McMichael, Pam

Rose Norman interviewed Pam McMichael by phone on April 23, 2013.

Biographical Information

Pam McMichael (b. 1953) was born and raised in rural Kentucky and attended Georgetown College, Georgetown, KY, where she got her B.A. in Psychology, and later the University of Louisville, where she earned an MAT. She became a social justice activist and community organizer in Louisville, KY, where she lived until taking her current job as Director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, TN, in 2005. She was SONG’s first co-director, serving in that role for its first eight years (1994-2001). SONG’s mission of building alliances across various divides, especially racism and homophobia, has always been part of her social justice work.

On social justice activism

What made you a social justice activist? I am looking for the “aha” moment.

"I think I would have to go pretty early in life, to experiences of race, class, and gender. I grew up, never hungry, but always aware of the haves and have-nots. We were a working class farming family. I was a strong girl child who wanted to do things and had a lot of permission to do things, and there were pushbacks to that from the broader society. My parents really talked and lived the golden rule, that you treat people like you wanted to be treated. That created a situation where both of them crossed the color line through their jobs, my mom at her work in the factory, and my dad, who drove a truck delivering to small stores in rural areas. In the early 1960's, as a white kid in central Kentucky, I had a race experience a little different from the white people around me. My parents had inter-racial friendships."

"That combination of experiences put me on a path, and when I got older and knew I was attracted to other girls, that was another way of pushing against society. I don’t know that there’s an aha moment, just a series of life experiences. I was active in my church, a leader in my high school, always interested in doing things. As my consciousness became more aware, there was a pivotal time. I was working at a social service agency in Louisville that served women living below certain economic guidelines, and there were black and white women coming in for our services. I noticed that most of my clients didn’t have a car, but if someone did, it was almost always the white women, not the Black women, who had a car. I started exploring why that was, recognizing that there was something structural at work here, and it put me on more of a questioning path. I started going to meetings for the Kentucky Alliance Against Racism and Political Oppression, and I credit those Black and white civil rights leaders with schooling me there. I was growing then by leaps and bounds, and I met people who were involved in international solidarity around Central and South America, particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua. It was a period of expansion in terms of learning."

"When I first came to Womonwrites, race was an active conversation there as well. I met Mab [Segrest] at Womonwrites, I met Minnie Bruce Pratt there as well. That was around the same time I started going to the Kentucky Alliance. I was interested in reaching out and growing and was fortunate enough to meet people—and sought out people--who helped me grow and develop and connect the dots. I think I was age 31 or 32 when all that started. It wasn't the first time I did any activism, but before that it was more women and lesbian focused. I had started a Woman’s Place, predominately white women doing women-oriented activities--cultural, celebratory, educational, and athletic events. Our goal was to actually get a building, and we ended up not doing that, but sponsoring a wide range of activities, and doing a newsletter."

On feminist activism

Lesbian-Feminist Activism. We are defining “lesbian-feminist activism” broadly to include whatever kinds of cultural, political, social, etc., activism lesbians living in the South and identifying as feminist (or some other term like “feminist”) have done. Can you comment on how you feel about the description “lesbian-feminist activism” and whether it resonates for you?

"It’s a term that has resonated at different points in my life. It’s not all that I am. I am lesbian and I am feminist, and I am also other identifiers. It wouldn't be the only thing I would say about myself."

When in your life did you realize that you wanted to work on sexual orientation along with the race and class issues that SONG addresses?

"My activism started with the gender piece, those feminist activities, but with a consciousness of race and class. Then it expanded to become broader. Some of the women’s spaces I was in were leaving out other kinds of women. I was in a women’s group in Kentucky in the mid-80s that was mixed race and had lesbian and straight women working together on a wide range of women’s issues. It was called the Alliance Against Women’s Oppression. We were doing things like connecting the money that went to the war in Nicaragua and El Salvador and hurt women and children there while taking money from women and children here in the U.S."

On participation with SONG

What was the path that led you to SONG?

"[In the 1990's,] I was working with the Alliance Against Women’s Oppression, had gone to Nicaragua as part of a national women’s delegation, and was doing work around women’s and children’s issues at home and abroad. It was a racially mixed group of lesbian and straight women who were doing annual international women’s day events in Louisville that were celebratory, educational, and also fundraisers for women’s and children’s programs at home and abroad. We also started a thing in Louisville called the Fairness Campaign, which was to try to get sexual orientation and gender identity added to Louisville civil rights law. It was a big effort that was part of transforming that Louisville community, situating lesbigaytrans concerns within broader race, class, gender, and sexuality issues. It was never just single issue identity focused. It was launched in a way that people were really making connections across issues. For example, if a white police officer shot and killed a black youth in Louisville, you’d get a call from your lesbigaytrans group to get out and be part of the community response to that. Or if the meatpacking workers went on strike, you’d get a call from your queer organization to go out and be part of that."

"[At the time of the 1993 Creating Change conference] I was in Cincinnati temporarily, having been laid off from my social services job, and was working for 3 months as interim director of Stonewall Cincinnati during an anti-gay initiative. There are two pieces that are an important part of the context of Mab’s plenary speech at Creating Change. First, the right wing had released a video called Gay Rights, Special Rights that said lesbigaytrans people were enemies of people of color. It was a racist video that also tried to appeal to people of color, and they mailed that video to Black churches all over the country."

"The second part of the context was that NAFTA was being debated in Congress at the time of Creating Change. On the Thursday before Creating Change began, there was also a pre-conference event, a day-long session on race, class, and gender where we talked about NAFTA (the Thursday pre-conference Institute was not connected to NAFTA in the planning of it). Some of the single-issue identity folks were saying in the halls, “Why are we talking about NAFTA at a gay conference?”

Tell us your story of SONG’s founding.

"Out of that context of the Gay Rights, Special Rights video, and the NAFTA issue, some of us got together at Creating Change to talk about all this. Five of the SONG co-founders were there. Joan Garner was the only one missing, but was soon identified as someone to involve, and we had the first SONG planning meeting [after Creating Change], in January 1994, at her house in Atlanta. Another person who was not a SONG co-founder but was there at Creating Change and was really instrumental in the start of SONG, was Carla Wallace, from Louisville [part of Alliance Against Women’s Oppression and the Fairness Campaign]. All of us had done multi-issue work in our communities, and done that work as out lesbians, and had strong ties to wide movements—the women’s movement, anti-racism. I knew Mandy Carter and Pat Hussain from Rhythmfest [FOOTNOTE: Mandy was one of four producers of this women’s music festival that lasted about 7 years in the Southern states in the 1990's. The other producers were Michelle Crone and Barbara Savage. I'm not sure who the fourth producer was, since Pat says it wasn't her]. I knew Suzanne through domestic violence work—we met when her first book came out, Homophobia a Weapon of Sexism (1988). I first met Mab at Womonwrites, and I had brought Mab to Louisville as a speaker in the mid-1980's when she was working with NCARRV. We use to tease and say that we were six women, three Black, three white, and the African Americans were Black, but the Black women were not African American, and the lesbians were dykes, but the dykes weren't lesbian."

"Having Creating Change in the South for the first time, having the first race, class, and gender institute, the things in the air around the right wing’s anti-gay activities, NAFTA being discussed at the time—all of that created opportunity to push the envelope about why we should be talking about something like NAFTA at a gay conference. Mab’s plenary [emphasizing NAFTA] really rocked, but we had begun the conversations already over that weekend. My memory is that the conversation that led to SONG came out of that race class and gender institute, the pre-conference to Creating Change. NGLTF had been doing institutes, but had never done an institute on race, class, and gender. As soon as SONG formed, we became the organizing body for NGLTF institutes on race, class, and gender."

"There was actually one conversation I had before Creating Change that connected to what became SONG. Labor Day weekend of 1993, I had gone to a Fight the Right summit that the NGLTF was doing, where Suzanne Pharr was on a panel with Barbara Smith, Suzanne Goldberg, and Scot Nokagawa. They were talking about the lesbigaytrans movement having a broader agenda beyond single identity focus around queerness. They also talked about the attacks on queer people and what we needed to do to stop that. Now we weren't talking about forming a regional organization then, but we were talking about the issues that led to it, and these conversations were happening among other people as well. Then Suzanne and I had a particular conversation at Creating Change that led us to thinking about what we could do regionally, as Black and white women who are connected to different movements."

On the development of SONG

How did it get from talking about needs to forming an organization?

"That moved very quickly. Creating Change was November ‘93, and Pat and I were on part-time payroll [as co-directors] in January ’94. We had a very small budget in ’94, and we went full-time in ’95. In ’94, we had a meeting in early January at Joan’s house, and we set out some goals and activities. Part of that was to find out who was out there in the South who were interested in what we had to say. We were doing a lot of listening. We were going to different conferences where gays and lesbians were present and exploring things with people there. And we were finding that many people were really interested in talking with us and hearing what we were trying to do from vision-based organizing that was crossing these lines of difference and building a movement where people didn’t have to leave their identities at the door. We all saw coalitions and alliance-building as a way to liberation for all of us, that no one group was strong enough to get there on their own. We’re also not just one thing in our identities as lesbians. We’re also women, we’re working class, we’re people of color, we’re differently abled."

On working with Pat Hussain

"Pat Hussain used to have a saying that “I’m no longer willing to choose between my skin, my ovaries, my wallet, and my partner Cherry. I’m all one person.” The tagline on our letterhead was “building alliances connecting race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.” This is not saying that those are all the same, but that we needed to build the kind of movement that would really recognize the connections, and within that how important it was to have a strong anti-racist movement, seeing that as really core. We had a beautiful set of assumptions that we communicated through a bookmark that stated our vision and goals."

"Pat and I did a lot of workshops and retreats where either by geography or identity, we would bring together lesbigaytrans organizers to talk about issues. We did a men’s retreat. We did one in North Carolina that pulled people from North and South Carolina and Virginia. We did another one in Florida. We did one with cultural organizers here at the Highlander Center. It was skills building in the sense of organizing and relationship building. It was very much in the model of people coming together to learn from each other, facilitating the conversations that created the space for people to get to know each other and through that see what they had in common for building a strong liberation movement that had room for all of us."

"Pat and I always facilitated retreats together, also a lot of the training. But we found that class was one of the things we needed to lift up and bring into the conversation more, and we also did some of those workshops separately. One of the things we did was hire an economist from Bucknell University, Teresa Amott (FOOTNOTE: Ammot was later chair of Economics at Bucknell, and in 2011 became President of Knox College), who had been an adviser to one of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. She taught us basic economics and helped us develop a participatory and popular education workshop on the economy that made it accessible to people. We did that workshop a lot in North Carolina because of the Senate race where an African American man took on Jesse Helms [FOOTNOTE: Harvey Gantt ran against Helms in 1990 and 1996]. As a 501c3, SONG couldn't work on the election, but we could work on education around the issues. The economy workshop showed the connection between the conservative social agenda and the conservative economic agenda. Some people will say they are liberal socially, but conservative economically. Our premise was that one conservative agenda drives the other. There was a lot of scapegoating going on at that time, deregulation in the environment and in business practices, the gutting of the social safety net. So we offered a workshop that got people talking about these issues, and we offered it all over North Carolina and other Southern states, always hosted by a local organization. We split up to cover more ground."

Womonwrites and SONG

"There is really a pivotal experience for me and SONG with Womonwrites. That first year [when we were full-time, 1995], we were talking to people about SONG, and Pat and I came to Womonwrites and did a series of writing workshops." [She gets SONG scrapbook with the names of the workshops and reads them.]

- Southern Cooking: Stirring up Change in the South

- Making Change Within the Sound of My Own Voice

- Transformation Stories

Here’s a description of a 1995 workshop: “Through writing and discussion, this workshop will grapple with difficult questions about racism in our communities and organizing work, how white women combat racism, build alliances with people of color, how we nurture one another and turn barriers into strategies.”

"You know at Womonwrites you’re running around in your shorts and t-shirts or tank tops, so clothes as an indicator of different classes isn’t operative in that environment. In one of the writing workshops, we asked people to complete the sentence “The first time I realized people were a different color was….” And for a number of women in that circle, their first experience with women of a different color was the hired help in their home. I just hadn't thought about that in that setting before. There was something about class in that that really got to me."


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Gloria Anzaldúa

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Audre Lorde

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