By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Only the blogosphere, perhaps, has room for Pam Spaulding -- a black lesbian who lives in North Carolina, the only state in the South that has not banned same-sex marriage.
"California, Arizona and Florida all passed marriage amendments in November," says Spaulding, 44, an IT manager by day and a round-the-clock blogger. "All eyes are on North Carolina now." A few days ago, after reports that groups such as NC4Marriage and Christian Action League are organizing a rally in Raleigh to support "traditional marriage," Spaulding wrote on her blog, Pam's House Blend: "As predicted, the professional anti-gay forces plan to descend on NC." What she doesn't write is that, so long as she's blogging, what happens in North Carolina won't stay in the Tar Heel State.
Pam's House Blend is an influential voice in the gay political blogosphere, must-reads that include the Bilerico Project, Towleroad and AMERICAblog, each attracting a few hundred to a few thousand hits a day. Just as the liberal Net-roots and the conservative "rightroots" movements have affected traditional party structures, the still relatively small gay political presence online is rebooting the gay rights movement in a decentralized, spontaneous, bottom-up way. It's spreading news via blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Online, a story about two 16-year-old girls in a Lutheran private school in California being expelled for "conducting themselves in a manner consistent with being lesbians" -- as the school's lawyer describes it -- goes viral. And hits nerves.
"Those two girls live in California. California! Imagine what's happening in, say, Alabama. Or Mississippi," Spaulding says in an interview.
In the past, someone like Spaulding would have been relegated to the sidelines. She doesn't work for national gay rights organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign or the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. She lives with her partner, Kate, an audiologist, in Durham, far from San Francisco, New York or Washington, where gay activism has been historically based. But now she's helping shape the agenda, one voice in a chorus of sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious, often in-your-face voices that is pushing established gay groups and redefining the meaning of grass-roots action in this new media age.
Take the immediate reaction to Proposition 8, the California initiative that banned same-sex marriage: Gay bloggers and online activists scheduled rallies across the country, from Providence, R.I., to Albuquerque. Opponents of Prop. 8 gathered on a Web site called Join the Impact, founded three days after Californians passed the initiative by a vote of 52 percent to 48. Facebook groups were created. "Californians Ready to Repeal Prop. 8" has 256,000 members and "Repeal the CA Ban on Marriage Equality -- 2010" has 277,000.
"What happened after Proposition 8 caught the national gay groups completely off guard. I think it surprised them. I think it really showed them that when it comes to harnessing grass-roots energy, they need to get online," says Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper. "What happened online came together overnight for little or no money, and the protests were covered by the mainstream press. If national groups wanted to coordinate the kind of mass protests we saw, they would spend $1 million and take six months to do it."
One of the ways the national groups have adjusted is by blogging themselves. Both GLAAD and HRC have bloggers. Joe Solmonese, HRC's president, regularly reads blogs, including Spaulding's. Reading them can be challenging, Solmonese says. "Put 10 bloggers together in one room and they all have 10 different ideas about how to make HRC better," he says.
Though Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay Washington media veteran, has been blogging since 2000, for many, the gay political presence online began nearly five years ago. That's when blogger Mike Rogers, a longtime activist, began outing gay staffers on Capitol Hill who worked for Republicans supporting what he called "anti-gay" policies. It was controversial, it was provocative, it got everyone's attention. But the gay political blogosphere wasn't just about outing. From the outset, it highlighted issues that bloggers felt were misunderstood, back-burnered or not fully covered by the mainstream media.
For instance, when it was announced that the Rev. Rick Warren, whose megachurch in Orange County, Calif., endorsed Prop. 8, would deliver the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration, gay bloggers pounced. "The press made it seem like it was just a Warren versus gays story. It wasn't. It was a Warren versus gays and a Warren versus choice story. His stance on choice got less attention," Spaulding says. On inauguration weekend, when the opening prayer by Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay priest to be ordained as a bishop in a major Christian church, was excluded from the live HBO broadcast of the concert at Lincoln Memorial, bloggers pounced again. HBO ended up re-airing the broadcast with Robinson, and pressure from the gay blogosphere was one of the reasons why.
"There will be times when the relationship between the White House and gay bloggers will be contentious," says Steve Hildebrand, who as deputy campaign manager was the highest-ranking openly gay person in Obama's campaign. He's now serving as chief strategist for Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), who's running for a Senate seat. "But because they agree on a lot of issues, 95 percent of the time, it won't be."
On the Internet, no group -- however controversial or on the fringe -- is invisible. Everyone is but a Google search away. And the sheer diversity of blogs written by gays, lesbians and transgenders proves that, like all minority groups, the gay community is not monolithic. Though they may blog about the same topic -- say, Prop. 8 -- it doesn't mean they'll arrive at the same conclusion. After Prop. 8 passed, the meme that religious blacks helped provide the margin of victory was omnipresent. But what about religious anti-gay whites, Spaulding wondered. It wasn't about race, she insisted in her postings.
"For me, blogging has been about looking outside my own lens. If it wasn't for reading blogs, for example, I wouldn't know as much as I know now about transgender issues," Spaulding says. "At first I thought, 'I'm not transgender. This is not my issue.' But then you read about it, you make the connections and you realize that, yes, I'm a part of that, too."
Spaulding started blogging in 2004, the year 11 states passed laws banning same-sex marriage. She blogged because she wanted to express her frustration, not because she thought people would actually read her postings. But slowly, through online word of mouth, people did. Her influence is not due to the total number of people who read her -- she averages about 8,000 unique visitors a day -- but the kind of people who do, many of whom are movers and shakers in the gay community.
Often her blog postings are linked to by more highly trafficked blogs before finding their way to a mainstream portal like the Huffington Post. Ads on Spaulding's site bring some revenue, which usually end up paying travel expenses for her to cover an event or attend a conference. But she doesn't blog for money. On any given night, she sits on her leather recliner at home, her dogs Chloe and Casey resting on her feet as she browses the Internet.
Shortly after President Obama was sworn in, for example, she headed to WhiteHouse.gov.
There on the home page, up in the main navigation bar, she scrolled through what's called "The Agenda" and clicked on a section labeled "Civil Rights." A few paragraphs down, after a laundry list of promises that include ending racial profiling and curbing voter fraud, lies an eight-point, 660-word manifesto detailing the White House's support for the gay community. With the exception of same-sex marriage, which Obama does not support, it was all there: "Support Full Civil Unions." "Repeal Don't Ask-Don't Tell." "Expand Adoption Rights." The paragraph on AIDS prevention links the continued stigma surrounding HIV-AIDS to homophobia.
"I couldn't believe what I was reading," recalls Spaulding. "I mean, he had listed those issues on his campaign site and also on the transition site. But this is the White House site." She quickly posted an item about it on her blog, drawing many hopeful and a few skeptical comments. Later, she visited the sites of groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition and the American Family Association, which noted "Obama's pro-homosexual agenda" on the White House site.
"Obama has said over and over again that his will be an inclusive presidency," Spaulding says. "So we'll see. Words are just words. They must become actions. Everyone will be closely watching."
Including this blogging black lesbian from the South.