Organizing in Lawrence

By Ingrid Rivera


It all began with the Gay and Lesbian Community Advocates of Lawrence petitioning the City Council for a parade permit. But things quickly escalated with the entrance of a strong Christian Right, and the rather foolish decision by a city council sub-committee to reject the parade application. What was left after the smoke cleared is the emergence of one more battleground in the fight against the morality of the right wing and their entrance into local municipal politics.

Lawrence is an interesting place. Originally built as a planned city by Boston industrialists, it emerged at the turn of the century as the sight of one of the countries most important labor struggles. The strike of 1912, currently referred to as the Bread and Roses Strike, was a catalyst for many of the child labor laws which were enacted over the next few years. The city still celebrates this strike once a year during its Labor Day Festival.

But Lawrence is a city in which strife has continued to play a role in its ever changing landscape. In 1984 the city endured riots between pockets of French Canadians and the newly emerging Latino population. In 1996, the federal government intervened to deal with civil rights issues between the Latino community and the police department. Add this together with a close to 20 percent poverty rate, a school system which just lost its accreditation, and a continual flow of ignorant, ineffective old school elected officials. What you end up with is a city which has a tremendous amount of obstacles confronting it.

Lawrence also has a rather substantial gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual community. Like so many other urban centers, Lawrence is a gay ghetto, where people can more easily hide their identity, where housing is cheap, and where the prying eyes of the suburbs don't exist. To its credit, Lawrence also has an identity built around its immigrant heritage. The closed doors which comes with wealth and privilege don't exist here.

Unfortunately, being gay and lesbian is an identity which can be easily hidden, and so the community has remained almost totally in the closet. Like the armed forces, the rest of the community doesn't ask, and the gay community doesn't tell. Until now.

The Lawrence Grassroots Initiative (LCI) is a community organizing center formed in 1992 by progressive activists. It has become the primary center of progressive activism in the city. LGI provides working space and staff support for a variety of projects ranging from an Environmental Justice Council to a Community Gardening Program. It sponsors the Bernstein Bookstore, an all volunteer operation, and also publishes its own community newspaper, the Merrimack Valley Progressive.

In 1997, it began sponsoring the Gay and Lesbian Community Advocates, a group whose purpose was to begin educating the community about the variety of sexual identities and to begin laying some of the groundwork for a more open and inclusive community.

My own identity as a lesbian mother gave me the drive to start up and assist Gay and Lesbian groups at a number of colleges. This same desire to begin dialogue at my schools has now shifted focus to the larger community of Lawrence.

Like so many newly formed groups, the first challenge was to bring people together and get a sense of where they were at. What I quickly realized is that very few people were willing to participate in meetings, and that the concept of gay politics was not quite at the top of people's minds. Like many groups, it also became clear that as the principle organizer, much of the energy needed to get things going would fall on my shoulders.

After talking it over with other organizers at the Lawrence Grassroots Initiative, it seemed necessary to go public as loudly as possible. Following the organizing lesson that says it's not your own organizing that does the job as much as the response from your opposition, we challenged the city to grant a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (Lesbigaytrans) Pride parade permit.

The first step in Lawrence city government is for a proposal to go before the full city council. This council will then move each agenda item onto a sub-committee, who will issue a recommendation for the whole city council. In the case of the Lesbigaytrans Pride march, it was sent to the ordinance committee. This committee responded with a recommendation to deny the permit.

Publicly, only one of the city councilors would mention the "issue of morality" as a motivator for his vote. Others, including the City Council president, put out other reasons, including a lack of proper paperwork and the lack of representation by parade organizers at the sub-committee meeting. These smokescreens became clear as the city council continued to table other issues with procedural questions; an option which was never given to us. A more obvious explanation was the fact that many of the Pentecostal Latino churches has turned out hundreds of parishioners to vocalize against the parade.

With the media jumping into the fray, the battle lines were soon drawn. The day after the sub-committee rejection, the headline in the local paper said, "Gay Parade Permit Rejected." Many of us were surprised, assuming that the city council would not be this stupid. I checked back in with the Lawrence City clerk who assured us that we had done every thing by the book, and that our responsibilities had been taken care of. He also informed us that there was no requirement to attend the sub-committee meeting and that previous parades had received their permits days after the event had taken place. (Which would soon be confirmed by the Lawrence Police Department.) He also mentioned that compared to these groups, we "had written a book" in terms of submitted information.

Many of the City Counselors decided to take this opportunity to sarcastically exhibit a "no special treatment" attitude when it came to the Lesbigaytrans Pride parade. Fabricating that my group had not completed the paper work, they smugly and quite offensively began a subtle attack on our competency and our knowledge of how things work in the city. So as they continued privately to ask questions like "Would we be inviting in militant homosexual groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation?," publicly they denied having any issue with the content of the parade. While they threw at us questions about how we could guarantee the safety of the public and the police officers, they insisted that this parade was not getting extra scrutiny. At one point, the city council president even stated that he had no idea that there was a gay community in Lawrence.

The Councils ability to create an illusion of GLCAL's incompetence for procedural issues concealed a deeper issue. It also created a forum for the local religious right to voice their biblical reasons on why the parade should be denied. I sat in that hot City Hall room and listened to the hatred directed toward us, all in the name of protecting their children. One parishioner loudly stated that he would rather be burned at the stake than be gay. Others declared our "lifestyle" an abomination before God and as a whole the parishioners chanted, clapped, and stomped their feet to hymns. All while the city councilors said nothing. The councilors allowed them an unlimited forum. When I or our group's lawyer wanted to speak, we were told to be quiet, sit down, and were threatened with removal.

That night, at City Hall, I felt suffocated by the bigotry. Unquestionably, we were the minority. And a minority which was know feeling the wrath of the religious right.

After all was said and done, the City Council gave in to the legal realities and the threat of a lawsuit. By this point I was drained. Although we had gotten the permit, in a sense, we felt defeated; defeated in the sense that the entire ordeal took place. To everyone but ourselves, we were the unseen enemy. To the city the councilors and the parishioners, we did not matter.

Ingrid Rivera is the coordinator for the Gay and Lesbian Community Advocates of Lawrence, Massachusetts. She is a welfare mother and an open lesbian.