Lately, I've been thinking a lot about activism, and how we define the term. When I hear the word I picture people with signs, picketing, chanting slogans. Perhaps if I'm feeling a little wild, my scope expands to consider philanthropy and political donations.
Yet, when I think about what actions really reach people, aka "changing hearts and minds" (in the realm of queer rights and acceptance, at least), shouting slogans and waving signs is not a method I'd choose. No conservative or religious nut is so weak of constitution that his mind might pull a 180 at the sight of a particularly clever joke about Jesus having two dads or appeal to the more ridiculous, never-followed rules standing alongside the condemnation of homosexuality in Leviticus.
In terms of permanent impact, the thing that changes people most effectively is personal connection. It has been said before, but it's true and it's worth repeating. The attitudes of those who are non-tolerant/non-accepting are more likely to be reconsidered once they find themselves with a queer friend or queer child.
When one has a personal connection to someone, empathy is unavoidable to all but the most hardened and far-gone of human beings. When a friend becomes seriously ill, we worry. When they suffer an injustice, even as trivial as a parking ticket, we share their outrage (even if they deserved it). When parents see their child struggling, their hearts ache. Empathy is our most powerful weapon against hate.
The tricky part is how we wield this weapon. Obviously, you can't make someone love you. (Bonnie Raitt taught us that.) Hell, you can't make someone even like you. (Try walking up to someone sometime and saying "Hi, I'd like to be your friend," and then watch their eyes go dinner-plates as they mumble excuses and gradually back away from you, the crazy person.) In the strategy of amity, confrontational signs and shouted slogans are about as effective as astounding body odor or a fondness for sharing racist jokes. Establishing connections and achieving empathy is sort of a subtle, less-is-more waiting game.
The one crucial item to the game plan, however, is being out. Not just out with friends, immediate family, and cool people we meet in yoga class or at bars - out out. Out when you have the option to hide - e.g., out if you're "straight-acting;" out if you're bisexual in a hetero relationship; out if you're trans and you pass; out if you're a straight ally or a parent of a queer child. Out where people might not share our views - e.g., out at work; out at extended family reunions and weddings; out in the church community. This is easier said than done. There are risks to being out out, and I recognize it's simply not possible for everyone. But it is possible for more of us than are doing it.
This is not about preaching one's beliefs to others or getting in arguments. Hearts and minds are not won that way. In fact, that's the path one encounters the most resistance. (Has anyone ever "won" a political argument with a conservative? Or vice versa? No. A conservative is as inclined to completely abandon his beliefs as we, more left-leaning folks are. No one ever says, "Oh, good point. I was wrong about everything!" These conversations end in agreements to disagree at best, and vitriolic shouting at worst.) It's about simply being seen, being known. Here, setting a quiet example is most successful.
There's no need to go around announcing one's queerness, but make something visible -- a small pride flag or coffee mug at one's desk, for example. And once out, just be yourself. Be friendly, polite, a good co-worker/grandson/parishioner. Every single time you hear a "thank you" or make someone laugh, you're making progress. It's humanizing.
When the intolerant person is faced with the issue, a personal connection transforms the abstract, unacceptable notion of a Faceless Other being gay or trans into Jim, the friendly guy who sits three desks over who helped you change a flat after work that time. It's easy to hate and discriminate against the Faceless Other. It's a lot harder to hate Jim. You see him five days a week. Jim might suck cock, but he's not a bad guy. Maybe the next time this intolerant person heads to the polls or hears a buddy calling someone a fag, he'll think of Jim and change his ways.
This is not improbable idealism. This happens. Republican parents have gay kids and reconsider their views. Casually homophobic high-schoolers go to college and reform their ways after the environment allows them to meet more queer people. Empathy works.
This has become my interpretation of activism. I don't call myself an activist, perhaps because the word is too closely tied to the more traditional signified images I mentioned earlier - signs and slogans. A new term is needed: social activism. Centered around person-to-person relationships over a period of years, it's about as grass-roots as it gets.
Much of the time it seems like nothing is even happening, but gradually it is. It might seem to be a frustratingly slow, one-person-at-a-time method on the surface, but the more I think about it, the more expedient it seems. Considering the degree to which people can be won over, and the utter impotence of shouting and foisting homemade signs upon strangers, social activism seems more and more like the answer.
There aren't many people who don't know someone who's LGB or T, whether they know it or not. If more of us resolved to social activism, empathy could spread like a virus, with increased acceptance treading on its heels. I'm a social activist. How about you?