If We're Not At the Table, We're On the Menu (Maybe)

I've said this before, and I'll keep saying it - Mona Smith, an attorney who is active in the GSBA and Victory Fund - has a phrase that I absolutely love. "If we are not at the table, then we're on the menu."

Specifically, she is referring to the importance of LGBTQ representation in elected legislative bodies. The idea is pretty simple: we have life experiences - both past and present - as well as future concerns that our greatest allies just don't have. When there is a spike in LGBTQ hate crimes, we are more likely to know what it is like to be subjected to such an assault. While our straight allies are absolutely fantastic, the urgency with which we respond is heightened when we are at the table. 

The same is readily seen for women, people of color, those living with disabilities, folks who come from extreme poverty, etc. etc.

Because we live in a society that discounts an idea without data - the data supports the need for greater diversity in companies and elective office. Looking at a problem from multiple angles, and with the intersectionality that exists with many of our disenfranchised populations, there is often an increase in the creative approach to address an issue, and a desire to really go after solutions.

It is because of this that I believe companies and organizations must make more concerted efforts to recruit and mentor diverse successors. For elective office, that also means that we must do more to recruit and enable more diverse candidates. As we all know, when a seat opens anywhere, straight white dudes are ready to swoop in.

I was talking recently with someone about this very issue. For the sake of this piece, I'll just call him Roger. A straight white guy, we were discussing the 43rd, the history of the open House seat, and I was lamenting the overwhelming male majority in Olympia (2/3 male), and how great it would be to elect an LGBTQ woman to the seat. Roger, however, was more interested in a straight white guy running.

I asked why he thinks we need more of that perspective, considering that we have so many highly qualified LGBTQ women available (Danni Askini, Nicole Macri, Morgan Beach, etc.), and his response: I care about effectiveness. The conversation revolved around that for awhile, and he repeated over and over again that he thinks it is more important to have "effective" legislators than diverse legislators. Make no mistake, I agree we need effective legislators. And we can have legislators that are both diverse and effective.

Of course, I find his argument to be difficult to stomach considering that he is also a staunch supporter of Bernie Sanders. Bernie is definitely a great educator on domestic economic inequality, and idea generator for big picture, big ideas. But there is not much in the way of a track record of success. He doesn't raise money for other candidates to help grow the progressive ranks in Congress. And his foreign policy knowledge is not particularly deep. I do not buy the "effective" argument to speak against diversity, and then turn around and support Bernie Sanders.

This is what people running for office who aren't straight white men face. Whether it's #BernieBros, accusations of running on "Identity Politics," or complaints of hyper-focus on LGBTQ issues, candidates from disenfranchised communities have a tough road. 

Frankly, I believe this, in many cases, is why some of the most creative, empathetic, and forceful elected officials aren't straight white dudes. Watch any Seattle City Council meeting with Debora Juarez and Lorena Gonzalez, and you will see tough questions, creative approaches to solutions, and an expectation that our city departments are doing right by the people of our city. These are two women who come from poverty, had to grow up with both sexism and racism, and were subjected to subtle racist attacks here in Liberal Seattle during their campaigns. And they are two of the most engaged council members we have.

I started thinking on this (again) following a Tweet sent my way during the last Democratic debate. During the closings, Hillary Clinton noted that she wished there would have been questions relating specifically to racial inequities, women's access to reproductive health care and the pay gap, as well as LGBT issues. Bernie stuck to his campaign message focused on income inequality. I tweeted that I wish Bernie would talk more about the issues facing marginalized communities. Here was the tweet back:

The thing is that yes: a recognition that my people matter does make me inclined to think one candidate is better than the other. Being part of a community that just last year earned the right to marry (a right that continues to be fought in some states), and still faces significant discrimination, I am sensitive to the idea that our leaders should know we exist.

As Mona says - if we're not at the table, we're on the menu. When we have to beg just to be on the menu, then we are losing. I don't want us to slip through the cracks and fall back from our gains. I don't want to see women have to wait even longer for pay equity, or see their access to reproductive health further eroded. I don't want to see "Black Lives Matter" relegated to "All Lives Matter." And when our leaders not only don't share our background, but also don't even acknowledge we exist, I fear what will be overlooked as we attempt to move forward.