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When the only tool you have is a swizzle stick, every problem looks like a vodka tonic.
At least, that’s an easy characterization of the case against the establishmentarian approach to LGBT civil rights — the idea that playing by the rules of Washington boils down to hobnobbing, glad-handing and mutual back-scratching while balancing glasses of chardonnay and plates of catered hors d’oeuvres.
That’s the source of the activist sneer at insider games. ”While you’re hanging out at fabulous cocktail parties, I’m out on the streets fighting for real change!”
There is a flipside to this, of course, highlighted over the past few weeks. When the only tool you have is glitter, every political protest looks like an 8-year-old girl’s birthday party.
Don’t take that as a reason to doubt my commitment to sparkle emotion — I’m generally supportive of attention-grabbing political stunts that call attention to anti-gay politicians and injustice. I know from my own experience as an activist that political theater can reap great benefits.
But here’s the depressing little secret: I’m kinda boring when it comes to these particular contretemps. Even though I sometimes use cocktail-party activist words like ”contretemps,” I’ve also been known to use language like, ”Fuck you, I want my equal rights now.” Both the insider and outsider approaches have their own validity, particularly when they aren’t used exclusively.
Floating on the fundraiser circuit, affixing one’s name to host committees, and having one’s photo taken with very important people isn’t contrary to the goals of the LGBT movement. It actually is, at times, a vital part of that movement. But it can’t be the only part.
The same with overtly theatric direct-action tactics. Tossing glitter at Newt Gingrich, a candidate whose inability to be a presidential nominee was as predictable as the orbit of the Earth, was a flashy moment that captured media attention by adding a moment of camp to a campaign that was already well into caricature.
But round two simply proved that not even glitter can make Tim Pawlenty sparkle. By the time we get to round three and the semi-successful glittering of Michele Bachmann — Can it be considered a glitter-bombing if the glitter gets nowhere near the target? — we’re into been-there-done-that territory, which is the kiss of death for media attention. And media attention is the name of the game for this kind of activism.
The other problem with an ongoing glitter campaign is that, despite the good intentions, it doesn’t have a focused message. Contrast glittering with one of the more effective direct actions in the recent past, Dan Choi‘s chaining himself to the White House fence. I know Choi remains divisive for many, but that was a simple act that created a huge visual impact highlighting a specific injustice. It didn’t single-handedly repeal ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but it effectively ratcheted up the pressure at a key moment.
Glittering is a merry political prank that’s good for a chuckle on our part but lacks the message to become a regular tactic. Fortunately, LGBT activists have a lot of experience coming up with creative and innovative ways to get our community’s message across. There are many tools in the chest, we just need to be sure to use them all.
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