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The power of one, the power of many

April 22, 2011

The following are remarks made by Pam David, board co-chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Foundation, at the March 18 Out & Equal Executive Forum in San Francisco, Calif. The remarks are cross-posted on Daily Kos.

The evening’s theme was “The Power of One.” Pam was one of three speakers asked to inspire attendees by briefly describing a personally transforming moment in their path to becoming an activist in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.

I wish life were simple and I could share with you just one incredible moment that transformed me into a fighter for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Instead, my story is made up of a patchwork of vignettes — small happenings, inspiring people and big lessons at key junctures that led me to a life of activism, of fighting for equality and justice.

Picture this: It’s 1966 and I’m 14 years old, sitting in a Baptist church on the south side of Chicago. I’m talking, for the first time, with a group of black kids my age; I learn that life’s not fair and that the color of one’s skin matters a lot. That’s really how my activism began — for civil rights, for student rights, against the Vietnam War, long before I figured out I was a lesbian.

Fast forward to 1972, and I am spending a college semester in Appalachia. Men are landing on the moon, there’s still a war going on in Southeast Asia and I’m standing in a one-room home in Harlan County, Kentucky, paying my respects to a 50-year-old man dying of black lung disease. I’m in a completely different world — and no one gathered around that hospital bed believes the moon landing is real except for me.

A few weeks later, in a farmhouse in Wise, Virginia, I meet with a group of ex-nuns fighting strip mining. Before I leave they teach me all about moonshine, but even more importantly they share a copy of the Redstockings Manifesto. For the first time, I deeply connect my activism — with my own life as a young woman.

In 1975, I come out and in a span of less than a decade have to confront — emotionally and politically — Anita Bryant, John Briggs, Harvey Milk’s assassination, the White Night riot, and the AIDS epidemic.

My mother used to say that she didn’t understand how I could jump from one cause to another. From civil rights to women’s rights, from fighting apartheid to peace in Central America. But for me, it was never a jump — from the get-go it has always been about the connections between issues, between communities, between people.

In 1988, I had the privilege of being the national co-chair of Lesbians and Gays for Jackson. For the first time in my life I wasn’t just being an LGBT activist in the streets of San Francisco or on a march down the National Mall in Washington, D.C. No, I was walking into union halls and churches all over the country shaking hands and saying: “Hi, I’m Pam David, co-chair of Lesbians and Gays for Jackson.”

After the first startled glance I was embraced without fail. Why? Because, while our differences existed — and for many of those people nearly 25 years ago I might have been the first open lesbian they’d ever met — we were tied together by the messages of that incredible campaign. We saw we had something important in common.

Whether it is as co-chair of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force or helping rebuild public housing in San Francisco, my life’s work has been and continues to be about knowing and honoring our real differences and experiences, appreciating the distinct realities of each of our lives, and then seeking the common ground.

And when common ground is built on that solid foundation, then real change can happen.

I know tonight’s theme is about the power of one, and I’m honored to have been asked to share my story with you. But, to be honest, I don’t really believe in the power of one. What I do believe in is the power of one + one + one + one….

Thanks so much.

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