I am no martyr. Yes, there are times when I long for the better-paid life I left behind in mainstream journalism, with its guaranteed retirement cushion. However, given my commitment to this LGBT movement for full civil rights and my personal promise to remember my friends who died of AIDS - I feel lucky and privileged to be getting paid to do work I love while also serving my community. It's a conscious trade-off: I accept less money for the freedom to be and develop who I am and write what I want.
This does not mean that I equate being impoverished with being a more authentic activist. Nor do I begrudge someone getting paid for their grassroots activism: Rev. Jesse Jackson gets paid for leading the Rainbow Push Coalition and Rev. Al Sharpton gets paid for leading the National Action Network. How much they are paid should be left up to the organization - with the understanding that if they stop producing or if the community they exist to serve stops supporting them, they go out of existence.
Some of the subsequent conversation is that they are brash, young, inexperienced upstarts who have no business claiming they represent the LGBT community and their salaries are downright obscene and offensive. That money could be better spent on people and programs that really could make a difference!
Except "making a difference" is in the eye of the beholder. To incrementalists, there has been a lot of change under President Obama and the Democratically-controlled Congress. But to many who believed in candidate Obama's promises of sweeping progressive change, incrementalism and politics as usual are an outrage, a betrayal as if LGBT people are an easily dismissed constituency who will just have to wait for the equal rights afforded other American citizens.
Philanthropist Jonathan Lewis, an heir to the billion-dollar Progressive Insurance fortune, told The Advocate for their story "The Rise of Get Equal" that he was tired of writing checks and seeing no results. His "lightbulb" moment was when he and his political advisor, Paul Yandura (pictured here with his partner Donald Hitchcock on the right), realized that they couldn't sit around and wait for the Obama administration to deliver on their promises.
"At a certain point you wake up and say, 'Again? Another check, another day, another trip to Washington, another trip to God knows where to meet with a group of people who are trying to work with these politicians and officials to effect change? I'm frickin' exhausted and nothing's happening," Lewis says. "I found myself angry and I think to do this kind of work, you need to be angry. It's not enough to just be disappointed or upset."
Some LGBTs feel the same way about giving checks to the national organizations such as GLAAD and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Ironically, while the behemoth Human Rights Campaign is often considered the epitome of Gay Inc, with little to show for its perpetual fundraising and at times a seeming impediment to progress, the HRC of 23 years ago was very different. Then the late Randy Klose, a Beverly Hills real estate developer and an heir to the Dairy Queen fortune, used checkbook activism as a counter-point to the street activism of ACT UP.
Randy told me he had never really experienced discrimination - until he got AIDS. He spent a lot of money trying to find a cure for himself. Luckily his friends talked him out of his last desperate attempt - to fly to Atlanta to have his body drained of blood, boiled to get "rid" of the HIV, then recycled back into his body. He looked at the political landscape and had an epiphany: President Reagan and his administration didn't care about helping gays with HIV/AIDS. Randy realized that, for all his money, he was no different from the poor Latino gay in East LA, only he could afford better healthcare.
Having read playwright Larry Kramer's 1983 scream-essay "1,112 and Counting" - a rousing call to action against the rising toll of AIDS deaths - Randy joined the Human Rights Campaign Fund and started putting his money to work hiring lobbyists to get funding for AIDS. According to the New York Times obit after Randy died at age 37:
"His role in pressing for the passage of the 1988 Federal AIDS Research and Information Act was praised by its two chief Senate co-sponsors, Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut at the time. Mr. Weicker, now Governor of Connecticut, said Mr. Klose had helped win passage of the bill, which coordinated the Government's AIDS research. The bill was the first Federal AIDS law."
The Los Angeles Times noted that, "On June 1, 1987, Klose was among those arrested at a White House demonstration protesting presidential silence on AIDS."
By the way - that 1983 Larry Kramer essay is still relevant in many ways today, including noting that politicians only respond to pressure and disclosing that a number of AIDS Network members were "studying civil disobedience with one of the experts from Dr. Martin Luther King's old team. We are learning how." Four years later, Kramer co-founded ACT UP. Kramer wrote:
"I am sick of our electing officials who in no way represent us. I am sick of our stupidity in believing candidates who promise us everything for our support and promptly forget us and insult us after we have given them our votes.
I am sick of everyone in this community who tells me to stop creating a panic. How many of us have to die before you get scared off your ass and into action? Aren't 195 dead New Yorkers enough?"
Just pause a minute please and take that in: "1, 112 and counting" in 1983. From 1981 to 2008, 25 million people died from AIDS worldwide. That's why ACT UP's slogan was Silence = Death.
It took four years to create ACT UP at a time when friends were dying so fast, there was no time to mourn. Gays were gripped with fear, hurt, shame - and finally rage. Dying is a great motivator.
There is no similar rage today. In fact, for the most part, if you don't care about getting married, you're not part of a bi-national couple, no one's threatened to kill or bully you or your family, and you're not afraid of being outted at home or on your job - life as an LGBT second class citizen is no big deal.
It's similar to how Randy Klose felt until he was diagnosed with AIDS. It's similar to how so many LGBT people, especially young people, felt in California until the passage of Prop 8 and they woke up to the stark realization that they in fact are officially not equal to their friends. That sucker-punch was so startling, it created instant activists that started and joined scores of new activist groups, outraged and determined to fight for LGBT rights - slicing and dicing anyone who got in their way.
Most of those groups have since dissipated. And of the activists who remain, much of their focus has shifted to the failure of President Obama and the Democratically-controlled Congress to deliver on the hope and promises that made people believe in the possibility of good government again. Obama, the Democrats and the national groups they were in bed with created the necessity for the direct action group Get Equal.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting GetEqual is the next ACT UP or that Robin and Kip are the leaders we've been waiting for. In fact, I have been critical of Robin McGehee both in print and to her face. I first met Robin at an event in West Hollywood organized by the new LA-based Equal Roots coalition. I wanted to interview her about this event she was organizing called "Meet in the Middle" in Fresno to protest the passage of Prop 8. But no sooner had we started the interview than she flew off the handle and literally started yelling about Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors and how she held him personally responsible for Prop 8. I was dumbstruck but thought it was simply a rookie-activist mistake. I asked her if she realized that her outburst just shifted the story from being about Meet in the Middle to her excoriation of Kors. She didn't care.
Those outbursts became a pattern - all in the name of "honesty" and "telling truth to power." She blew up at the Repeal Prop 8 Leadership Summit in San Bernardino during the summer of 2009 - publicly blasting Judy Appel, executive director of Our Family Coalition, and Carolyn Laub, executive director of GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) who were concerned about language regarding children that might go into a repeal Prop 8 ballot initiative. But Robin's criticism both misconstrued what the two women said and generated some controversy, as well:
"I agree that language should be eliminated that would in any way halter (sic) any discussions underway in public education that would shadow anything about our community or create an element for my children or any other children to be closeted or bullied or harassed. But the reality is that those children who don't want to be talked about in their school need to go to private school."
McGehee came across as self-righteous and arrogant. And she seemed to have no boundaries - publicly and loudly embarrassing longtime activist Robin Tyler in front of the media before a news conference on another occasion.
I was also critical of the timing of the National Equality March when I thought people might be better served by volunteering in Maine and Washington State, which had antigay initiatives on their ballots. And while they say 200,000 people showed up for the march - I don't think they accomplished their stated primary goal, which was to train those activists to go back home and lobby their congressmembers. If that had happened, perhaps it might not have fallen to organizations to do "action alerts" and bloggers to do blog swarms on DADT and ENDA.
So when I heard about Robin's $89,000 salary to co-direct GetEqual, part of me thought reporters and bloggers better flex their fingers because we're going to have a lot to write about.
But then I stepped back and thought about it - about how Robin has evolved since those heady days of winging-it activism after Prop 8 and NEM. In an email exchange after the retreat at the Highlander Center, she told me she had taken that criticism to heart and was looking for ways to be more collaborative and more effective.
And I believe her. Something happened that shifted the font of her activism from a wild self-centered and self-righteous mother fighting to protect her brood to a more - dare I say "humble" leader who seems to want to mirror the equality she's striving to achieve for us all. Now that change, too, is still "in process," but I also disagree with Barney Frank who called GetEqual's confrontation of Rep. George Miller during a hearing "immature." The feminist peace group Code Pink has been disrupting legislative hearings for years.
To be sure, Robin disrespected so many people with her inappropriate outbursts, she has a lot of repair work ahead if she wants to gain support from folks who have been doing LGBT work for a long time. I hope she learned at the Highlander Center that GetEqual doesn't have to re-invent the organizing wheel and there are a lot of people willing to help. For instance, while Robin McGehee and Robin Tyler made up during a recent West Hollywood town hall on grassroots activism, McGehee has yet to take Tyler up on her offer to share her experience, which includes organizing the effective StopDrLaura campaign with fellow activist Andy Thayer before GLAAD got involved.
But I think Get Equal is an important new organization. With the energetic leadership of young activists who are being paid to focus on their new mission, they fill an activist-visibility counter-point vacuum, given the different piecemeal lobbying efforts of the incrementalists. HRC is Gay Inc for both good and ill, for instance. But other than helping Kathy Griffin - who arm-twisted Joe Solmonese into helping her produce that DC rally against Don't Ask, Don't Tell for her show - it's hard to imagine Solmonese getting arrested at the White House like Randy Klose did.
GLAAD used to have chapters where their watchdog volunteers were prized. GLAAD would both give out awards - which meant something seriously significant then - and protest either through a demonstration ("Basic Instinct") or with ads in the entertainment trade publications. Other than their awards show and an occasional "call to action" - usually after bloggers have stirred something up - they hold GLAAD It's Friday fundraisers for what?
NGLTF has long been a grassroots-centric organization. And the wonderful Rea Carey gave a rousing speech at Creating Change:
"Speeches aren't change, change is more than words; change is action," Carey said. "If we really are all created equal--if it really doesn't matter who we are or what we look like--or who we love--then it's time this president and this Congress take concrete steps to ensuring that equality ... Should freedom have to wait any longer? It's 2010. We've waited long enough."
But where's the visibility and action?
People can decide to support GetEqual or not, as they move forward as a new organization. But the prospect of having a group devoted to visibility and action and preparing for actions is important. Right now the attention is on the "window of opportunity" to get LGBT legislation passed before the November elections when the Democrats could well lose control of Congress. But if DADT repeal and ENDA and the Domestic Partnership bills are not passed by then - there will be a need for a sustained and strategic direct action group to continue the fight while so many others sink into a foreseeable depression over lost opportunities.
I interviewed Robin McGehee by phone where she's on vacation in Maine and Kip Williams via email from his home in San Francisco. Here are their complete interviews:
KO: I asked her about the back and forth at The Bilerico Project and my sense that activists deserve to be paid what they're worth.
RM: "Bil's right. We don't have all the answers. We don't have the end-all and be-all roadmap about what we're supposed to do to get equal. What we do know is that we were sold this belief in hope - that I truly still want to believe in. I do look at Obama as my President. I do look at the Democratic Party as the party I'm most aligned with. But I also don't feel like we need to be enabling our own selves and so co-dependent that we'll put up with anything.
We have to give ourselves our own hope and do our own work to get equal. My feeling is that with all of the hopefulness and the belief that the change I truly have to believe that many of them [Democratic legislators] believe in - but have fear that their constituents are not going to still support them if they articulate that vision. And until we begin to push in a way that says we're not going to back down - I don't believe we're going to get what we want.
And it can't only be in Washington. We need to be pushing everywhere that we're fed up and we're not going to take it anymore.
The irony is that we're sitting with these women who've been together for 50 years here in Maine. And their take on it is: 'Well, Obama said he's going to do this so I'm just trusting he's going to do it.' And my fear is that - if you go off of that for four years, and we're just hoping he's going to get re-elected and that's never a guarantee, are we going to risk that you've lost your window of opportunity and now we have another whoever it is in office?
And that hope that he had us believe in is now gone and we have only ourselves to blame that we didn't push hard enough. And I don't know the answer to that. What feels right to me is to say, I'm going to hold you accountable on what you promised.
KO: I told her it seemed to me that most of the Bilerico arguments centered around her making $89,000.
RM: The irony for me is what happened after the EAA [Equality Across America] stuff was number one, Cleve argued that we needed to do this Meet Me In St. Louis - and he wanted to do it right after we'd asked everybody to come to the National Equality March. And Kip and I were going, 'Wait a minute. With the grassroots activists, you can't ask people in less than a year to now come in the middle of the winter and meet in the middle of the United States,' even though I love the idea. I love the concept - it's the Meet Me in the Middle for the national element.
But we challenged him on that and then he gave push-back and his first remark was, "Well, you're never going to be able to make what you're making as a teacher right now. And I would never justify, as an activist, that you would make that much."
My argument to him was. 'Look, I know you're paid by Unite Here and by the Courage Campaign to do your work. I don't ask you what you make - I just believe in what you're doing. And as long as you're doing what I feel needs to be done, then I will justify whatever salary you're getting.'
And I would justify Joe Solmonese's salary - if he were producing what I think he should be producing at that level.
But in my opinion, what I asked when Jonathan and Paul asked me, "What do you need to make to do this work?" and I said, 'I just need you to replace what I'm making. If I'm going to leave my teaching job - I'm going to leave a tenure-track job with a guaranteed retirement pension and $89,000 a year' - and I told Bil I could give him the tax statement because he claimed he didn't believe that's what I really made. I'll be happy to get a copy and mail it to you, if you want.
It's people who feel that you're not the salt of the earth doing this just because you believe in it then you're not a true "Activist." I just disagree with that. It wasn't me who was in the Central Valley and said I'm going to go throw a national march together. My family was attacked, we stood up against Prop 8, I was already a citizen-activist working in the community for the Gay/Straight Alliance and other stuff - and only because of circumstance have I been put in this situation. And I've only been honest about what I need to survive, based on my mortgage and my car payment and everything else and the moment I'm not producing something, then hold me accountable for that. But to judge me for how much I need to make, I just think that's unfair.
I will argue that I think we take advantage of our activists too much. Every single one of us who put on that march - because we were concerned about how much we were going to spend on the march, nobody got paid, except for Kip. And what that meant is - I had to have a full time job, I'd get off at 5:00 and I'd have my kids, who I had to put to bed and then I'd work on the march from 7:30 at night until three o'clock in the morning. And if that's what we call 'sustainable" and being, in my opinion, humanitarian in our movement, then I question our judgment in working for equality - if we don't treat people fairly if they're doing work on our behalf.
KO: I asked Robin if I was accurate in my assessment that she had evolved from the days when she flew off the handle and got so angry.
RM: I remember you said at the beginning, 'Robin don't be so angry.' And for me, it was that I was so hurt.
There's a social responsibility there. My feelings around Geoff [Kors] were more - I was hurt because I did feel we were left behind enemy lines and that's where that came from.
But now that I have evolved as an activist and a person who's trying to build something myself, I realize that sometimes we are our own worst enemies. And then, instead of trying to figure out how can we collaborate and be the unified front that's fighting against the evil - let's stop fighting against ourselves. And that's where I've involved, into that point of saying let's look at what our true mission is. Someone gave a great analogy from Kevin Jennings talking about the crabs in the barrel and how when crabs start climbing up the barrel, another crab will go grab another crab's leg with a claw and drag it back down into the barrel. I don't want that to be our movement. I don't want to be the crab down at the bottom trying to pull the other person back down. I do believe we should be able to freely hold each other accountable because that's how we grow stronger as a movement and that's why your words of wisdom were so strong and have spoken to me many times.
But a lot of times there are people who look - if you criticize anyone, then we shouldn't be doing that because we don't want them to think that we fight. I saying, Hey, as long as it's honest criticism and as long as it's fair, and we're open to being criticized ourselves, then OK. But if it's just to be petty like what you're talking about - just going off on it just to be able to go off, it's not worth it and it's not fair to our movement to do that.
KO: I told Robin how several people called me after her first arrest with Lt. Dan Choi and Capt Jim Pietrangelo at the White House and how they heard her yell: "I am somebody!" They interpreted that as Robin saying, "Don't you know who I am?" But it had echoes of the civil rights movement to me so I asked her to clear that up.
RM: What happened was that when we had our Highlander Center event there was a guy there and they have done all these trainings - and he said what your movement needs is a chant that when you start protesting or you're being arrested or whatever, you can say this chant. And what he said, what I love is in the women's suffrage movement they would use slogans that said "I Am a Woman" or in the civil rights movement the African American community would stand with signs in Washington DC during their march saying "I Am a Man." So he said why don't you go with that slogan and say "I Am Somebody and I deserve full equality. Right here, right now. Full Equality." So that's what we chant whenever we're in that space.
(Robin laughs) I am nobody so there's no way I would have ever said that. It's funny that somebody heard that and thought that's what I was trying to say. What we were trying to say is I have value. I am a person, and I deserve to be treated equally.
KO: I asked where they are going with GetEqual?
RM: Our hope is that we will look for five cities over the next year that we will go into and do non-violent civil disobedience training and then we will use those as testing grounds. Where we see the most marked interest, based on the listservs, Facebook, whoever begins to reach out. And we have communities that have already been identified but we don't want to say what those are yet because they change. That's one of the things.
And then in reference to different Fall planning - we're starting on college campuses and beginning to do outreach in a way that when we do call or actions or for when a community is having an issue, like in Mississippi, you can reach into the University of Southern Mississippi and say, Hey look, there's this woman that's being discriminated against - can we get together and have a community reaction immediately? And that way we're reacting in not only a reactive way, but pro-actively, our non-violent civil disobedience action hopefully will get to a point where hopefully we can begin calling for full equality.
What came out of the Higherlander Center - not only learning about past movements but that we had to look at the depths of our movement and how we had to fight for a full equality agenda. And that meant not only a full equality agenda based on LGBT rights - but we need to be talking about how our community is effected by economic discrimination, about racial discrimination, all kinds of the isms that exist in our society in general. We need to be pushing that together as a platform to say there are enough ways that our community is discriminated against - across the board like all of society.
But together. If we fight for our full equality in the legislative agenda that all can fit into one thing, we are not divided and we're a stronger entity to do so. They used the work of Martin Luther King, they talked about Cesar Chavez, they talked about Rosa Parks and how she was not an accidental activist but a person who worked towards a mission - creating a powerful movement of fight for social change.
KO: I note that Bil says in his piece: "The LGBT community has long complained that we've not had our own version of MLK, instead of simply rising up and becoming our own instruments of justice."
RM: We're trying to do that. I'm just a person who's trying to do something and make change and anybody who wants to join along, please come help us because we're going to need everybody.
I met Kip Williams at the grassroots-generation event in West Hollywood where he had one of the most perceptive responses to discussion about the community's "blind spot" about catalyzing grassroots activism: the movement, he said, "is lacking a vision and lacking a strategy."
I emailed Kip telling him I was working on an opinion piece in response to the Bilerico series and asked a couple of questions about that strategy and GetEqual's plans. My first question was about the NEM, reminding him I disagreed with Cleve on the premise.
KO: 1) I would argue that the failure to train activists to organize locally is actually one of the reasons that creating a direct action group such as GetEqual became a necessity. What do you think?
KW: I agree. While the march successfully mobilized people to the streets, those of us in leadership were unable to agree upon a vision and strategy for what to do next. While we as a group were unable to make the call to action we had hoped to make that day, we had begun to build a network of activists across the country, and everyone was resolved to keep organizing.
Robin and I - and many others we had worked with - wanted to keep thinking about what we could do next, and how we could leverage that network to have an impact. GetEQUAL has been the result of those conversations.
KO: 2. It seems to me that something changed somewhere - from you and Robin being caught up in the headiness of the post-Prop 8 excitement and then the NEM. But maybe after the Tenn meeting, it's almost as if you guys did a deep breathing meditation and connected with something deeper than the anger and hurt - and ego - generated by the passage of Prop 8. You both seem, well, for lack of a better word, more humble and willing to both lead and be part of something greater than yourselves. This is obviously just a guess on my part - but I'm wondering if you could describe what happened - what shifted at that meeting - if I'm right.
KW: I'll just speak for myself. Anger and grief were and continue to be a core motivation for my organizing. What shifted for me after the march is that I was terrified that everyone was just going to burn out if we didn't develop a big picture strategy and build infrastructure and capacity.
The manic organizing Robin, myself, and many others participated in after Prop 8 passed was very difficult - we jumped from action to action with no breathing room or time to process, few resources, no pre-existing infrastructure, and no clear vision about where all of it would lead. I was close to complete burnout after the march (as were many others), and I felt strongly that this couldn't continue without infrastructure and resources to support it. So while I retained the anger and urgency that called me to action, I decided that building something bigger, more thoughtful, and more sustainable was the best place for my time and energy.
KO: 3. When, how and why did you guys decide that you needed to actually create a non-profit- as opposed to essentially winging it in a kind of activist existentialism? Some people think you're taking your marching orders from Paul Yandura - who has a reputation for blasting the Democratic Party - so they think you're essentially working out his demons. I don't agree with that. My sense is that you're grateful for Paul's advice and counsel - but that you have your own agenda. It's just I/we don't know what that is.
KW: Winging it indefinitely isn't sustainable. Winging it is why people burn out. We chose a nonprofit structure so that we could begin developing our mission and vision as a group, and then we could build an infrastructure that would support the group's objectives over the long haul.
We have an intimate and trusting relationship with Paul. He's not running the show or giving us marching orders. He's a trusted and valued advisor. We believe GetEQUAL will be a vehicle to organize around cultural and human rights issues in the long run, but with mid-term elections coming up (and they don't look good), we needed to come out with a fury to hold Democrats accountable and try to move on a couple pieces of federal legislation. There's no one better than Paul to advise us in this area.
But we want to use our voice to organize in other areas as well - media defamation, human rights violations, and hate crimes, to name a few. We're building relationships with other folks who can help advise us on strategy in those areas.
KO: 4. Which leads me to this: I know you guys are creating "goals" - but what's the mission upon which those goals are based - and can you give me some idea of what your goals are????
KW: Our mission is to empower the LGBTQ community and our allies to take action to demand full legal and social equality, and to hold accountable those who stand in the way. As for our goals, let's check in again after our staff retreat in mid-June.
KO: 5. Finally - it seems that having an organization means you guys are going to be around for a while, rather than operating like a hit-and-run campaign targeting DADT and ENDA. Correct? Based where?
KW: We're planning to stick around! We do not have a central office, but we have staff in California and DC.
This story is cross-posted at LGBT POV.