by Michael Guillén
In my first political science class at San Francisco State University in the mid-’70s, my professor argued that without practicing solidarity with the struggles of disempowered people, political change could never be effected. Solidarity became the introductory lynchpin to an engaged activism that resisted pluralistic efforts to divide and conquer. “Unless you can feel solidarity with the cultural critiques proposed in Malcolm X’s autobiography and the prison letters of George Jackson,” my professor insisted, “you will never understand the plight of Black people in the United States.”
Up went the red flag, and my hand. “I find it problematic to be in solidarity with Malcolm X, whose biography I’ve read, and George Jackson, whose prison letters I’ve read, when they are both so unapologetically homophobic,” I countered. “Are you saying there is a hierarchy to solidarity with some causes being of central importance over others?” The rest of the class was spent in argument over how the nascent LGBT movement could be in solidarity with Black Power and I don’t remember walking away from that class with any clear resolution. Solidarity, from the get-go, was defined straight off as an activity conflicted by conscience and circumstance.
Decades later and the practice of political solidarity remains a historical juggle of noble causes and relevant concerns. At its best it can appear obvious and consensual; at its worst, contentious and debatable. In the first camp would be my solidarity—and my hopes for Bay Area solidarity—with a documentary project emerging from the State of Idaho: Michael Gough and Cammie Pavesic’s Add the Words (2014), which chronicles that state’s conservative legislature and its eight-year refusal to add four words—”sexual orientation” and “gender identity”—to the state’s existing Human Rights Act. I fully anticipate seeing this film in next year’s Frameline program as representative of the continuing state-by-state struggle for gay rights. You heard it here first.
Unfortunately, here in San Francisco it hasn’t taken very long for the average queer to take their liberties for granted. I sometimes worry that the street activism of the ’70s and ’80s is being purposely forgotten as choices shift to more commodified preoccupations: What to buy? Where to shop? Was our freedom won only to be reconfigured as a target market? Was our emancipation all about purchasing power?
“Idahomos” don’t have that luxury. They can still be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, have their children taken away, and endure the daily discrimination of second-class citizenship just for choosing to love who they were born to love, let alone marrying who they love. Idaho Governor Butch Otter and his bought-and-sold legislature have promised each legislative session that they would listen to the concerns of their gay constituencies and their allies. Instead, they have done what Idaho state government does best: struggle to remain in the 20th century, if not even further back, by refusing to acknowledge poll figures that demonstrate a majority of Idahoans wish to end discrimination against LGBT people. To add insult to injury, they recently tried (but failed) to pass a bill allowing discrimination on the basis of religious freedom rather than listen to arguments for the passage of an amended Human Rights Act.
Former Idaho senator Nicole LeFavour decided enough was enough and this year mobilized the “Add the Words” campaign of non-violent resistance that blocked access to legislative chambers with earnest protesters covering their mouths to symbolize how they have been silenced. She was one of 44 activists arrested on February 3, 2014 at Boise’s Statehouse on suspicion of misdemeanor trespassing, having blocked the Idaho Senate’s entrances for more than two hours in a silent protest two months in the planning on behalf of the Add The Words campaign, an act of civil disobedience which she had organized. Three of those arrested were juveniles, and LeFavour herself was, unexpectedly, the last person to be arrested after the Idaho Senate voted to suspend its rule which allows former members to be on the Senate floor. The desperate gestures of a legislature wheezing into obsolescence.
By the end of February, following other protests, 122 arrests had been conducted (with some protestors being arrested more than once, and all of whom are being represented pro bono), and negotiations between LGBT-rights advocates and religiously conservative legislators had tentatively begun. By early March, LeFavour had been arrested four times in five weeks, and in mid-March, was discovered in an act of political theater during a direct action protest after having literally hid in a closet in the Idaho Senate lounge for hours. There is no question in my mind that Nicole LeFavour will go down in queer history as one of the giants of LGBT emancipation.
Along with the 122 arrests during Idaho’s last legislative session, thousands of Idahoans supported the Add the Words campaign and—most remarkably to me—most of them were straight allies in solidarity with their gay friends, children, siblings, parents, workmates, aware that the violations against LGBT people is a less-than-subtle smokescreen for the desperate efforts of a conservative faction to maintain power and dictate public policy. It’s a boldface headline across the country that people are getting sick and tired of reading.
You get to be old enough like me and you witness different forms and stages of protest. What I remember from the ’70s and ’80s was a lot of young gay men swarming “out of the bars and into the streets”, angry, first about being discriminated against without legal protection, and then about being left to die as federal agencies and pharmaceutical companies engineered what felt like a thinly-guised effort at genocide. Earlier this spring I participated in the Add the Words campaign to encircle the state capitol in Boise. Over a thousand supporters turned out and, again, I was struck how it was mainly mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, religious leaders, policemen, doctors fighting for equal rights and parity for queer people. I feel blessed to have witnessed and participated in both forms of protest within my lifetime.
Did Governor Otter listen? Of course not. Instead—because the Idaho Supreme Court ruled against Idaho’s ban on gay marriage—he organized a stay, and has commandeered more than a million dollars of public tax money to appeal the decision.
Michael Gough and Cammie Pavesic’s documentary bravely tracks the development of this year’s civil rights movement in the state of Idaho, filming events during session, and interviewing a variety of individuals whose lives have been impacted and hurt by the legislature’s refusal to move forward. For me, this is true Idaho filmmaking at its best, and not the more customary scenic overviews encouraged by the now-defunct Idaho Film Office, disbanded by Idaho government, at the same time that Governor Otter’s controversial “ag-gag” bill—which threatens to fine and imprison filmmakers chronicling animal abuse on Idaho’s ranches and dairy farms—passed into law. One would think film was suspect in Idaho and documentary transparency an enemy.
As we celebrate Gay Pride this month of June, and as the Frameline Film Festival enters into its 38th edition, we need reminding that perhaps more than ever solidarity remains a necessary practice to cultural change. San Franciscans, help Idahoans add the words. It’s time.