While Chicagoan Anthony Martinez may be one of the newer voices on the other end of the bullhorn at LGBT-centric protests in the city, his resume of activism is not short on experience.
As a co-founder of LGBTChange.org in 2008, Martinez, who was honored as one of the Windy City's 30 Under 30 last year, has been involved in organizing some of Chicago's most engaging political events in recent memory, including a number of rallies, conferences and town-hall-styled meetings. Their achievements are all the more impressive considering Martinez's assertion that the group has "no bank account," relying heavily on social networking to spread the word of their activities.
GIven his dedication to progressive causes, Martinez's latest post -- as executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda (TCRA) -- should come as no surprise. The group, co-founded by openly gay former U.S. Senate candidate Jacob Meister, has introduced a new flavor of queer advocacy to Chicago and have a busy several months lying ahead. In June 3, they will host a mass civil union ceremony both celebrating the legislation's passage.
Taking some time out from his busy schedule with TCRA -- most recently successfully lobbying against the passage of an anti-gay amendment diluting the civil unions law's impact on certain faith-based adoption and foster care agencies -- Martinez spoke with ChicagoPride.com, touching on his thoughts on LGBT politics in the city and what he has to say to those of you out there who don't consider yourselves "political gays."
JE: (Joe Erbentraut) How did you first get into activism? Would you say your family was pretty politically motivated growing up?
AM: (Anthony Martinez) My family wasn't really into activism at all to be honest. My father was actually a union worker and was very, very pro-union. He eventually grew to become a contractor and own his own business. I've been thinking a lot about it because of the Wisconsin situation and how workers' rights are under attack throughout the U.S. today. I think a lot of my values as a citizen of this country, the way I vote and the things I really find to be important in my life are very much part of that viewpoint of a collective and community being more powerful than the individual.
But a lot of my activism was just inherent. My first kind of activist moment I'm remembering was when I was in middle school as part of a team of mediators that helped students work through disputes. Part of what we also did with that program was to work with the city to introduce a policy change that would ban smoking from within 500 yards of a school campus. We went into city council and successfully helped pass the policy change. That was the first time I experienced sort of calling attention to an issue and working on behalf of an issue at the community level.
JE: And it was also your first victory, right out of the gate.
AM: Which probably helped with making me interested in continuing to pursue it! It was a lot of work with the three of us on a team, but I've found activism is selfless work that takes a lot of time and energy. But seeing that outcome was so gratifying and definitely a special moment for me then.
JE: Fast forward to 2008 and you were a co-founder of the organization LGBT Change. What was your goal with founding that group?
AM: I think all of the cofounders have different viewpoints on that, but for me, LGBT change grew out of seeing President Obama back during his campaign enable the power of grassroots organizing and thinking how our community could utilize that to help gain our rights from a strategic or logistical standpoint. In Illinois, I think what's been missing from our leadership has been a truly grassroots strategy that helps put the power back into the community. I think that's how our community is going to be really successful in achieving equality. We need people to feel an ownership of the movement and an ownership of really pushing forward to gain these rights. That's what LGBT Change seeks to do and the premise it was founded on.
At that time, there was a lot of infighting in the community, and there still is, but we were seeing organizations just going down the track like trains -- they would stop for each other to pass but never work together. But if all these groups really worked together, we would probably be so much more effective and would gain our rights more quickly. We've also made it a point to utilize resources like social networking and social media which I think have been important to the successes we've been able to gain. We're empowering people to understand that just one call to a legislator makes all the difference in ensuring we keep moving forward on this path toward equality.
JE: I'm sure along the way you encounter a lot of folks who say they don't consider themselves political or don't want to get involved in any sort of organizing or advocacy. How do you respond to that sort of apathy?
AM: I have to admit that's a very frustrating conversation to have sometimes and I've talked to many people who do feel that way. One person bluntly told me, when I asked why he doesn't engage in this work, that "it's because of gays like you that will do it for me." What I say back to that is that, look, I'm one person and we are an organization out of many. Our government is a representative government and we are run by and for the people. If the people are not engaged in that process, then the government fails. Our experiment of America fails at that point.
You need to vote if nothing else. If that's all you do then, guess what, you're an activist. I think specifically within our communities,, we don't realize how much our laws can be changed and informed by what we do in that process. You're doing yourself a disservice if you allowed someone who doesn't share your views to make decisions for you. You're not able to live the life you want to live because of that choice you made.
JE: You sound very optimistic, and yet there is plenty of reason to be cynical about politics these days, particularly with issues such as workers' rights, the entire future of Medicare and numerous other progressive causes seeming endangered. How do you keep that sort of cynicism at bay?
AM: I do have to say there are moments where those frustrations come to a head, where we know flat out in our hearts and souls that an issue is an injustice. When we were lobbying for the civil union bill, a legislator from Chicago sat across the table from us and said this bill didn't affect his community. He had absolutely no idea that there are GLBT and queer people outside of Boystown, outside of the north side and that that specific bill impacts everyone throughout the state. At that moment, it hit me that we have so much work to do. The education never ends.
But the history of our community really gives me strength, excitement and the adrenaline to push forward. In the landscape of history, the LGBTQ communities have progressed so quickly and gained our rights so fast compared to other civil rights movements in the country, such as the feminist movement and the black civil rights movement. Yes, we don't have marriage but at the same time, culturally we have made gigantic strides forward that no other civil rights movement has been able to attain in the same way we have. I attribute a lot of that to the diversity of our community. We are everywhere and we're able to reach people in a different way since LGBTQ is such a broad spectrum. Sometimes that diversity can be frustrating in terms of achieving consensus, but it's extremely liberating at the same time.
JE: You've recently been named the executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda. Tell me how you were brought onto the team there?
AM: After they created the group, we at LGBT Change sat down with them and talked about what they were trying to do and what we were trying to do. We realized that so much of what LGBT Change was trying to do was exactly what TCRA wanted to achieve so it was just this beautiful moment where we found people who were working toward the same goals as us, trying to broaden peoples' perceptions of the LGBT community, that we don't just live on the north side of Chicago and that we live throughout the city and state, that the only way we're going to achieve equality is throughout coalition building with other organizations.
At that time, they offered a board position to one of the co-directors of LGBT Change and we offered them a place, in exchange, on our steering committee. I decided to take the board position and hit a moment in my life where I decided a lot of what I had been doing in my past career was not where I wanted to be. I'd been working for the for-profit world and realizing that world is not my world. I decided to go for a not-for-profit time and it just so happened that the previous executive director of TCRA left to work with Deb Mell's legislative office. I accepted the interim executive director to see how it would work. At that time, the civil union bill picked up steam. That really is such a huge gain for our community and once we were there and working we were able to have an impact other organizations aren't having politically. The board voted in March to bring me on full-time. Throughout that process and that win in Springfield, we understood this would work out.
JE: What do you see as some of the biggest issues coming in the months ahead for queer Chicagoans?
AM: I think we're in a very unique position in Chicago because we have a progressive law system in terms of the LGBTQ communities and I think we have some amazing opportunities coming up in terms of coalescing around the idea that we are represented across the city. We have a mayor-elect, soon to be mayor, who is extremely welcoming of that idea and I think he is willing to embrace that based on what he said during his campaign. Our community needs to ensure that he is working to achieve the goals he stated during his campaign and hold him accountable for that.
We also need to make sure the mayor, although he has come out for LGBTQ equality, will not sacrifice our priorities as a community because of budget constraints or whatever they may say are the issues. Because we are in a fiscal crisis, there are a lot of things bubbling up that could be detrimental to our community and the progress we've made. We need to ensure the efforts of the AIDS Foundation and HIV/AIDS care centers do not see their funding shrink because we're still in a crisis with regards to HIV/AIDS. I think the broader gay community has forgotten this really is a crisis still.
We also want to make sure transgender individuals are given the same right and protected in the same way the lesbian, gay and bisexual community is able to be protected. We're seeing a lot of police abuse and hate crimes and issues around the trans community that the broader community really needs to coalesce behind.
Additionally, I would just say we need to ensure our organizations are really doing the work on behalf of our community that is truly important. We need to demand transparency and demand that the organizations are really in tune with our community in providing the services that are most important to us. It's really a two-way street ensuring that the organizations are held accountable to our community.
JE: There are already, as you've hinted at, many queer organizations in operation here in Chicago. What do you feel is the void that TCRA is filling in terms of where other groups may be falling short, from your perspective?
AM: If you look from a national perspective at queer organizations, you have the rise of GetEQUAL and what they're doing in contrast with what the Human Rights Campaign is doing. Those are two very different ways of organizing and there is a generational difference there. What I have to say is unique with TCRA is that our board recognizes that and embraces that we have a new generation of leadership that needs to have their voice heard to ensure we're moving forward in a way that is truly encompassing the broader movement. We saw the power of the younger generation in the presidential election and you cannot deny that they are hungry to move forward and work for the principles they think are most important.
There have been gigantic steps forward for our community in cultural perception and we are working to make sure we as a community are organizing in a thoughtful way while educating our broader community. We are advocating on behalf of our entire community, not just on behalf of ourselves and approaching this in a way that is not about ensuring our budgetary goal is met. What separates us from the others is that we recognize where we truly are in the movement and what we're truly trying to do in terms of taking it to the next step, looking at how we can do that as a unified movement going forward.