How do you know when you're present at the birth of a movement? Is there a particular day, or an instant, that you can point to and say "here is where it started?" In one sense, that's probably impossible. Movements start in many small ways.
For example, you could say the movement to outlaw discrimination against lesbians, gays and bisexuals in Lawrence, Kansas, started at my kitchen table in 1991. A fellow whose name I don't even remember (many apologies), and I were frantically planning a last-minute appearance before a city committee. We wanted to talk about the issue, but felt that we needed to represent ourselves as being part of an organization.
Thus, the Freedom Coalition was formed. At that point, there were two members and a name and nothing else. Later we created a real Freedom Coalition organization that thrived and formed the Simply Equal campaign. Several years later, Simply Equal finally won the protection from discrimination we were so desperately seeking that first night.
But it would also be a lie to say the gay rights movement in Lawrence started at that table. Four years before that day, two women were so inspired by a gay rights march in Washington DC that they came home to Lawrence and led an unsuccessful campaign to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance. Their efforts made our kitchen table plan thinkable.
But even that wasn't the start. In 1970, some brave souls launched the first gay rights group at the University of Kansas. I suspect there were even folks working toward legal fairness in Lawrence long before that. When Simply Equal finally succeeded, it stood on top of the work of all those unknown and uncelebrated people.
Considering all that, though, I'm beginning to think that it may be possible to pinpoint a moment where something changes. I'm not certain what to call it. Maybe it's nothing more than the instant when a large enough mass of people come together to begin to hope that change can happen.
We feel those moments at a gut level. We may not even be conscious of what's happening. It's like the charge you feel when a thunderstorm is about to break wide open. The air feels different. It can smell different. You may not even know why the hair on your arms is standing up. You may not know why you suddenly feel alive, but you know, deep down, that something has changed.
I felt that last night at a forum organized by the MAINstream Coalition.
Standing in a hot, stuffy, packed room in Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence, Kansas, I felt the hairs on the back of my arms stand up.
It wasn't what anyone said. I don't remember any of the speeches being particularly stirring. It was the fact that we were there. All of us. Men and women with white hair, lined faces and work-roughened hands. Young and middle aged couples sitting with their arms around each other. Well-dressed men and women with expensive clothes sitting packed against scruffy students.
There were so many of us that I had to park blocks away. Running late to the meeting, I joined a stream of people walking up to the church.
An old Statehouse colleague of mine, Dave Ranney, reported on the event for the Lawrence Journal-World. While I think Dave is hands down one of the best journalists (if not THE best) in the state, I think he got it wrong. Dave wrote that the "forum was aimed at rallying support for moderate candidates running for the State Board of Education."
While that was part of the purpose of the evening, that wasn't all of it. We were there because we were and are concerned about the State Board. But the agenda also dealt with stem cell research, children's programs and the far right's wish to take money away from our neighbors who need help and to do that via the so-called Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR). Some of us, like myself and the other people from the Kansas Equality Coalition, were there to seek legal fairness for all our neighbors.
But I think even all of those agendas were beside the point. The REAL agenda, in fact, the real reason the 350 of us gave up an evening at home was that we don't want to live in a theocracy. We don't want to live in a radical, fringe state where our children don't receive a good education. We don't want to live in place where our communities shirk their responsibilities to families and children who need help.
We are mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore. Most importantly, we are finally organizing.
If all of those attending were just from Lawrence, then I doubt if I'd be writing so passionately about this today. After all, Lawrence is the blue dot in a scarlet state.
A show of hands at the meeting and an examination of the addresses collected by meeting planners identified those attending as being from many counties, including Jefferson, Leavenworth and Franklin, said Janet Majure, one of the meeting's organizers. Perhaps as many as a third of those attending were from Johnson County, which has recently elected some of the most conservative legislators in the Statehouse.
Did we truly birth a movement in that packed room? Ask me in 10 years or five. But something happened Thursday night, and this state may well be feeling its impact for many years to come.
Thoughts From Kansas has photos and a nice report on the event. It was great to meet you there, Josh!