Allies For Change

At One Spark this past April, the creator group We Are Straight Allies, a local organization advocating for equality, found themselves the target of the very bias they seek to dissolve via their community education and engagement efforts. Controversy was ignited when the group was asked to relocate and remove a nine-foot window cling from their host venue (the Juice Gallery, located on the first floor of the Wells Fargo building) by other unnamed tenants objecting to the creator group’s message promoting human rights and equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual

allies-for-change-Gloria-Steinem and transgender (LGBT) community.

We Are Straight Allies (WASA) quickly received an outpouring of public support from the community and organizations, including Wells Fargo and One Spark, prompting the property management company who made the request on behalf of the unnamed tenants to back down. After citing a misunderstanding regarding the building’s sign regulations, Parkway Properties permitted both the group and window cling to remain for the festival. In a statement on their website, WASA identifies the dispute “as a stark reminder of the daily bigotry that faces our LGBT family,” reinforcing “the fact that homophobia and discrimination are insidious in our city.” WASA also took the opportunity to express their hope that the “unfortunate incident will serve as a catalyst for meaningful dialogue…and create a more inclusive city for us all.”

Jacksonville’s Fight for Human Rights

We Are Straight Allies was conceived in response to the August 2012 Jacksonville City Council vote rejecting Bill 2012-296, better known as the Human Rights Ordinance (HRO), which sought to add sexual orientation to the legislation currently banning discrimination based on race, age, religion, marital status, disability, and sex. This bill had been watered down to remove more controversial provisions regard- ing gender identity in an attempt to ensure its success, making the defeat an especially devastating blow for those who support inclusiveness and equal rights on the First Coast.

About five hundred people crowded into City Hall that summer evening to witness the defeat of the ordinance by one vote (10–9), thanks to the tipping vote against from Councilman Johnny Gaffney at the final hour–despite his pledge to endorse the HRO. Chevara Orrin, a community activist who moved to Jacksonville the week before the emotional meeting, was dismayed by the City Council’s stance denying employment, housing, refusal of service, and education protections to all city residents regardless of their sexual orientation. “I thought ‘I need to be a part of this change’,” says Orrin, who previously worked with The Human Rights Campaign, The White House Office of Public Engagement Campaign for Southern Equality, Equality North Carolina, and the National Black Justice Coalition, and the seed was planted for We Are Straight Allies.

Collaborators for Change

The chief creative catalyst of We Are Straight Allies, Chevara Orrin (named after Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara) was a child of America’s 1960s civil rights movement, whose formative years were steeped in advocacy. Orrin’s mother, Susanne Jackson, is a white Jewish civil and human rights, social justice, and women’s liberation activist who fought for fairness in a time of dangerous inequity. “My mother was willing to die for what she believed in. I never saw her compromise,” says Orrin. Jackson remains a model for activism, inspiring her daughter’s tireless efforts mobilizing communities around issues of injustice.

Rev. James L. Bevel, Orrin’s father, was a fiery top lieutenant of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a force behind many of the pivotal civil rights campaigns of the 1960s. “Jim Bevel was Martin Luther King’s most influential aide,” says civil rights historian David J. Garrow. He cites Bevel’s “decisive influence” on the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963 that helped revive the movement, the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and King’s increased outspoken- ness against the Vietnam War.

When King struggled to activate African Americans in response to discrimination in the South, Orrin’s father succeeded by reaching out, educating, and organizing children in peaceful demonstrations. Though controversial, Bevel’s Children’s Crusade drew national attention to the issues of segregation and prejudice when images surfaced of the non-violent black juveniles being brutally assaulted with water cannons and police dogs. The ensuing media frenzy led to the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, pushed forward by President Johnson, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

“My parents’ legacy has informed much of my advocacy and activism” says Orrin. “I look to them as unwavering examples of how to create change using models of the various social justice movements that they have initiated and executed.”

Laura Riggs, WASA’s design guru and co-creator, joined Orrin’s budding movement after hearing of Orrin’s intentions to organize a campaign in Jacksonville advocating for LGBT rights. “I was in school at the time and had just finished a position paper on the gay marriage issue,” Riggs recalls. The disappointing defeat of Jacksonville’s HRO was still fresh and she was eager to lend her voice and talents to advance a cause long close to her heart: equality and acceptance for all. “From the time I was in second grade I have been an ally…my best friend was gay,” says Riggs, who was surprised at the level of bias in Jacksonville after moving from Denver, a city where LGBT rights have long been protected and the community has moved on to more progressive issues.

allies-for-change-Luis-LopezCalling on almost two decades of experience in marketing and design, Riggs developed a compelling brand campaign as well as striking collateral materials. Joined by St. Augustine photographer and videographer Dan Bagan, the third co-creator and collaborator behind WASA, the trio set out to refine WASA’s comprehensive and accessible strategy, a union proving so natural that they have since jointly established EQ3 Media, creating campaigns for social evolution, and Occupy Art JAX, an initiative of the group.

Assuming the role of “image wizard” Bagan conveys powerful stories, moving people with his captivating photos and videos. Creating the core of the campaign’s visual voice, Bagan captures the essence of each straight ally with his camera for WASA’s print ads, website, and marketing materials (such as the One Spark window cling), all crucial components of outreach efforts.

Bagan’s wizardry was especially evidenced last fall after a dinner in Orrin’s home when he re-created the iconic 1971 shot of friends, fellow feminists, and co-founders of Ms. Magazine Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes with their fists raised in solidarity for gender and racial equality. That same night, Steinem took the Straight Ally Pledge, impressed by WASA’s commitment to education and equality in Northeast Florida. She posed for Bagan, adding a notable national face to the campaign.

 The Allies

In addition to luminaries like Gloria Steinem and Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, bold local allies from the arts, military, sports, education, and corporate sectors have “come out” in support of LGBT equality and the passage of a human rights ordinance in Jacksonville. These supporters represent an eclectic cross-section of the community that we can easily identify with and relate to, helping inspire others to come out while spreading WASA’s message that “nothing is more important than our humanity.”

Bagan, Orrin, and Riggs developed We Are Straight Allies to resonate with people from all walks of life, including those who might believe LGBT rights are irrelevant to them. Many individuals are vulnerable to discrimination of some sort; greater tolerance helps improve the quality of life for all. “The way we created the campaign has been very intentional and deliberate so that people see themselves reflect- ed in the work and in the movement,” explains Orrin.

Because some of the strongest opposition to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender protections arise from religious beliefs, WASA has partnered with people of faith to educate and spread their message of acceptance and inclusion. Religious leaders like Orrin’s father played a key role in the American civil rights movement, a strategy continuing to prove effective with social justice work today. WASA has been joined by spiritual allies including black Christian ministers and Jewish leaders like Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, who affirms: “My responsibility as a rabbi, member of the clergy, and person of faith, is to promote inclusion, promote love, and promote the holiness of every individual, regardless of background, faith, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

Local corporate leaders like Florida Blue Chairman and CEO Patrick J. Geraghty have also voiced strong sup- port for WASA as they recognize that acceptance and economic success go hand-in-hand. “Honoring the dignity of every person is an ethic that I believe in and Florida Blue supports in our corporate values,” he says. “Everyone has a right to the same opportunities and I believe our society needs to be inclusive of all people.” Conservative former mayor and UNF President John Delaney has been a vocal advocate for LGBT rights: “It’s easy because it’s a fairness issue, [however] the business issue is also a really compelling argument.” At least one rapidly growing, multi-million dollar international company decided against relocating to Jacksonville due to the HRO vote and general climate of prejudice surround- ing the issue. “We’ve lost people who wanted to come to Jacksonville… because they didn’t feel it was a safe, tolerant place to live,” shares Steve Halverson, President and CEO of Haskell. Olympic swimmer and civil rights lawyer Hogshead-Makar echoes these sentiments: “If everyone can’t be on the team, we all lose. We lose economically, we lose by not having people’s talents here that could make the city better.”

In addition to developing corporate ally relationships, We Are Straight Allies works hand in hand with local agencies including the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality, JASMYN, Equality Florida, and the Washington D.C. based Human Rights Council to expand the impact of their work.

The Next Civil Rights Frontier

Following the Jacksonville City Council’s failure to pass the HRO in 2012, council members revived the original, fully inclusive version of the bill for a follow-up vote. The original bill, which had been amended in hopes of garnering wider approval due to language protecting gender identity (in support of transgender individuals), was also rejected. Nationally, awareness and acceptance regarding LGBT rights is increasing. Cities in conservative states like Texas and Montana have recently passed fully inclusive ordinances that not only protect lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, but also transgender individuals.

This broadening support for the LGBT community is evidenced by the inclusion of Laverne Cox’s transgender character in the popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” In June, Cox became the first transgender per- son to make the cover of TIME magazine, accompanied by the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Trans people are a minority of minorities bolstered by such coverage: “When people have points of reference that are humanizing, that demystifies difference,” explains Cox.

Since the Supreme Court’s overturn of part of the Defense of Marriage Act last year, great strides are also being made for marriage equality. This is cause for celebration, but much work remains in the name of tolerance. President Barack Obama continues pushing for fully inclusive protections on a federal level: “LGBT workers in too many states can be fired just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; I continue to call on the Congress to correct this injustice by passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” he declared in May.

On the First Coast, the City of Neptune Beach unanimously approved amending its personnel policy to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity on June 2. Atlantic Beach holds workshops on adopting an HRO protecting people living and working within the city’s limits. With increasing national and local support for fully inclusive human rights ordinances, Jacksonville is primed to revisit the HRO and cast a crucial vote for social equality.

“This is a pivotal time, fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, and we are standing at the crossroads of freedom and equality,” says Orrin.


Article written by Wesley Grissom


Author: Arbus

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