Nothing highlights the rifts in our community like the possibility of success.
Infighting and disagreements over the direction and tactics of the movement for LGBT equality are as old as the movement itself, and mirror the tensions in other civil rights movements. But those tensions get tighter when opportunity presents itself — something we see right now as the divisions between ”grassroots activists” and ”gay elites” once again come to the fore.
Naturally, the division between those viewpoints is always there, but during the Bush administration when most federal-level LGBT political activism was oriented to defense against anti-gay initiatives, those divisions weren’t quite so public (although they certainly played out in some state-level battles, notably in California’s losing effort to beat back Proposition 8).
But last week’s Human Rights Campaign rally to repeal ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” headlined by Kathy Griffin and the subsequent arrest of Lt. Dan Choi for chaining himself to the White House fence show that the division is becoming as strong and public as it was during the early Clinton administration.
Back in those days, direct-action groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation tussled with the Human Rights Campaign Fund — commonly derided by street activists as the ”Champagne Fund” — over the same issues we’re seeing now. Activists decried the organization’s focus on access, lobbying and fundraising; political insiders warned that high-profile direct action tactics would do more harm than good.
The more things change, and so on.
I’ll admit to my doubts about the wisdom of building a political rally to repeal DADT around Griffin, although I don’t doubt her belief and commitment to LGBT equality. In the professionalized political world of precise, calculated messages and images, it just seemed a bit off.
I’ll also admit that my own involvement with ACT-UP has left me with a soft spot for direct action and civil disobedience. Although that soft spot comes with a caveat: I’m not interested in theatrics for theatrics sake.
Some think Choi is acting out of outsized ego, an impression that he unfortunately stoked this week in a Newsweek interview where he seemed to be comparing himself to Harriet Tubman, Gandhi and Jesus Christ. But there are many, many LGBT folks who look at Choi and think, ”Finally!” And they’re making themselves heard through blogs and tweets and Facebook postings.
Personally, and based primarily on what time I’ve spent interviewing him, I don’t believe Choi is motivated solely by ego, though it’s certainly there (as it is with every prominent person in the movement, from the grass roots to the executive offices to the opinion columns of magazines). He’s obviously influenced by his strong religious upbringing — it’s hard not to think you’re hearing the language of his father, a Baptist preacher, when Choi speaks about the moral imperative of ending DADT. And while that language may lead to some awkward moments such as that Newsweek interview, when he asks what people are willing to personally sacrifice to achieve equality, it’s a question we need to take seriously.
With DADT and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) both tantalizingly close after years of disappointment, people are eager to see the promises of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress fulfilled. It’s somewhat trite to say this, but that’s because it’s true: We need everyone to make these promises come true, from lobbyists in the halls of Congress to grassroots activists on the streets of D.C. to you and me reaching out to family and friends.