Remembering The Legacy Of César Chávez
There is a lot to celebrate about César Chávez, the noted labor and civil rights leader whose birthday we celebrate Saturday. But what many don’t know is that Chávez was also an ardent advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.
Marc Grossman, the Chavez Foundation’s communication director and César Chávez’s longtime spokesman and personal aide, says that for Chávez, support for the LGBT community started early. A long-time friend of the Chávezes from the ’40s on, who was a lesbian, baptized the Chávezes eldest son, Fernando.
“By the late ’70s, he would go to gay rights parades,” Grossman said. “I was with him when he met Harvey Milk.”
And Milk, in turn, was an early supporter of the United Farm Workers grape boycott.
“This was not a position that was popular,” said Grossman, referring to Chávez’s support for LGBT equality. “But César didn’t care about what was unpopular. He came out strong against the Vietnam War, something most other labor organizations wouldn’t do. He believed you couldn’t lead by following the crowd.”
Grossman shares the anecdote of a young aide who had left Chávez to move to San Francisco, and who later came out. Chávez came to San Francisco for a labor rally and went to a gay pride parade. The aide recognized him and said, “I’m surprised to see you here,” and Chávez replied, baffled, “Why would you be surprised?”
“He would say, ‘How can you be for equal rights for your own people if you’re not for equal rights for other people?’” said Grossman.
Chávez also spoke out on gay and lesbian issues in San Francisco at the 1984 Democratic National Convention and was one of the key leaders of the 1987 Second National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. He not only spoke at the march, but also walked the entire route.
As the first organizer to apply the boycott tactic to a labor issue, Chávez understood the importance of including everyone possible in his coalitions–and that included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“You couldn’t have a strike just in the field,” Grossman said. “Chávez transferred that fight from the fields to the cities. And in the cities he forged a broad-based coalition of consumers, church-goers, students, rabbis… To get to 17 million consumers, you need everybody.”
Recent documents released from the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) show that they specifically tried to tie Latino identity to opposition to the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, something Chávez would have opposed deeply.
“César was unalterably supportive of gay rights. Marriage wasn’t an issue when he was alive, but he was very concerned about overt discrimination,” said Grossman. “He would have rejected the idea that Latino identity was anti-gay.”
“He also rejected the idea of machismo, the idea that you respond to insults with violence. His first fast was a response to this — This was 1968, the strike was going badly, people were getting restless and the growers were busting violently. Some young Latinos wanted to respond in kind. César fasted for 25 days, longer than doctors said was healthy, on only water. He knew that non-violence was the answer. He would say, ‘Being a man is taking a stand for a better life.’”
“That would run entirely counter to the idea that anyone’s identity depends on discrimination, and he would have been especially upset by the bullying that’s happening now toward gay kids. Being a man is sacrificing for others. ”
César Chávez knew that opponents of equality and justice would seek to drive wedges between marginalized groups to suppress movements for equality. It was true then and we know from the NOM documents released this week that it is still true today. Ultimately, we learned from César Chávez the value of building coalitions, that marginalized groups simply can’t win if we are left to fight our own battles in silos and that we must resist the idea that issues of one social justice movement are not inextricably linked to one another. And as we celebrate his life and work today, let his legacy be a reminder to our movement about how to continue our march forward toward equality and justice–not just for LGBT people–but for all.