The journey toward the formidable aspiration of liberation for all can be simplistically likened to a jigsaw puzzle, one in which the pieces are painstakingly and gradually located and added one piece at a time. As piece after piece gets placed, the big story that the full puzzle is trying to convey becomes a little clearer. We can sit back and wait for the pieces to reveal themselves, or we can work to help build the vision of liberation that we aspire to by helping identify the missing pieces and working to place them - intentionally and strategically - where they are needed.
In 2015, when marriage equality for the LGBTQ+ community became the law of the land, a result of movement organizing and the U.S. Supreme Court, it was as though one of the pieces that had eluded the puzzle for so long had finally been plopped in its place. There it was. Done. For all to see, to acknowledge. Lesbian and Gay people could finally and legitimately under the law express love through the institution of marriage.
But as important a breakthrough that puzzle piece represented, there are still many missing pieces in the picture of full equality, whether in the law or in the problematic narratives that persist and undermine the journey toward LGBTQ+ liberation, narratives that we need to redirect. Narratives like, “you got that piece - what more do you people want?” or “So it isn’t perfect. But so what. What is?” Such narratives leave out or ignore the overlapping and fundamental struggles that our communities also face -- whether inequities faced by people of color or systemic racism, the exclusion of Queers from the discourse on marriage, or other myriad problems that are related to the full picture and story we are trying to achieve. And these narratives also leave out the history of how, for example, LGBTQ+ people of color have themselves been facing up to the presence of what is historically a brutal environment of hate, violence and exclusion, even with the marriage equality piece realized.
The full picture is thus important to acknowledge, as is the imperfection along the way to progress. After all, simply put, anyone who painstakingly assembles 1000-piece puzzles knows that just like anyone who has devoted their life to organizing toward justice. The bottom line is that we have to tell fuller stories of what true liberation looks like, for all of us, and what the progress on the road toward it means if we want to achieve the picture of full equality. There are simple lessons from the history of narrative shift that we can follow to support the movement toward liberation’s focus on the full story. First, we can frame milestone victories through values that keep us focused on long-term, aspirations, the values that most everyone supports. Marriage equality is an important piece in the struggle toward justice and love as the value we aspire to. But it’s just that - one important value, one important piece in the puzzle. Through the eyes of intersectionality and liberation, the marriage victory is one piece of a greater struggle. Second, we must stop boxing ourselves in with a narrow focus on the small victories - the incremental goals. We have been primed to think that we can only ask for so much and that these small wins are enough to count as transformation. We need to replace this with a bigger idea - that we can demand more, and that we must not settle for anything less than full equality and liberation for all people.
Finally, and probably most importantly, we must maintain an inclusive, human-centered approach. Whether it’s organizing or communicating, it is a human-centered approach that results in a world where we are aspiring for no one to be left out. We must invest in human-centered storytelling and messaging that creates a measurable impact in the communities we serve while also keeping us on track towards full liberation of all people.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that I have more rights now, as a married queer woman, than I would have not so long ago. And that the picture that the puzzle projects is a little clearer now. That’s progress. But it’s only one piece. And I’ve still got my eye on the full, aspirational picture of liberation and equality for everyone, like me, not like me, everyone. That, to me, is the puzzle worth working toward.
Ellen Buchman, President of the Opportunity Agenda, and is an internationally-known trainer focused on the intersection of organizing, advocating, and communicating for social justice. She has worked among leaders at local, state, national, and international levels for more than 25 years.