S1E11: Heather Cronk on disrupting the movement ecosystem to jumpstart a campaign to win federal LGBTQ protections
February 14, 2023
Heather Cronk is a community organizer with experience working with LGBTQ liberation, immigrant solidarity, and racial justice movements. As Managing Director of Care in Action, she supports the work of caregivers, domestic workers, and others who are committed to creating a new “care economy” to translate people power into political impact. Prior to joining Care in Action, Heather served as co-director of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), focused on organizing white people to undermine white supremacy, in alignment with Black- and other people of color-led movements. Previous to her work with SURJ, Heather served as co-director of GetEQUAL and Chief Operating Officer for the New Organizing Institute. A queer, agnostic seminary graduate, she serves on the board of The Open Church of Maryland and Faithful America.
Disrupting the movement ecosystem to jumpstart a campaign to win federal LGBTQ protections
By Andrew Willis Garcés | also published in The Forge
The midterm elections were approaching, and a newly-elected Democratic president, with majorities in the House and Senate, was expected to lose control of both. Meanwhile, he struggled to manage the expectations of thousands of progressive activists angry over the lack of progress on their priorities.
Sound familiar? Except this was 2009, not 2022. Queer activists, according to Heather Cronk, were expecting a lot from President Obama “but not necessarily because he had a track record on our issues. He had said a lot of the right things during his campaign.” At the time, Heather was an activist focused on building national progressive movement infrastructure with groups like the New Organizing Institute, but during Obama’s first year in office, she began to get more involved in efforts to push the administration on its LGBTQ policy agenda.
The US military’s prohibition on LGBTQ people serving openly – called “don’t ask, don’t tell” – was not most LGBTQ organizers’ highest priority. Some were still pushing for a repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act or advancing litigation and state-based organizing campaigns to win marriage equality across the US. But given the results of Proposition 8 — banning same-sex marriage in California — and given that Obama himself had not yet come out in favor of marriage equality, most federal advocates assumed it would not be possible to win on that issue during his first term. Another priority, passage of a federal law banning employment discrimination against LGBTQ people, also seemed unlikely to garner congressional support.
During his campaign, Obama had promised to support both an anti-employment discrimination bill and a repeal of “don’t ask.” But after a year of inaction, organizers held a National Equality March in October 2009 to push Obama to do more. Scrambling to regain their support, Obama threw his support behind the passage of a national hate crimes bill, and his advisers arranged for him to attend a Human Rights Campaign (HRC)-sponsored dinner the night before the march. “And that’s when we realized he could be pushed,” Heather said. “Before that, we didn’t know what kind of opponent he was going to be. But he turned out to be worried about his image on LGBTQ issues.”
Many national organizations — such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Palm Center, and the National LGBTQ Task Force — were unwilling to push Obama publicly. Heather remembers: “Some parts of the community were actually angered by [the hate crimes bill]. This wasn’t even a thing. It was mildly on the community’s radar, but it wasn’t even a thing that we were really asking for. But those mainstream organizations were much more oriented toward, ‘Do I get invited to the next meeting? Can I get a meeting with the Senate Armed Services Committee in five years when I have a different lobbying client?’”
The movement ecosystem was dominated by advocates in DC using traditional “inside game” lobbying strategies or fighting lawsuits on behalf of individual queer people who had been discharged by the military or were being discriminated against at work. The lack of a “rebel edge” was noticeable, according to Heather, particularly when, in a parallel movement ecosystem, young undocumented activists were coming out as “undocumented and unafraid,” generating significant news coverage and pressure on Democratic leadership to take action. “Many of [the DC advocates] were not even queer. Many were straight lobbyists who were then going back to us and saying, ‘We don’t think you should push on this.’”
To fill that gap in the movement ecosystem, several activists decided to pull together a new organization, GetEqual, at the end of 2009. But unlike other rebel groups pushing Obama on a single policy outcome, GetEqual didn’t set out with just one policy in mind. Most of the group’s priorities would require a combination of executive and congressional action; the group believed they had to turn up the heat to win on anything and to test out which path — executive or legislative — would lead to more federally-protected rights for queer people. Their goal was to seize as many policy wins as possible before Republicans likely won control of Congress that fall.
GetEqual most wanted to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA). The group had heard from an inside source that Democrats had the votes to pass the legislation in the House of Representatives, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “sitting on it,” as Heather put it. To put pressure on the Speaker, GetEqual launched sit-ins at Pelosi’s offices in DC and San Francisco in March 2010.
The group simultaneously launched a separate campaign to force Obama to speed up the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” an issue with a much higher public profile. A year earlier, Lt. Dan Choi had come out as a gay service member on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show. No one was sure what would happen to him at the time: Would the military discharge him, as it had others who had come out or been outed, or would the Obama Administration try to roll back “don’t ask don’t tell” prohibitions, as they had promised? As he would do time and again, Obama deferred to the military’s commanding officers, and Choi was dishonorably discharged.
On the same day the organization launched the Pelosi sit-ins, a separate GetEqual contingent attended a White House rally convened by the Human Rights Campaign and headlined by comedian Kathy Griffin. Lt. Choi asked Griffin to let him address the crowd — and he surprised HRC’s staff by inviting them to follow him and another gay former service member to the White House, where they handcuffed themselves to the gates. Their arrests received more national media attention than the sit-ins at Pelosi’s office.
A week later, a copycat direct action at the White House resulted in more arrests, if less media coverage. GetEqual then bought tickets to a fundraiser for California Sen. Barbara Boxer that would be headlined by Obama a month later. One after another, at least a dozen of the group’s members stood up to interrupt Obama, demanding he take action on “don’t ask.” The following day, a larger group of veterans organized by GetEqual chained themselves to the White House, resulting in more arrests and even more national media coverage. Democrats in the House and Senate began echoing the group’s call for “don’t ask” to be repealed, prompting Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen to ask them to wait until their report was scheduled to be released in December. Pelosi sided with the activists, demanding the Defense Department issue a moratorium on discharges under the policy. (They declined.)
Still, GetEqual received pushback from other advocates. “I got calls from other LGBTQ movement organizations begging us not to get people arrested in uniform. To them, it felt disrespectful. And to us, it was like, this is the way that we create cognitive dissonance for the American public, if you see people in uniform being led away from the White House in handcuffs.”
That summer, activists across movements were feeling crunched for time ahead of the midterm elections. GetEqual organizers increasingly found themselves working in coordination with undocumented organizers pushing to win legal status through passage of the DREAM Act. They shared legal defense teams and helped bail each other out after parallel civil disobedience actions in DC. Late in the summer, both groups pushed Reid to include a “don’t ask” repeal and the DREAM Act in the defense spending bill. “We put out joint statements,” said Heather. “We were starting to do actions together, we were starting to message to our respective audiences.” But leading Democrats and mainstream immigrant rights and LBGTQ organizations floated a narrative that the Senate would only be able to accommodate one of the two. Heather recalls: “We knew that we needed to do a ton of public education with both [queer and immigrant activists] to make sure that we were showing up in solidarity.”
The defense authorization bill finally came up for a vote in September, with both “don’t ask” and the DREAM Act included. But the Republicans filibustered the bill, and Democrats did not have the votes to override the filibuster. Reid knew the bill wouldn’t pass, but he brought it to the floor to send a midterms-boosting message to Democratic-leaning activists that he was listening to the demands of LGBTQ and immigrant groups.
With a month to go before the midterms, organizers doubted they would have another opportunity to win federal protections. And then in October, a federal judge put a worldwide injunction on “don’t ask,” which meant that LGBTQ people had the right to enlist anywhere in the world. “That threw everything into chaos,” remembers Heather. “Dan Choi even went to the Times Square recruiting office to re-enlist.” Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, immediately threw his support behind a legislative repeal of “don’t ask” – preferring to have some influence over the policy’s termination. Gates’s support prompted enough senators to switch their votes that a “don’t ask” standalone bill passed into law before the end of the year. A parallel vote on the DREAM Act fell short of the sixty votes needed.
LESSONS FOR CAMPAIGNERS
Heather says GetEqual learned a lot from undocumented organizers about why they weren’t able to get nearly as much support for ENDA. “They were wrestling with the same thing about, how do you tell this story about a thing that the world has taught you to feel shame about? How do you shift that narrative?… We hadn’t done the public education that was necessary in order for the American public to even know that employment discrimination was a thing. I spent so much time on the phone with reporters trying to convince them that it was totally legal to fire someone because they were gay.”
Employment discrimination lacked a visible public face or sense of urgency, and queer and trans people weren’t organizing in the numbers that undocumented youth were.
But the biggest lesson she learned is that it’s not always possible to work in alignment with those playing the inside game — even when their political goals were the same. As Heather recalled about the “don’t ask” fight: “We had to organize within and sometimes against our own movement organizations.”
Heather points out that GetEqual was not trying to replace or dismiss the work of advocates in DC who had spent years cultivating “inside game” relationships. Her analysis reflects that of the strategist Bill Moyers, who developed a framing for understanding the four key roles played within successful social movements: rebels, like GetEqual, who focus on dramatizing injustice rather than using established channels like policy advocacy and lawsuits; advocates, like HRC, who specialize in using those channels, particularly when it comes to lobbying and other “inside game” strategies; organizers, who bring together people impacted by the problem to develop long-term solutions; and helpers, who focus on supporting the individuals harmed by the problem.
But because the advocates, whose inside game strategies GetEqual sought to complement, didn’t have the same perspective, they ended up in competition and conflict. “And that happened in really public ways, it happened in really private, quiet ways,” she said. “The best version of GetEqual would’ve been to be in backroom conversations with HRC. And we tried to do that. I actually went to one of the vice presidents at HRC multiple times and was like, ‘Look, we actually can work an inside/outside strategy together. But in order to do that, we need to have this backend conversation where we can be honest with each other and where we can work on strategy together.’ And that failed miserably. It actually caused a lot of hurt because then HRC went and told the White House what we were doing, which was super not helpful.”
But ultimately, she says, the tensions clarified her sense of accountability to the people directly impacted by the real-world discrimination the group had set out to mitigate. “It was a whole lot easier to make the strategic decisions that we made knowing that: a) I’m accountable to our base, and b) if I never get a job in DC again, it’s actually a marker of success. And c) we had to be willing to be painted as the bad guy in LGBTQ publications, lots of bloggers, lots of reporters were talking about how GetEqual was going to sink the movement. And we just had to be really, really focused on what our strategy was and really grounded in the impact it was going to have. We had to be willing to be the bad guy in order to get across the finish line.”