When Marriage Equality USA was founded almost 20 years ago it was based on a belief that locally based, grassroots organizing was a key component in changing hearts, minds and laws in our fight for marriage. In each campaign we tried to engage first with local people in those communities, listen to their expertise, share what we knew and had learned and then work together to achieve victory.
Today, we have the same opportunity as we enter one of the next frontiers in our fight for equality, equity and liberation for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people. From Sochi to Sydney, Kampala to Colombia, and Dublin to Damascus, an awakening to the struggles of LGBTQ people outside of our own borders is happening across the United States. Many are recognizing that even though our fight here is far from over, we cannot turn a blind eye to our global family and fight for justice. If our quest for freedom ends at only our personal or national borders, then we will have done a disservice to what it truly means to be free and liberated. As Nelson Mandela once said of the intersectionality of our many fights for freedom, “…to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
But how we approach this work is just as important as the fact that we are doing this work. While many regions around the world lag the United States and Western Europe in legal and lived equality, we would be remiss to confuse that lack of victories for a lack of vibrant LGBTQ communities and advocates doing the hard work in those places. When we engage, it is critical that we start by listening and learning from those whose communities we are asking to be a partner in. While we know what has worked for us here (and we have learned a lot), our local partners have experiences and a local perspective that is critical to building their own successful movement.
We must also work to draw back our “super hero” mentality in the execution of international work. While countries like the United States and its organizations have a leadership role to play, our goal must always be to support, sustain and grow local LGBTQ organizations. We have seen the hate that Western anti-LGBTQ organizations are exporting, growing their partners in countries around the world. Our strategy must be to grow our own, not just by exporting ourselves but by also growing the local organizations and advocates who will remain long after our funding, attention and resources wane.
This month, I have the honor of joining other LGBTQ leaders from around the world in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Belgrade, Serbia for a series of events and conferences related to Belgrade Pride. Last year was the first Pride after being banned for several years and the first peaceful one in recent years thanks to a heavy security presence. Many in the United States and around the world hear “Balkans” and only conjure images of war, violence and genocide. But so much has been accomplished by brave individuals across this region — both for LGBTQ liberation and for the intersectional liberation that all communities deserve.
As part of these events, I have been asked to speak in multiple forums, both large and official as well as small and more local. There are many stories and lessons I am looking forward to sharing with my brave counterparts operating in a very difficult environment. But like every speech I am asked to give, before I utter my first word I will spend a good deal of time listening and learning from those who live and work on the ground locally every single day.
Brian Silva is executive director of Marriage Equality USA.