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"Never get off the streets!" SGN interviews veteran California activist Robin Tyler
"Never get off the streets!" SGN interviews veteran California activist Robin Tyler
by Mike Andrew - SGN Contributing Writer

"When Obama says 'yes we can,' we need to say 'yes you will!'" says veteran activist Robin Tyler.

In an exclusive interview with SGN, Tyler talked about California's Prop 8, her call for a new National March on Washington, and the future of the LGBT movement. An almost legendary figure in the LGBT movement, Tyler called for the first March on Washington 30 years ago, and was a leading organizer of all four national marches, in 1979, 1987, 1993, and 2000.

In a speech to a huge protest rally in Los Angeles on November 8 this year, after California voters passed Prop 8, she said, "Marches work, not because Washington listens, but because they mobilize youth, and our youth need to carry on the leadership of this movement. Are you ready to lead? Are you ready for a National March on Washington?"

Tyler views a March on Washington as a way to hold political leaders accountable for their campaign promises. "I voted for Obama," she told SGN, "but if the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama do not support us by giving us total equal rights this time, then we must withdraw support from them."

Tyler, with her partner Diane Olson, was one of the original plaintiffs in the case that led to the California State Supreme Court's historic decision affirming marriage equality. That decision was reversed by California voters with the passage of Prop 8.

Tyler and Olson are now among the petitioners asking the California Supreme Court to invalidate Prop 8, on the grounds that it removes civil rights protections from a protected class of citizens. "I think it's terrific that the Court agreed to hear the petition," Tyler says. "It's very exciting!"

"I believe that when the Court made us a suspect class entitled to strict scrutiny they were setting up an appeal in case this happened," Tyler says. "We didn't ask for it. We got it anyway."

In its decision, California's Supreme Court stated explicitly that sexual orientation - like gender, race, and religion - was a constitutionally suspect basis for differential treatment, in this case in the right to marry. They therefore held that courts should apply "strict scrutiny," a very rigorous standard of review, to cases alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

"Everybody says the decision will happen quickly, but we don't know," Tyler says. "All we know is that they have to rule within 90 days. I have hope. I'm cautiously optimistic, but I am optimistic. The Court has overturned three propositions before."

Whatever the Court's decision, Tyler wants people in the streets when the decision is finally handed down. "We have to have all kinds of stuff ready," she says. "When the decision comes, we should have hundreds of thousands - a million! - people in the street, either to protest a bad decision or to celebrate a good one."

"Never get off the streets!" Tyler exclaims. "The streets have to go hand in hand with the law suits and the politics."

Tyler also talked to SGN about her criticisms of the No on Prop 8 Campaign. "It was an incompetent campaign," she says. "That's no reflection on Jeff [Kors] and Kate [Kendell]. The problem was there was no input from the community. That lost LA for us."

Tyler singled out Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean for criticism. "I put the blame on LA," she told SGN. "LA just didn't deliver the votes. For over 30 years we've had huge grassroots efforts in LA. Not this time. All they wanted was checkbook politics."

Prop 8 was heavily defeated in the San Francisco Bay Area, but won in southern California, including Los Angeles County. San Francisco voted against Prop 8 76.5% to only 23.5% in favor, while Los Angeles voted 50.4% in favor and 49.6% against. In southern California, only Santa Barbara County voted against Prop 8, 53% to 47%.

"The Community Center just took over in LA." Tyler says. "They controlled the message. They tried to block us from any visibility. The campaign was run by know-it-alls who didn't want anybody's help. I was told to butt out."

Tyler believes that California's communities of color voted overwhelmingly in favor of Prop 8 for lack of outreach by the No on Prop 8 Campaign. "I made PSAs featuring people of color, including one with Dolores Huerta [co-founder, with Cesar Chavez, of the United Farm Workers Union] in Spanish and English. They didn't use them."

Tyler showed SGN an e-mail from a No on Prop 8 Campaign spokesperson stating "I have talked with the campaign's messaging folks and as you might imagine they have a very full plate right at the moment - with material in all stages of development - as well as stuff that is rolling out each day. At this point, it probably will not be possible for us to make good use of your material and so it does not make sense for you to FedEx to the SFO office."

The No on Prop 8 Campaign's messaging was widely criticized for its conservative - some said boring - approach. LGBT couples were never featured in the campaign's ads, for example. In the later stages of the campaign no human beings were depicted in No on 8 ads at all, only shots of text with a voiceover.

"Two good things came from Prop 8," Tyler says. "First, the No on Prop 8 Campaign made LGBT couples invisible. Now, that approach is discredited. We'll never be invisible again!"

"And second," she continues, "the next generation woke up. Pride parades don't equate to civil rights. Pride parades and HRC dinners are not the way you win freedom."

Asked whether she was tired out by the campaign against Prop 8 and her disputes with the central No on 8 Campaign, Tyler replied unequivocally "Tired? Are you kidding? I'm invigorated again!"

She is already thinking about the next stages in the campaign for marriage equality in California. "Even if the Court rules for us, the Yes on 8 people will be back," she says. "If they try to recall the judges who rule in our favor, we have to defend them. And if we lose in court, we'll need to go back on the ballot in four years. My fear is that the same incompetents will run it again."

"I'm an activist," she says, recalling over 30 years in the movement for equal rights. "There's incredible energy out there. Now you have to channel that energy, so it becomes productive. I'm not saying pass the torch to the young people; then everyone will be standing in the dark. We need to light their torch and all walk on together."

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