At Thursday's CBCF Annual Legislative Conference panel, "Anatomy of a Revolution" (part of the popular Emerging Leaders Series geared toward students and young professionals), activists illuminated the role that young people have played in various change movements, from Alabama to Egypt.
For Aisha C. Moodie-Mills, adviser for LGBT policy and racial justice at the Center for American Progress think tank, her example of successful social change was close to home.
As the president and key strategist for the marriage equality campaign in Washington, D.C. — which last year became the fifth jurisdiction/state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage — Moodie-Mills, 33, was integral to the movement's victory. The Root spoke with her about why African Americans were key to its success, the end of "Don't ask, don't tell" and what it's like when your wedding photos are featured in Essence magazine — and set off a political firestorm.
The Root: What strategy helped make D.C.'s same-sex-marriage movement successful?
Aisha Moodie-Mills: We made sure that the movement looked like the city that we were in and was fully representative of the diversity of the city. That's why there were so many African Americans out in front for marriage equality. That was critical to our strategy: to make sure that the people who would be impacted by [the legalization of same-sex marriage] and the people who were doing the talking were folks who were from the community. If you look at the first couples who got married, they were all people who were from D.C. and who have roots here.
With other movements, sometimes there's this sense that folks from the outside or national organizations are sweeping in to try to push an agenda. That's not what happened here. It was very much from the ground up.
TR: Your own wedding last year was the first lesbian wedding featured on Essence.com. It sparked enormous debate, from readers who both supported and were against gay marriage. How did you feel about your personal story being the catalyst for such a heated conversation?
AMM: [My wife] Danielle and I are political people. But when we decided to share our wedding pictures with Essence, it was not a political moment for us initially. Just like any other couple and any other brides, we wanted to share our pretty pictures with the press. That's all we were going to do — get our pictures out there so people could gush over us and say, "This is so lovely."
When we started to see all of those comments, we were overwhelmed by the power of the images. It struck us that we were called to share ourselves and allow ourselves to be models to create and spark those conversations. Because if we wouldn't have had those images in Essence, then nobody would be having that conversation.
TR: As director of Center for American Progress' FIRE initiative, you explore the intersection of racial justice and LGBT equality. What issues are you working on?
AMM: The goals of the initiative are to look at how public policy impacts black gay and transgender people, and to tease out all of the areas of the policy that impact our lives beyond just the LGBT headline issues. Beyond marriage, what do we need to strengthen our families?
One of the things I'm working on is reducing health disparities. We know that racial and ethnic health disparities are dramatic in the United States. But what is seldom talked about is the fact that black people who are also LGBT have the worst outcomes of anybody across the board. This is beyond HIV/AIDS. We're talking about black lesbians who have the highest obesity rate and some of the highest smoking rates. Black gay people are the least insured, the most likely to have diabetes, the most likely to die from various cancers and on and on.
I make sure that black LGBT people are being represented in federal legislation, such as the Health Equity and Accountability Act that the Tri-Caucus, including the CBC, just released last week. There's a very deliberative point there to talk about LGBT issues within a health equity measure that is traditionally designed to bridge racial and ethnic gaps. We're making sure the LGBT is also included in that.
TR: Speaking of federal policy, this week we saw the official end of "Don't ask, don't tell." How do you think that impacts the broader issue of LGBT equality?
AMM: It's fantastic for a variety of reasons. For the first time, the federal government is saying, "We can't discriminate against LGBT people" in a very broad way. To have the federal government now have a precedent for that in the Department of Defense, that's absolutely going to have a trickle-down effect. We will no longer be able to justify why we're treating [gay and lesbian] members of the military in a discriminatory way, in states or through other policies, when the military says that they're equal.
For example, if you have a gay couple that's married but they're now a military couple, then that has implications for other LGBT people who are married. Because the military believes LGBT people are equal, now it's creating a broader conversation that's going to constantly be happening on the federal level.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.