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Carol Speser: Activist / Chaplain

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Carol Speser: Activist / Chaplain

Carol Speser is a long time activist in Buffalo. She has been a pioneer — founded the local Stonewall Democrats, organized the first outdoor pride celebration and is now the founder/director of Rainbow Spirit Rising. We asked her a few questions about issues of special importance to the LGBTQ community.

What’s the difference between gay marriage and civil union?

A civil union is not a marriage. Civil unions are separate drinking fountains. The Constitution says: equal protection under the law. For the government to establish two separate institutions for American citizens stigmatizes same-sex couples as different, separate and less worthy. States like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire reached the conclusion that they don’t work. They found them to encourage unequal treatment.

You know how it hits me personally? The idea of me being put into a separate legal class of citizens, scares me. I was born in 1948 and grew up here in Buffalo with Holocaust survivors in my life—like Gerda Klein. I heard personal stories told—uncut—because it had just happened—around dining room tables. So for me, being Jewish, the idea of the government passing legislation to put lesbian and gay couples into a separate, legal class of citizens, gives me a visceral whoosh of panic.

The fight for marriage equality in New York has been a long one. What do you think made this year different in terms of getting this historic legislation passed?

First and foremost upstate New York made marriage equality happen for all of New York State because of superb grassroots organizing in Western New York.

The national and downstate LGBT organizations—like the Human Rights Campaign and the Empire State Pride Agenda—dropped us like a hot chicken wing and got out of town early on, because they thought it was hopeless here in Buffalo. Their lack of cultural competency in terms of working with blue collar hometown cities, finally worked in our favor. Local activists, like Kitty Lambert and like me (I coordinated the clergy component) were able to put together a comphrehensive local strategy without having to contend with the chronic downstate interference that often undermines our local efforts. Hey, we live here; we know our neighbors!

Lastly, outstanding leadership made this happen. Gov. Cuomo set marriage equality as a top priority and he was vigilant in his advocacy for equality. Most importantly, it was my dear friend Kitty Lambert’s visionary leadership—her passion, her wisdom, her tireless organizing efforts, that made marriage equality a reality for New York State citizens.

While this is a victory in New York, what are some hurdles left for the LGBTQ community on a national level?

Certainly we must work to rescind the Defense of Marriage Act—which denies us the federal benefits of marriage—those are substantial.

The battle for equality will move to other states. We Buffalonians can really help other hometown LGBT communities by sharing what we’ve learned—our hometown strategies—our relationship-based activism. All politics, as they say, is local. That’s why the big city big money LGBT organizations would be wise to radically change their national strategy. Instead of riding into somebody else’s town on a white horse to “rescue the LGBT country bumpkins” they should identify, support and fund the local gay leaders who are currently doing the work but struggling to fit their volunteer activism into their lives, when they have to go work everyday to pay the bills. Lunch hour activism is so very hard to do. It’s ineffective and exhausting. On a national level, the mantra should be “how can we help?”—not “here’s what we’re gonna do for you.” National leaders should listen and then help, with no strings. It would change our LGBT movement forever if just for one poitical season, the national organizations would trust that hometown people know their friends, families and neighbors better than they do!

In 1991, you organized the first Gay Pride outdoor celebration in Buffalo. Have local attitudes toward the LGBTQ community changed? How?

Many reasons—but fundamentally attitudes changed, because LGBT family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers came out to the people in their lives. The crap folks had been taught to believe about gay people didn’t fit anymore.

The old distorted learned beliefs about homosexuals doesn’t hold up against the lives of real gay people that people know. The activist biz is all about opening minds and hearts. A detached in-service presentation about the issues and concerns LGBT face everyday doesn’t work. Getting to know people, does. That’s why we’ve got marriage equality. The elegant simplicity in this swirl of analysis is that Senator Grisanti got to know Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd. He came to know and understand the issues this very real couple faced everyday. He came to care about them. Kitty thoughtfully, eloquently articulated the issues, in the “first person.” Senator Grisanti listened. He did not set out on a political path to change his views on marriage equality. All he did was listen and when it came time to vote, my guess is he couldn’t look his friends, Kitty and Cheryle in the eye, and as he said, vote against them having the same rights as he has with his wife.

Tell us how and why you came to become a Chaplain.

I came to understand that our LGBT liberation movement, like all liberation movements, was all about a liberation of the spirit. This is healing work. Healing from a unique form of oppression because the prejudice is rooted in organized religion and it is framed as if the indidivual is an abonmination to God. Forty years ago, gay people were mentally ill or sinners. What an incredible journey toward self-acceptance we have been on! About ten years ago, I began to realize our quest for equality was taking us directly toward organized religion, and that a battle over beliefs about homosexuality was going take place. Organized religion was the frontier. So I founded Rainbow Spirit Rising and began by addressing our own spirituality through gay pride summer and winter solstices. Taking control over the way we see ourselves, spiritually. I like the saying “religion at it’s best enhances spirituality, and at its worst, kills it.”

Along the way, I came to think I’d be more effective if I was clergy, so off I went to the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Sisters Hospital, it’s the only nationally certified CPE program locally. It was one of the most stressful and painful experiences I’ve ever had—and also one of the best.

In my activism, I involved many wonderful clergy, and I learned we LGBT folks have many clergy allies. Sadly, most are far too silent when it comes to speaking up about the spiritual violence still preached against gay people, in too many local pulpits. This has to stop. That’s the work that lies ahead for me.

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