Our advocates are letting us down

25 March 2010
6:01 pm

I haven't written very much lately because I spent the first half of March overseas in China (a trip that I do want to sit down and write about at some point, perhaps over the weekend) but I came across this story earlier in the week and wanted to comment on it.

Lt. Dan Choi, an individual who has inadvertently become the face of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the US, got arrested last week for an act of civil disobedience wherein he chained himself to the gates of the White House to draw attention to the issue. What started out with Choi apparently gatecrashing a Human Rights Campaign rally with Kathy Griffin ended with Choi marching to the front of the White House and handcuffing himself to the fence. He was arrested, along with the co-chair of GetEqual, Robin McGehee, and Cpt. Jim Pietrangelo (who had also chained himself alongside Choi). What had begun as a photo op for HRC got hijacked by Choi and, tellingly, HRC refused to get themselves involved.

One of my biggest complaints about the state of our current LGBT rights movement is the course perpetrated by groups like HRC and GLAAD; I have complained about this for a very, very long time and I think that ultimately it's doing more harm to our progress than good. While I haven't always agreed with some of the things Dan Choi has said, I was filled with pride to see him in a Newsweek interview complaining about the same groups:

Within the gay community so many leaders want acceptance from polite society. I think there's been a betrayal of what is down inside of us in order to achieve what looks popular, what look enviable. The movement seems to be centered around how to become an elite. There is a deep schism [in the gay-rights movement], everyone knows this. But this shouldn't be about which group has better branding. There is a tremor right now in every gay and transgender youth that these groups are not grasping. I would say to them—you do not represent us if all you are looking for is a ladder in to elite society.

When I get messages from people who want to be a part of this I ask back: what are you willing to sacrifice? We are tired of being stereotyped as privileged, bourgeois elites. Is someone willing to give up their career, their relationships with powerful people, their Rolodex, or their parents' love to stand up for who they are? I'm giving up my military rank, my unit—which to me is a family—my veterans' benefits, my health care, so what are you willing to sacrifice?

Gandhi did not need three-course dinners and a cocktail party to get his message out. These are people who sacrificed their lives. For them it was hemlock, a cross, the bullet that shot Harvey Milk … it was not the size of their distribution list, but their message that endured.

I have echoed this sentiment myself several times. The concept of activism by gala is not helping our cause; HRC dinners, GLAAD media awards, none of these things are bringing about the results they've promised. While an argument certainly can be made for the fact that it's the visibility of these big press events that enables advocates to go out and do work on the ground, the momentum is wasted when groups like HRC spend more on their own overhead than on gay issues: in 2006, though taking in $30 million in revenues, $25 million was spent on administration of its Washington facility. Championed as one of our best organizations, I'm at a loss for what it is they really do for us. They've been fumbling and disinterested on the issue of DADT alone, to say nothing of other causes, although year after year they take credit for any minor victory even if their only participation in it was an after-the-fact entry on their blog.

Our greatest strides towards equality were during the initial years of the AIDS epidemic, when groups like ACT UP weren't afraid to storm existing press conferences to take advantage of audiences and present news media to raise awareness about LGBT equality and health issues. The Stonewall Riots were the catalyst for the modern movement we have today, where protesters confronted armed riot police to make their voices heard. Even still, HRC themselves have the audacity to make veiled barbs at Choi for his actions while asking for more money– for what? Presumably, to book Hyatt hotels for black-tie events.

The whole thing disgusts me. But in the midst of that disgust, I am at least inspired that we still do have people like Dan Choi despite a general sea of apathy towards politics and activism as a whole. There's something considerably admirable in an individual who isn't afraid to make sacrifices to gain something that the majority of the world takes for granted:

@ltdanchoi If ur willing to sacrifice in pursuit of manifesting America's promise, Fill prisons w me. We're not finished.

I can only hope more people have the courage and conviction to follow in his footsteps.

Addendum:

I have seen some comments saying that complaining about HRC is a distraction and a waste of energy when we're in the midst of trying to get DADT repealed; I don't really agree with this line of thinking but moreover I find it a bit manipulative. When the people and organizations we've tasked with advocating for our rights are failing in their responsibilities, we should be able to say as much and take them to task for it without fearing that someone will complain about said complaining. There's no better time to tell these organizations that they are not living up to their necessary obligations than when the issues become apparent; waiting until some undefined "after" period as has been suggested doesn't make any sense, because by then the damage is already done.

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