I had the pleasure of meeting Lt. Dan Choi last night at a speaking engagement at Susquehanna University. As always, he spoke quite strongly and definitely ruffled a few feathers, especially—I’m sure—of the students who were just there for extra credit. He has an interesting sense of humor too; I wonder if he has secret aspirations to do stand-up comedy or if he just knows how to play a crowd of mostly college students? Regardless, I’m glad I got to see him speak in a small venue, and I will always be honored to look back and say I met him and shook his hand.
We were discouraged from asking too much about his direct action last week, so I used my question to ask him to comment on the growing schism between groups like the Human Rights Campaign and grassroots activists. He pointed out that he loves cocktail parties, and heck—even Jesus had a cocktail party—but of course, the disciples were not exactly Jesus’ biggest donors.
The point Choi went on to make though is that he’s not a rich white man, but he knows there is a place for that kind of activism. The problem he has, which I share, is that HRC attempts to speak on behalf of the entire community. Surely, the rich white guys with their plush office and Dolce and Gabbana suits (a must read) do not speak for the homeless youth, the impoverished elders, or the many ethnic groups that enrich the gay community. Here are some of his comments from the recent exclusive interview he gave Newsweek:
Why not now? 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[s] 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?
Seriously, we have a problem if President Obama or anyone in Congress listens to the Human Rights Campaign and thinks they understand where the LGBTQ community stands. If HRC is saying, “It’s okay, we can wait as long as it means your support,” (i.e. applauding Obama just for showing up at their expensive exclusive gala) then they are not effectively speaking on our behalf. Slow posh lobbying might seem to indicate power and influence, but the rest of us are experiencing the tribulations of inequality in the meantime without the financial luxuries that allow us to continue taking the paths of least resistance.
Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo obviously knew that it was illegal to chain themselves to the White House, but it’s important to see that they did not do what they did for a reaction, but that they did what they did as a reaction. I wonder how many in my generation even truly appreciate the importance of this civil disobedience. If HRC had actually been effective in their lobbying efforts, Choi and Pietrangelo would not have had to raise the stakes in the way they did. So what’s the deal, HRC?
Interestingly, we get mixed messages from HRC, if we look for them. Yesterday, the HRC National Field Director, Marty Rouse, posted a blog post called Want Equality? Find Your Own Activism and Do Something. Here’s an excerpt:
While the actions we will take may differ, we must remember that our goal is the same. We are not a community divided against each other; rather we are a diverse community that uses different approaches to encourage our allies and defeat our opponents. We all have different roles to play in our fight for equality and no one should be diminishing others’ work or questioning their commitment. Furthermore, a healthy and fair dialogue that holds people accountable for successes and failures makes us stronger. Since the beginning of the LGBT rights movement people have taken different positions on strategy, but moments of success have not come from when we’ve fought each other, but used our individual methods to fight our real enemies. As Kerry Eleveld points out in her smart weekly commentary for Advocate.com, “Any mainstream ink that is spent reporting on the division within the community is a diversion from their goal.”
This sounds nice. In a sense, HRC is taking a similar position to what Choi has said. It’s the “there’s room for both, but we’re right” position. Unfortunately for HRC, Choi backs his up by saying “and here’s how what you’re doing is ineffective.” Rouse instead goes on to claim that HRC—they’re the ones “organizing the grassroots” because they’re the ones gathering veterans for a lobby day—in May. I’m so glad to see they are so concerned with timeliness and that they took our blogswarm last month to heart.
Meanwhile, today, we get an email from Joe Solmonese reminding us exactly what HRC’s modus operandi is: apologizing for inaction and asking for money:
Now that health care reform has passed we have a real window of opportunity to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before members of Congress turn their attention to getting re-elected this fall.
That’s why HRC has decided to ramp up its campaign to put every ounce of pressure we can on Congress and the Obama administration RIGHT NOW.
Wait, Joe, is it “RIGHT NOW” or is it in May after the lobby day?
We need to raise $150,000 before March 31 to go as big as we can.
Donate today –and help us make sure we have the funds we need!
That almost sounds threatening. If they don’t get ONE HUNDRED FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS within the next week, HRC will not be able to successfully get Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repealed.
What a load of horse shit. How many times have we heard claims like this? Psst… you haven’t made any progress with the money we’ve already given you.
When you look at how HRC spends its money, you can see how misguided they are. For example, this week I featured an exclusive interview with Scott Withers who is challenging Dale Kildee in Michigan’s 5th. Withers is a very strong proponent of LGBTQ equaliy (with the bonus that he’s openly gay) and is also staunchly pro-choice whereas Kildee has a spotty record on LGBT issues and is totally pro-life. But guess what? This year, HRC has already given $1,000 to Kildee. Apparently half-hearted support of LGBT issues is good enough for the Human Rights Campaign and women’s rights don’t even count as “Human Rights.”
It doesn’t matter if HRC is our most powerful lobbying effort, because it doesn’t seem like they’re overly concerned with lobbying on our behalf. We need to speak out against HRC and make it clear that they do not speak for us. As Choi said in his Newsweek interview:
I felt like they were just trying to speak to themselves. If that’s the best the lobbying groups and HRC can do, then I don’t know how these powerful groups are supposed to represent our community.
As far as I’m concerned, HRC is just as liable for our persistent inequality as the government themselves. Just like the government, they use our own money to delay our inequality, except that HRC actually duped us into trusting them with that money. I don’t think there’s any room for those kinds of scoundrels in our movement. As long as they continue to claim to lobby for us, they’re the ones keeping us chained to the fence of inequality.