In the LGBT community we have an addiction. An addiction to boxes.
Who am I? I'm a spiritual progressive HIV- white middle-class educated bisexual non-poly cis-gender queer male blogger and LGBT rights organizer & activist. What does that mean? That means you have some ideas about what I'm like before you even meet me.
And I have a few ideas about you before I even meet you.
If you are radical, you'd think we won't have much in common. Same with either the fiscally or socially conservative. However, folks who put themselves into the same political box that I am in also may think I likely agree (or at least ought to agree) with them on almost everything.
If you fervently belong or had belonged to any particular Christian denomination, you have some ideas about me when you find out I was raised Catholic. You may also think you have some insight on me when you find out I no longer am Catholic. But if you didn't know any of that, your ideas about who I am would be entirely different if all you saw were my tattoos in Hebrew.
If you didn't know I was bisexual before, now you might be shocked. Now that you know, you might have some vision of who you think I am. Whether you're polyamorous or not, the fact that I describe myself as non-poly may make you think you know something about my beliefs. Finding out that I've been in an open relationship might give you another idea entirely.
You have some beliefs about me knowing I'm a blogger. You have some beliefs about me reading now that I'm an organizer. You also have some opinions about how I used the word activist.
Or maybe you don't. Maybe I'm putting you in a box. However, there is something in that list that likely brought you to a reaction of some sort.
For five years I sat on a volunteer Human Rights Campaign steering committee. Some of you may now think you know some of my opinions about what activism should look like. Others may have a different view about me knowing I endorsed and tried to help promote and publicize the National Equality March and the work of GetEQUAL, Join The Impact and EAA. Then come to find out I went and lobbied with HRC three weeks ago for a bill relating to military service. Now some of you may think you know some of my views on the military and government.
Either way, though, many of you probably think you know now where my loyalties lie and what my agenda is.
To say there's nothing wrong with putting people into boxes would be lying. Prejudging people based on arbitrary and incomplete sets of data is an awful habit. However, we must acknowledge this is a very typical. Whether this taxonomy is learned or instinct, and what degree it is pieces of either can be hashed out in other posts (and no doubt the comments section), but I want to move past both of these to get to the core of my message: we need to break our addiction to boxes.
Our blogs sometimes seem to look at everything as an either/or, and generally with a falsely inflated sense of urgency and a dangerous simplicity.
Some real headlines include:
"What Did Richard Socarides' 'Secret' Gay Activist Meeting in Knoxville Accomplish?"
"HRC: Obama gets until 2017 to keep his promises, and don't criticize him until then"
"HRC's Joe Solmonese praises Sec. Gates for saying no to DADT repeal this year"
"Cleve Jones + Bruce Cohen Make it Clear: Perry Is All About 'Snatching' Marriage Fight From Gay Inc"
"Was That Peter LaBarbera Or Ronald Gold Posting That Antitrans Sentiment On Bilerico?"
"10 reasons why a march on Washington is a bad idea"
"Did the Latest Protest of Doug Manchester's Hyatt Hotel Accomplish Anything?"
Don't get me wrong, I'm well aware that one must oversimplify in the headline to get attention, here are a sample of some of mine:
"Don't let the wing-nut bigots win--vote for Jon & Greg"
"Take Action: Illinois rightwingers want to gut LGBT protections"
"Pressure HRC: Demand leadership from Obama"
"Stay closeted to win Idol for yourself, lose equality for all"
"Scott Lively doesn't want you to think he hates you"
Those headlines aren't exactly sensitive to the nuances of each of theses stories. Oversimplifying for a headline is one thing, but if that becomes your message, you've lost your touch.
Shifting paradigms, same old story
We are seeing, in our movement today, a resurgence of energy and involvement that has not happened during my time in the movement. Those who have been around longer have told me they liken it to the late 80's and early 90's when the clear goal of the movement was to eradicate prejudice and barriers in the government that had been made obvious in the wake of the AIDS/HIV crisis. At that time too there was a fighting spirit and a feeling of "can do," which was missing throughout the early 2000's when I became active.
Yet despite the potential for success, there are elements throughout our movement that are clinging desperately to their old ways. I'm not just talking about the Human Rights Campaign, I'm also talking about their long-time critics, and all of those who spend more time criticizing than doing, who--rather than get on board with the spirit of today--insist that now is the time to try to start wars within the community. These wars are very personal grudges that these otherwise noble activists want to drag everyone they know into.
Personal vendettas are shitty motivation for anything, but especially for movement infighting. No, I'm not saying we shouldn't criticize, but the arguments have become repetitive and tiresome over the past decade, and I have seen a lot of time and energy wasted on good-intentioned LGBT activists attacking other good-intentioned LGBT activists. I've been a critic, and been on the business end of that criticism, believe me.
The criticism is often accurate, but also often regurgitated to a nauseating degree. Do I agree HRC can be too conservative for my liking? Absolutely. Do I think we need to spend 75% of our day complaining about it? Absolutely not. What is the goal here? To tear down an organization that gets our community into the offices of the leaders of the government? Really?
What HRC needs is reform, not demolition, but that's a whole 'nother post. I simply think that the constant assault--however accurate the complaints--on HRC, GLAAD, Lambda Legal, Stonewall Democrats, Log Cabin Republicans, Victory Fund, the Task Force, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and the National Center for Transgender Equality expends precious time and energy we could be using to attack our real enemies and to pressure our allies to be better allies.
HRC and GetEQUAL: The carrot and the stick
I admire the hell out of Robin McGehee. Robin is, in my opinion, probably one of the hardest working activists in this movement. I have no idea how she finds time to have a personal life and to raise her kids. And she's a good mother too--those kids are awesome, and so is she. Backstage at the rally after the National Equality March, I got to meet Robin for the first time. She was running around in a frenzy making sure everything went off without a hitch. It was a very busy moment for her, but amid the shuffle, Bil Browning found a moment to introduce us. I told her it was an honor and that she really ought to be so proud.
Without ever having met me before, Robin McGehee gave me a massive, sincere hug. Along with her co-chair and her team of dedicated volunteers, this wonderful woman had done something for the LGBT community that--while controversial and often criticized--few others would have given their time to do.
However, Robin isn't perfect. I'm proud of her work with GetEQUAL, and I do believe that direct action is needed and welcome in this movement. But when given the chance to break the cliche of knock the establishment and set herself apart from other young activists who have come and gone, Robin instead choose to ask Joe Solmonese to step down as President of HRC.
GetEQUAL has an opportunity to be better than all other similar groups that have come and gone. Rather than get involved in the nit-picking infighting and personality clashes of the movement, GetEQUAL needs to rise over and stay above the fray, focusing on putting pressure on those outside of the community, rather than attack other activists. That position has been filled. There are thousands of bloggers, writers, columnists, activists, podcasters, personalities and Larry Kramer whose daily mission is to blast the establishment.
GetEQUAL and HRC can work in symbiosis. HRC has never truly had a foil to their schmoozy, non-threatening, suit and tie work on the Hill. Well, other than Matt Foreman's tenure at the Task Force, but--again--Foreman often got caught up in the personal vendettas and catty infighting that ought to remain the domain of bug-eyed bloggers.
It's been all carrot and no stick since the mid-90s.
Sure you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but that doesn't mean you throw the vinegar out. What happens when you don't want the flies you get?
GetEQUAL and HRC don't have to get along, but they need to work together. The fact that they disagree with one another's methods is a good thing, not bad. We're so obsessed with binaries, we don't even realize when we're getting stuck in a binary rut. It's not an either/or proposition. Direct action and gentle lobbying are both needed to change the laws.
HRC works politely with the political movable middle, GetEQUAL puts pressure on our all-talk, no-action allies. I see overlap here, and I think its an opportunity. We need to empower GetEQUAL to stay out of the LGBT infighting and get to work on more actions, demonstrations, sit-ins, walk-outs, kiss-ins, hunger strikes, boycotts and picketing.
In addition--while GetEQUAL puts pressure on our so-called-allies to prove their support through progress--Victory Fund, Stonewall Democrats and Log Cabin Republicans need to begin simply replacing our enemies with more allies and more elected officials from within the community.
A new agenda
Let's create a revolving door of activism: HRC shakes your hand and asks you to make a law happen. When you waffle, GetEQUAL and other local and national direct action groups interrupt everything you try to do from the time you get out of bed until you go to sleep. If you still waffle or come out against us, Stonewall or Log Cabin and Victory fund see that your bags are packed and you go back where you came from, replaced by someone who will work hard for us.
All of it backed-up by work to move public opinion by the Task Force, GLAAD and PFLAG, as well as progress through litigation with the help of NCLR, NCTE, GLAD and Lambda Legal. In addition targeted collaboration is promoted by teaming up with organizations like SLDN, GLSEN, Immigration Equality, ACLU, PFAW, Matthew Shepard Foundation, and supplemental local support from EAA, Equality Federation and local LGBT organizations and Centers.
Easier said than done, I know, but do we really help it go from dream to reality by setting up emotional roadblocks every time we feel slighted by someone in one of these organizations? A revolving door doesn't have poles. It is not binary. It doesn't swing, it turns. A swinging door reaches a point where it can move no longer. Not so, with a revolving door. It continues to make progress as long as you push it, never reaching a barrier.
A revolving door is a great model for a revolution.
A lot of these oft-criticized organizations also serve another, understated but crucial role in our community: entry points to activism. Guess how I came into the movement? First through local, grassroots organizing, then through HRC. HRC, GLSEN and PFLAG are most often the first toe in the pool for young activists, especially in the most conservative areas of the country. Its easy to find alternatives in an east coast or west coast metropolis, but try growing up in Central Missouri.
These organizations aren't just non-threatening to the more conservative straight community, they're non-threatening to folks still struggling with coming out, who just aren't ready to jump from altar boy to ACT-UP.
Its not about the organization, its about the end goal: EQUALITY
People ask me if i support HRC. Yeah, I do! I also support GetEQUAL, The Task Force, EAA, GLAAD, GLSEN, Equality Federation, The ACLU, People for the American Way, Lambda Legal, Victory Fund, Rainbow World Fund, NYAC, The Trevor Project, PFLAG, ACTUP, Empowering Spirits, SoulForce, Pride@Work, TurnOUT, SLDN, Freedom to Marry, Servicemembers United, Colage, GMHC, NCLR, JTI, Centerlink, Henrick Martin Institute, the Palm Center, Stonewall Democrats, Lavender Greens, NBJC, NCTE, NLGJA, Family Equality Council, Immigration Equality... there have even been times I've supported specific actions of the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud.
Though I pay dues to many of these organizations I have loyalties to none.
My loyalty is to the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer community. My agenda is ourvictory. If a thousand silly organizations have to rise and fall for us to get there, so be it, and if I have to be cut down and attacked for being on the wrong side of this or that, then whatever. My ego is not the issue here. Yes, it's bruised when I'm criticized, but it should be no concern of yours if someone doesn't like me, even if you are a fan. None of us in this movement is more important than any one other individual.
Sure, there are people that I admire in this community. I admire Robin McGehee's personal touch, her passion, and her humility. Kate Kendall's warmth. I admire Autumn Sandeen's resolve and Adam Bink's or Zack Ford's competitive, fighting spirit. I admire Dan Choi and Chely Wright's eloquence. I admire Rex Wockner's or Joe Jervis' diligence and candor. I admire John Aravosis' fire and Pam Spaulding's wisdom. I admire Rea Carey's or Joe Solmonese's savvy and thoughtfulness. I admire Michael Crawford's, Michael Roger's and Bil Brownings' guidance and loyalty, I admire Kate Clinton's or Andrew Sullivan's wit and foresight, I admire Queerty's intuitiveness and irreverence and Barney Frank's... frankness. Talk about putting people into boxes!
I also think each of these people (anonymous or real) is flawed and imperfect, and I would not hold any up to be any more important than the others. I have personal relationships with some, and downright rivalries with others. This would be the difference. But I see none of these people as the great hope of our community.
On the contrary, I would hate to see us rally around one person whom we place all of our trust and hope with in the belief that this person will finally be the one to figure out how to once and for all make change real.
Rather, I look to these folks for inspiration, just as I do people outside our community, or people who have gone before us like Harvey Milk, Harry Hay, Betty Berzon, etc... Though they inspire me, I don't believe any one person is the savior of the movement. We need to refocus and remember that the goal is not glory but equality. Any time we start giving one person or organization too much credit, we risk losing sight of that goal. It becomes about defending and promoting that personality, rather than keeping our eyes on the prize.
Having great leaders is good, but don't forget we all have the potential for great leadership. Even people I don't particularly get along with or agree with do impressive amazing things every day, and though we have different ideas about how to move this movement along, I don't doubt their dedication. Ace Lundon, my co-host over at Lundon Calling, always says:
"There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, it's hard to know which part of us should reform the other."