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LGBT Activists Plan For Next Battle

A new training program is equipping leaders to fight for broad laws banning LGBT discrimination.

After the recent victories in the fight for same-sex marriage, some activists for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights found themselves wondering if they’d won their way out of a job. Could they sustain the momentum that helped legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states, and if so, what exactly would they do next?

This week, a group of seasoned LGBT rights activists took steps that offer a glimpse at what’s ahead.

The group, Freedom For All Americans, is running a training program in Phoenix, Arizona, to develop what it describes as the “next generation of movement leaders.” Those who complete the program -- called LGBT University, or just LGBT U for short --- will be connected with campaigns in their part of the country with the goal of passing broad laws banning discrimination against LGBT people around the United States.

Sixteen people from all over the nation are attending LGBT U, which runs from Monday through Friday this week at a Phoenix hotel. Freedom For All Americans paid for all the expenses for the training, which includes interactive workshops, lectures and experiential learning.

The group says it won’t focus on attempting to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, proposed legislation that has been kicking around Congress since 1994 and is now widely considered to be dead. Instead, the new leaders will work to pass municipal, state and federal laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations and housing.

As Matt McTighe, the campaign manager for Freedom for All Americans, pointed out, there are still 33 states that lack these comprehensive protections. And part of the goal of the new project is telling people that story -- in much of the country, as the saying goes, you can now get married on Friday, only to be fired on Monday.  

"We’re combatting a misunderstanding," he said. "So many people are just shocked that this isn’t already law. And a lot of people wrongly believe that winning marriage trickles down to everything and it’s full equality and that’s obviously not true."

McTighe helped win the right for LGBT couples to legally wed in more than half a dozen states, beginning as the political director for the marriage campaign in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriages in 2004. In 2014, as it was becoming increasingly clear that the Supreme Court would rule on marriage soon, McTighe began speaking with other veteran activists and major donors about how to translate the marriage momentum into protections against discrimination.

The big questions, McTighe said, were “What are the tactics it’s going to take to win this, and what are the gaps in capacity right now?” He knew there would need to be people on the ground in dozens of states, and he also knew from experience that “senior people can be hard to come by in the LGBT space.” Thus, LGBT U was born.

This week marks the beginning of a year-long program where Freedom For All Americans will periodically check in with the students, offering additional in-person training sessions as well as monthly coaching. 

The program covers broad subjects like LGBT history, as well as logistical matters like how to deploy data-driven field programs and manage campaign budgets. “We are investing in the people on the ground doing this work in a way that hasn’t really been done before,” said Katie Belanger, the director of LGBT U program. “We’ve developed the kind of training that, as a former executive director of a state group, I wish I had gotten when starting this work.” Before joining, Belanger served as the president of the Fair Wisconsin, the state’s LGBT advocacy organization.

LGBT U will also focus on developing leaders who can win campaigns to protect transgender people from discrimination. “We’re teaching folks how to organize and engage a community that is really in need of these protections, but also very difficult to organize because it’s really not safe to come forward right now,” said Kasey Suffredini, a transgender attorney and staff member of Freedom for All Americans.

Despite a year of unprecedented visibility for transgender people, most Americans still don’t know a transgender person. “I think there are two big lessons that we learned over the course of the last two to three decades,” he continued. “First, when people know us, they come to be with us. And second, the importance of being focused, having discipline, and being organized.”

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