Greetings all! This letter was sent to PSEC Coordinating Committee members in preparation for the Fall convening. The state youth meeting November 9-11 at Bucknell University is focused on leadership growth and adaptability. The PSEC Executive Committee asked us to post this publically for you to learn more about the successes and challenges which face youth-led organizing today. PSEC strives for transparency and accountability for the youth represented by the coalition.
Dear Pennsylvania LGBTQ Youth Friends,
We are now at a critical turning point in our youth-led LGBTQ movement in Pennsylvania. The direction we will take together is to be decided directly by you and your organizations. Nothing can stop us if we all to rise up and work together toward the change we seek in our commonwealth.
To realize the power we have claimed as a generation, we must understand our coordinated effort as an integral part of our leadership. No longer can we see the full equality and safety of LGBTQ youth in Pennsylvania as an outside issue.
When we began our joint effort last year to build an authentic LGBTQ youth advocacy community in Pennsylvania, some adults laughed at us. A statewide youth-led LGBTQ advocacy organization had never been attempted before. Many leaders of mainstream equality organizations only saw youth then as pawns for fundraising, incapable of creating change. A small group of us banded together and declared that it was finally our time to rise up and take full ownership of our role in advancing the dignity and equal access for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians.
Since then, our partnership with the LGBTQ movement as a whole has experienced incredible progress. We have solidified our bonds with thousands of LGBTQ youth across the state. Our landmark anti-bullying bill, the Pennsylvania Safe Schools Act, has become hallmark legislation in securing the safety of all young people in our commonwealth. We have held numerous statewide conferences to coordinate our efforts. Our presence is deeply felt in Harrisburg and in the communities we have helped change through policy.
However, our darkest times are yet to come. We will all be tested in our endurance and strength — by both the oppression we face in society, as well as within the LGBTQ community. It will be up to each of us to remain resilient as we meet our future opposition.
If I were to personally respond to all the acts of aggression I have witnessed and been subject to as a youth organizer, I would have little time to do anything else. Indeed, our storyline is so much more than merely a plea to support LGBTQ youth advocacy in spite of the barriers we face because of our age. That would not lift our spirits up as high as we are meant to go. While it is important to be aware of our shared struggle, it will be our self-determination that moves us toward victory. Our perseverance and commitment toward justice will be both our testimony and our source of strength — that a group of young upstarts can indeed lead a state and our county — into a new dawn of meaningful youth empowerment.
While PSEC directly represents nearly 50 member organizations in over 30 counties, we see new youth leaders facing difficulty in understanding the gravity of our joint efforts. This is the most prevalent issue which plagues youth organizing: sustainability of effective leaders. For two years since I began this work, I have consistently rejected the notion that youth are weak or unreliable — instead choosing to believe that each of us more powerful than we know.
Many of your organizations have new executive boards. At times, some leaders did not effectively transition information to new affiliate members about what it is we are doing together. Let us clarify any misinformation. Your former leaders were official delegates from your community who voted unanimously to form PSEC, wrote the organization’s constitution and founding principles, and believed firmly in our ability to work together toward common goals as GSAs in Pennsylvania.
It is deeply concerning to our coalition leaders to learn that some of your organization members have begun to see our collective movement as “outsiders coming in.” We are here because your predecessors willed this coalition into existence. We are here because there is too much unfinished work for us to face alone. PSEC is you, and always has been. Your commitment and vision for a better Pennsylvania is where the promise of our coalition now rests.
The time for us to have conversations about the relevance of coming together is now over. It has to – it must be – realized by you. No other individual will light your flame; you must find your own spark and march. As an organizer, my job is only to help provide you the tools which you need. You are the ones to define your destiny.
Our collective force is based on the tenant that we are stronger together than we are divided. Whether it is improving our lives on our campuses, coming to the assistance of others in our network, or forming a collective strategy for sweeping change across our commonwealth; the interconnection of our futures is undeniable. When one of us is struck with injustice, so are we all.
When a trans youth is beaten after school in rural Crawford County — we are called to unite. When a lesbian student in Scranton is forced out of her foster home and onto the street — we must help her. When a gay teen is bullied to such an extreme he takes his last step in front of a tractor trailer along the Susquehanna River — we must be there to give him hope.
We are together in our journey as LGBTQ youth. Our lives are interwoven throughout the farmlands and skylines across the Keystone state. The blood of our community runs through you just as it runs through me. We cannot allow our unity to be perceived so narrowly, as an external presence or merely as an outsourced responsibility for a first year student on your executive board. This must be your own leadership. The stakes have become too high: they are our very lives and futures. All young LGBTQ Pennsylvanians are invested in our coalition — whether they believe in our cause or not.
The new leaders we are concerned with have begun varying levels of dissociation in the push toward equality, which has led to uneven levels of participation. We have learned that there is no substitute for full, active, and authentic participation. Without it — in absence of your leadership — our coalition disintegrates. That is why the founding members made attendance as merits for voting power. All member organizations are expected to show up to the table to make informed decisions that drive us forward. Without your input, others are burdened in making decisions on your behalf. Trust amongst us as peers cannot occur if others make decisions for you. These are expectations we must place on ourselves to build an effective advocacy coalition.
These new leaders take issue with PSEC as a chore. That between homework, jobs, and on-campus events there is hardly time or interest to involve themselves in connecting their campus organizations with the state. Yet, this assertion distinctly fails to point out the very forms of oppression which lead to youth self-defeatism. Young people are told all through our childhood and school years that we are not strong enough to take on executive leadership. We are put through training programs which are intended to make us ‘the leaders of tomorrow’ instead of the leaders of today.
The messages we get as youth are that we are consultants and clients to the non-profit organizations that serve us, and at best, can intern with the organizations that we have interest in. Making excuses time and again for being unable to attend meetings and actions is to accept the labels which society has placed on us: that we are powerless and just do not care enough. In turn, to identify that our greatest challenge lies in our ability to lead our own movement is a difficult task. Bigotry must be combated with unyielding love and driven away — however, our true empowerment can only be generated when personal accountability is met with an unwavering vision for a better tomorrow.
We are one with the generations of youth before us who challenged society to lean forward into progress. It was only 50 years ago when students exactly like you and I, sacrificed their lives to have a voice in social justice communities. The women’s suffrage movement of the 1910s and civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s were not driven by charismatic leaders or political action committees — they were secured by ordinary folks like you and I. Their youth components proved to be essential to legislative victories. Together, youth were more than a picket and protest outlet but a coordinated force of change agents. From Stonewall to Act UP — we must not allow our generation to be disempowered or disengaged with our own call to action.
As those trusted with the legacy of LGBTQ youth for generations to come, we must realize change starts at home. In many cases, the activities within our organizations have all been done before. We continue to bring the same dozen speakers and performers to our campuses. We screen the same movies year after year. If we continue to reinvent the wheel of our organizations, the change we seek will never become bigger than the auditorium walls holding our largest drag show. We should consider a paradigm shift of our organizations in order to grow our communities. What has never been attempted — until now — is communicating between our groups to build a bold framework for our community. Now, we are raising our power up to the level where legislators listen to our voices, as we unite in Harrisburg, and in Washington DC, to fight for equality.
A youth coalition works only when our organizations’ members understand why it is important to turn our struggle into collective action. Like a ship carrying us to freedom, if all of us do not get on board and do what we can to steer us to safety: our boat will not cross any ocean, and injustice will continue to harm those left behind.
If new leaders lose sight of this path, organizations will begin to stand in apathy on the sidelines. Indeed, there are those who misunderstand what a coalition is, by expecting it to provide them with services without putting in effort into the collective. Others channel selfishness into their work — individuals for whom personal power and ego is the only thing that matters. I am unable to keep track of how many people have collected community awards by discussing the issues we face, but halting to step into the trenches where we work. These leaders must be guided toward group-centered leadership and shown that progress is possible when we all put in the necessary energy toward our goals.
Harvey Milk was a hero to many of us because he stood against those who would seek to make their egos larger than the issues, or make politics out of simple coordination. Milk once said: “Last week I got a phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all, that’s what this is all about. It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power — it’s about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, hope. You gotta give them hope.”
As we were forming our coalition, we knew that our calling has great importance. Believing that we could successfully challenge the LGBTQ movement’s expectations of youth, we knew we had no other choice but to follow through with our plans. While we knew it would be a difficult journey — we took the necessary preparations to ready ourselves for the battles ahead. We started to play with the ‘big boys’ and became an established force.
We have sat in numerous meetings with agencies trying to start LGBTQ youth programs that consistently execute programs which patronize or pathologize the LGBTQ youth experience. Many of these fail to address intersectionality, privilege, and the root causes of our issues. We need to be angry, because if not, we are complacent with the current programs which limit our engagement and commodify our identities.
As some of you know, our formation was not as seamless as we had hoped. Your organizations stood up to the adult bullies who tried to eliminate us as we were forming PSEC. For years we found ourselves the targets of false agreements by our adult leaders who assured us change in their organizations. Channeling the lockstep of how the National Women’s Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed from their establishment counterparts, we spent countless hours discussing the weighted decision. Following depraved indifference and explicit harassment by some adult leaders, we opted to transform our informal social network into an independent advocacy coalition.
At times, we continue to be intimidated both personally and professionally by members of other non-profit organizations. They see us as uncontrollable kids who could challenge their power. It is the idea of ‘unmanaged’ youth which frightens them. For years they have made profit off of our image — proclaiming they work on our behalf without truly representing us. Our only response has been to meet the adults with an unending capacity for love. In taking the higher road and not responding to their attacks, we become stronger ourselves.
I am at a loss as to whether we will ever know why some adults had such contempt for us — or that a limited few number of youth do not yet understand the gravity of these actions. We can presuppose it relates to their leaders’ egos and lust for power. It is non-profit politics, and surely we do not need to engage with it. We may face intimidation, but we must be strong. Political gain is not why I came here to fight, and I certainly do not believe any of us should be concerned with it either. So let us move on.
While some may look back on our decision and ask us why we elected to be independent, we can firmly respond with clarity: it was our fate to rise up. They may say, would it not have been easier to rely on adults for your power? The answer is no. Adults cannot speak for youth, only we can. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” As youth are relatively unattached people, we are highly mobile and adaptable. Creating our distinct community has helped complement the equality movement as a whole. When there are multiple voices behind a social movement we all become louder. Multiple constituencies employing a variety of tactics can make a highly effective organizing front.
We in fact became the first youth-led statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization in the nation. We believed that if we can be successful in Pennsylvania, our model of youth advocacy can be deployed to other states. Should we prove ourselves sustainable, we potentially have a national movement in our grasp.
Unfortunately, adultism is just one of many internal challenges within the broader LGBTQ equality movement. Unlike the beginnings of many social justice movements in past eras, the LGBTQ equality community has become a series of well funded non-profit organizations battling each other for limited financial resources and messaging power. Independent grassroots organizing is at a very low level.
How did our movement become a playground for privileged non-profit groups? Dr. Frank Kameny lived a life of modesty and poverty. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would share motel rooms with other leaders when he traveled. I would respond that it was when we, the average young folks on the ground, accepted this as our reality for the LGBTQ equality movement. It was when we settled for letting our boldest actions to be wearing purple one day a year, or signing an online petition that would never be read by the targeted politician. That we were only to be consulted by these groups in determining an agenda. Our journey with PSEC challenges this entire system by saying: as LGBTQ youth, without being paid, and sacrificing all the resources we can, we are active leaders in this fight.
The mission of our coalition is to make our bonds so close, and our collective vision so clear, that no challenge can be too large for us. The truth is that our state has lagged for far too long on the journey toward fairness and equality. The first LGBTQ equality legislation was a bare bones non-discrimination bill in 1976. Although 69 pieces of equality legislation having been introduced in the General Assembly since that time, not one statutory law currently protects LGBTQ Pennsylvanians. Thirty municipalities have non-discrimination ordinances and a sprinkling of domestic partner benefit policies exist, but again, the larger movement for LGBTQ equality has yet to even begin in the Keystone state.
We have been delayed for decades in our quest to form this movement. Pennsylvanians have been denied the social progress that has been advanced in other states. The absence of progress can only be explained by the sheer lack of coordination and interest of our forbearers. Let us not be classified by historical trajectories or perceptions of youth as unreliable. The time is now, not later, to press on.
Patience to fit this movement into your schedules cannot be a valid option for us anymore. Our lives — and those of thousands of LGBTQ youth – are on the line. It may be easy to dismiss their pleas if you have never been at the end of a rope. However, as LGBTQ youth, we are all inextricably linked with the fact that we have come out. We were faced with societal forces which we were told limited us — made us different or shameful in some way. Together with our many beautiful and different identities we can push together to address racism, ableism, classism, sexism, and religious intolerance. We should know that our actions can directly help save others’ lives. Many of us did not have a support system. Our convergence is a giant helping hand stretching across our state to isolated youth — giving them hope that they are not alone.
I trust in you an admission of our most significant challenge ahead. It is your organization’s very commitment to this common good. We must work to empower all young people – to lift the veil that covers their eyes to the importance of our unity. To those who would feel that this struggle is not relevant to them or not worth their time are themselves the very obstruction that holds our full power back. If we can secure their dedication, our river will flow over any dam that tries to stop us.
It is time for us all to have the courageous and honest conversations with those in our organizations about solidarity. We assuredly have our different opinions — but being unenthusiastic about change is the seed which leads to divestment. It is not why any of us were elected to our leadership posts. Healthy debate amongst us regarding which tactics to employ and campaigns to launch reflects a strong community. However, for us to have leaders in our midst who believe that “equality will eventually come” and “I am not one to do activist things” leaves our cause mired. As we find ourselves less as a meeting of delegates but truly as each other’s keeper — nothing can stand in our way from combating prejudice and bigotry where it exists.
I understand these may be bold claims to make. That some of you may be overwhelmed by, or even taken aback by these assertions. I did not intend to make any of us feel discouraged. Many of us are stretched thin with all our obligations. But we must not lose our hope. For as leaders we carry that hope for countless young people who look us for guidance. Nevertheless, we must deal with these issues openly. We can continue to treat the symptoms of a disease, but only when we all agree to take the antidote will we be able to heal and move forward.
I have been to your campuses. I have walked your hallways and entered your student unions. While visiting I embrace every moment and dream of the day when we organize masses of students to march for the equal rights of all people. Who will come forward to lead your community toward that day? Let us show the world that our capacity to love is stronger than any obstacle in our way.
There is so much for us to discuss and I greatly look forward to seeing you and your representatives at our next state meeting. I have the utmost respect for your leadership and am humbled to take our next steps together to ensure a brighter future for us all.
Yours in solidarity,
Jason Landau Goodman
PSEC, Executive Director