizing took off in the mid-1980s, when government barely reacted to the disease that was killing thousands of young gay men. People needed care and services, and AIDS organizations sprung up. “I hope the interest doesn’t wane when it comes to the work of good old organizing,” she says.
With so much progress on the AIDS issue and acceptance of gays, Jean believes gay “people of all ages” became complacent, but younger gays “don’t feel as oppressed.” Jean points to her battle as a law student at Georgetown University, where she undertook an ultimately successful nine-year lawsuit to form a gay student union.
“They have a lot of energy,” Jean says, “but they don’t have experience, and we need to help them gain some knowledge.” Jean plans to provide training through the Gay & Lesbian Center and other organizations.
Vincent Jones, a young grass-roots organizer, who is black, is working to build stronger ties between the gay and black communities through the Barbara Jordan/Bayard Rustin Coalition, says he has “a lot of respect” for Jean, but new training “shouldn’t just show us what they’ve done in the past.”
He wants “peer-led” training that teaches young activists how to use YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, as well as innovative ways to protest. “We see right now that everything is changing,” Jones says, “and we have to adjust to the times.”
One of the movement’s elder statesmen in L.A., Michael Weinstein, founder of AIDS Healthcare, who has also fought numerous battles against the gay establishment, believes the time is ripe for a major shakeup, whether or not a new generation leads the charge.
“Young people weren’t a part of the debacle,” Weinstein says of Prop. 8’s failure. “They have the energy, and the future is about them. But it doesn’t mean they intrinsically know what to do. Now we have a chance to do something different because the A-gays failed. We can make something better.”
Young emerging leaders like Valk and Jones seem to understand that opportunity, even if they need help to make it happen.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.