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The politics of coalition could be engine to start creating change

Live large. Think big.

That was the theme of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s 22nd annual Creating Change Conference last weekend in Dallas; a catchy slogan no less, but moreover an acute assessment of where we find ourselves in today’s LGBT movement.

The theme set the tone for the next phase in our struggle for full equality. It opposes the philosophy of settling. It encourages us to take stock of the activists who preceded us, of the barriers they fought to topple so that we might have a better life, and of the infrastructure we must continue to build upon in our pursuit of social justice.

But developing a more encompassing consciousness, or thinking big, demands that we reject the urge of single-issue activism, and that we expand capacity through coalition. By aligning our advocacy goals with other historically marginalized communities, argued Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund (MALDEF), we begin to forge sustainable progressive power that yields results, a point echoed throughout the weekend.

As the Keynote of the conference's opening plenary session, Saenz outlined his organization’s signature thrust for the year: comprehensive immigration reform. His policy-dense address to a ballroom of fidgety grassroots activists was bold and unapologetic, pushing us to re-examine our attitudes about undocumented immigrants by identifying our points of unity.

Saenz pointed to fear, invisibility and a lack of constitutional protection, as areas where our communities fall victim. Undocumented immigrants often live clandestine lives fearful of legal sanctions, physical abuse motivated by hate, a loss of housing and services, and separation from their families. Likewise, many LGBT Americans orient their lives around fears of rejection, discrimination and homo/transphobia. That we both belong to fear-stricken communities, often blunted by public scapegoating to explain away social ills, is why Saenz argues our communities must form a bloc.

Invisibility, Saenz emphasized, is something undocumented immigrants and LGBT people know all too well. Data specific to sexual orientation and gender-identity is still not collected by the U.S. Census and recently, Sen. David Vitter attempted to add citizenship status to the census as a means of Latino/a dissuasion.

Comprehensive immigration reform is perhaps our most promising opportunity for collaboration in the short term. Ensuring that reform include the LGBT-inclusive Uniting American Families Act, a commitment Saenz drove home in his speech, will further facilitate long term messaging around strengthening the family unit, a concept perceived anathema by the extreme right in the context of immigrant and LGBT families.

Making inroads with other communities doesn’t mean we’re done mending our own identity rifts. We must continue to educate members of our community about the prevalence of LGB transphobia, tackle the common rejection of our bisexual members, engage about our own troubled race relations, and discuss the remaining vestiges of misogyny in our community. These conversations must remain ongoing with allies and one another.

Saenz and the Creating Change Conference left us all with a new charge: Identify genuine points of unity with other communities, strive for mutual understanding, and work in coalition to grow our movement.

Carlos Marquez is the Director of Community Programs & Public Affairs at The Center, where he oversees public policy and community programs.