Between Floating and Leeching: The Financial Struggle of the LGBT Activist

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[Note: Pam Spaulding added an amazing commentary of her own to this post and there has been some great conversation. Check out the post over at Pam’s House Blend.]

This is a post about making sausage. If you are in any way involved in queer activism, I hope you’ll at least give it some thought.

Let’s say you want to dedicate a certain portion of your life to supporting LGBT equality. You have a number of options. The most common option, I expect, would be that individuals volunteer. They sing in a gay men’s chorus, they spend some time volunteering in their LGBT community center, they help organize Pride festivals or other events, etc. These are individuals who are sustaining themselves financially through jobs not related to LGBT work who find extra time to help the movement.

For others, the priority might be higher. Some might be eager and ready to dedicate their whole lives to LGBT work. They look for jobs in LGBT campus centers (like I am), or go work for organizations in the movement like HRC or NGLTF, or find other ways locally to devote themselves. Some might even be full-time activists who are financially supported for the work they do blogging, speaking, or organizing direct action. (I doubt there are many examples of people who can support themselves as full-time bloggers; certainly only the most-trafficked would be capable of doing so.)

So that raises the question: Should people get paid for LGBT work? A student by the name of Nonnie Ouch at Texas Tech doesn’t think so, and wrote a letter lambasting Lt. Dan Choi for charging too much for his speaking engagements:

However, I’ve lost all respect for you as a gay- and human-rights activist. In the course of my two short years as an activist in the communities I have lived in, I have met amazing people such as Irene Andrews, C.d. Kirven and Michael Robinson, who travel from city to city, state to state with their own money and ask NOTHING from those who request their speaking services. These people, like myself, live, breath and eat queer activism. They live to inspire others. They live to show the compassion of love to others. They have not lost sight of what is truly important here: equality for all.

You, sir, have lost sight in one of those many $10,000 checks written to you, of why you came out and became an activist in the first place. Remember, Lt. Choi? LOVE IS WORTH IT. LOVE is worth cutting a deal to poor college kids in an extremely conservative city who’s only desire is to make headway in their community. LOVE is worth sacrificing money to give my friends and others who are currently serving in silence the hope to remember they are worth it. Love isn’t made by money. Love isn’t made by your agent, Alec Melman. Love isn’t tangible when you’re suffocated by greed as you are. Love is constantly flowing through the heart and brain. Love is giving. Love isn’t defined by financial status, color, gender, creed, age or sexual orientation.

Now, I cannot speak to Nonnie’s experience trying to book Dan nor the treatment received from Dan’s agent. Nonetheless, I’m going to say here that I think Nonnie’s comments are out of line and ignore the reality of our movement.

Where there is money in our movement, it is concentrated. Joe Solmonese can wear his fancy suits and host his posh cocktail parties while others are doing their best with grassroots activism and direct action that is essentially unfunded. Joe can afford to take time from his work duties to travel while other activists are taking time off for their activism. I think a lot of folks fall somewhere in the middle.

Gays aren’t rich. We don’t all have posh lofts in NYC a la Will Truman. A lot of us are scraping by. There is a limit to how much we can do before we need to get paid if we’re going to do anymore. Certainly, there are “professional volunteers” doing as much as—if not more than—many who are gay for pay. They can afford to.

Nonnie mentions people who travel “with their own money.” Where does that money come from? It seems to me there is an incredible assumption of socioeconomic privilege in that statement. There’s just this expectation that people should have money (from where?) and all the activism should be on them.

Well, that’s not realistic. Some people make their living on the speaker circuit. Some work for the movement and depend upon it for their livelihood. And like it or not, the stereotype that the gay community is well off permeates within the community as well. In many ways, the vision we have of a worthwhile activist is someone who can afford to take the time and can still look good doing the work.

Now, there is a lot we don’t know about this story. We don’t know if Dan has any other source of income. We don’t know how Dan plans to use the money. We don’t know what constraints the agent has put on the booking. I think it is safe to say that Dan’s goal is not to focus on speaking. Maybe he doesn’t want to speak much and the agent thinks because of his “celebrity” status that $10,000 is what schools ought to pay to bring in Dan. We’re not privy to those details, but I think the ambiguity about it all speaks to the rashness of Nonnie’s letter.

Dan is just a person, like the rest of us. He sacrificed his career to further our movement, and surely he brought a lot of positive attention to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in a way no one ever really has. I would go so far as to say we owe him, particularly considering he has continued to work on our behalf. He’s not getting a military paycheck anymore; we know that much.

I’m willing to give Dan the benefit of the doubt. Is his cost to speak high? Yes. But it is what it is. It’s not like Dan is living the high and glamorous life of the HRC execs. As far as I know, he’s just trying to get by. Is every school going to be able to afford to bring him? Maybe not. But plenty have, and I was lucky enough to see one of those engagements. They build coalitions on campus, work with neighboring campuses, and they make it work.

I’m sorry it didn’t work out at Texas Tech, but is Dan to blame? I don’t think so. I’m sure Nonnie feels disappointed that the efforts to bring Dan were in vain, and maybe there was disrespect on the agent’s part. It’s not inconceivable. But Dan is a big celebrity right now. There are a ton of great people who are local or less A-list that could have easily been just as powerful and inspiring to the campus community. It’s not Dan’s fault that Dan is doing what Dan needs to do for Dan. Even if Dan’s cost or his agent’s dealings are out of line, Dan is human and can learn and grow. It is out of line to suggest that something this inane compromises all of his previous and continued activism.

If anything, Nonnie’s comments perhaps speak to a sense of entitlement, suggesting Dan hasn’t done enough and he now needs to give even more for the Texas Tech community. This just does not seem fair to what Dan has already done for us.

We have to get to a point where we appreciate the need for balance. There are those in the movement who depend on the movement’s support just to keep afloat while others leech more than they need. Ultimately, I think it’s more important that we measure activists by what they accomplish and what they give. If they’re taking more than they’ve earned, that’s one thing. But it’s not Lt. Dan Choi.

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There are 4 Comments to "Between Floating and Leeching: The Financial Struggle of the LGBT Activist"

  • becca says:

    There’s another dimension to the economic argument. Neil Gaiman, a notable science fiction/fantasy author, has been criticized because he charges rather a large amount for his speaking engagements (even though he gives all of his speaking fees to charity, and lives only off the royalties of his books). Gaiman has said that the reason he charges so much is specifically to have a negative effect on the number of requests he receives–he receives so many requests that he could easily quit writing and just work the lecture circuit for the rest of his life. He sets the price high to discourage requests from people who aren’t serious about what they’re getting into (and $10,000, I might add, is actually pretty cheap compared to what others on the lecture circuit ask for and receive–Gaiman charges more, for example).

    It’s similar to touring bands asking for a guarantee. Bands typically want to play in a music venue of some legitimacy with a PA system and a bar and someone who will take tickets. They don’t want to play in somebody’s garage or in a back yard. So, they say they’ll come to your town for $1,000 or $2,000; knowing that this will weed out the more amateur or unprofessional promoters. The more successful a band is, the higher the guarantee becomes.

    Lt. Choi is charging what the market can bear. If people weren’t willing to pay $10k to bring him to their events, he would either lower his price or be out on his ass.

    One other thing comes to my mind, which is this assumption–and trend–of folks who work all sorts of jobs in order to fund their activism. I don’t think activism should be something you do for free–I think if we’re ever going to overturn power structures and build a new world, we have to find ways to support people who are dedicating their lives to recreating new systems. Lord knows the world doesn’t need any more embittered Starbucks baristas who shore up the system Monday through Friday and then furiously try to dismantle it on Saturday and Sunday. I would like those folks who have to work shit jobs in order to fund the work they really love to be able to quit those jobs and just spend their lives on something they love.

    Sorry. Long comment. I shall not make hijacking your awesome blog a habit. 🙂

  • ZackFord says:

    It was a great comment. Some might find it tl;dr, but I very much appreciated what you wrote! Please feel free to comment—long or short—any time!

  • erin davies says:

    i’m a professional speaker and filmmaker and can attest to the fact that in order to make speaking possible, or full-time energies possible, it’s impossible to do it out of pocket. i speak at about 50 schools per year, and being gone that much makes it impossible to get any type of consistent job or benefits, and half the time i’m not on the road, i am editing, doing PR, booking events, meeting with reporters, etc, etc, etc. it’s a 60 hour a week job and just the expenses alone in traveling, speaking, and producing film, keeping up with your own sort of movement, i can attest to the fact that there is a lot involved financially, and most people really don’t know the details or see more then a check being pocketed for nothing. i don’t see that i get paid to be gay or to just be a gay activist. it’s a message, and at a certain point when you decide to take something on full-time it’s not a glamorous road, it’s a lot of hard work, and most people couldn’t stay above water doing it. for example, i sell stickers through my website for $3, people immediately thought i was pocketing 3 million dollars because i said i wanted to sell a million of them as a goal. realistically they cost almost 2k to buy, and by the time i sell enough to make that money back, it’s after going to the post office hundreds of times, taking care of orders online, saving information, working hundreds of hours at various events, and that’s just to break even, so to work that many hours to just break even, it’s not really about making money, but like anyone who’s an educator, a teacher, in order to be able to dedicate yourself to doing that, you have to be able to get by. if your teachers in elementary school were spending 8 hours a day with you, not getting paid to do it, they wouldn’t be well fed, and probably wouldn’t be doing a good job with the kids. everyone deserves to get paid for their time. when i do talks, i think each school thinks it’s the only school i go to and i often get asked what do you really do, for some people it’s what we do. all the time. and make ourselves available to do so all around the country. had i had a speaker like me speak in front of an audience when i was younger it would’ve made a world of a difference and probably would’ve saved me years of therapy. at my most recent talk, i asked the crowd who had a job, almost everyone raised their hands, then i asked who works full-time, a good portion raised their hands, then i asked out of who works full-time, who would be willing to do it for free, work 40-60 hours a week without getting compensated. not one person raised their hand. i then replied, i don’t understand why people think i should either. like anyone else i work hard and need to get by, and barely scrape by, don’t have health insurance, have many highs and lows with what i make. it’s not an easy lifestyle to lead, i’ve been doing it now for 3 years. so again, people should do it out of pocket, tour the country, speak to thousands of audiences, all of that costs money, it’s very expensive to travel, and there is a lot involved, and as i said, not getting paid makes a full-time activist or filmmaker’s life impossible. if it’s a volunteer thing, or something that one does on the side that is a completely different situation. my film for example cost nearly 100k to produce, and 2.5 years of my daily time working on it. yet after spending 2.5 years on it and raising the money for it and risking many things in my life to do it, people just see i’m pocketing millions because i have a distributor and my movie has reached some level of success, the reality is there is a lot of debt taken on, and after spending nearly 3 years of your full-time energies on something, like anyone else, it’s essential to get paid for whatever path you choose to take as a career.

    • Tania says:

      Erin makes some great points. Unless someone is paying for things out of their own pockets, few will realise how the costs can mount up for basic things like office supplies, phonecalls, stamps etc. If you do any travel, the costs can go up dramatically, even when opting for budget/lower cost transport and accommodation. Many also think that the few hours at an event is the only ‘work’, when a huge amount of planning and preparation will have gone into it.

      I’ve also been a trustee for a non-profit organisation and part of a team auditing others, and many would be shocked at the expenses, salaries, benefits and training costs incurred by some, but not all, paid people working for large and not so large non-profits, NGOs and charities when grass-roots volunteers for the same groups are not allowed to claim basic local public transport and subsistence costs (that’s the reason I had to stop volunteering, it was costing me too much!)

      So anyone who is about to criticise activists who are funding themselves via donation, selling products, or speaking engagements, should think long and hard about it. before opening their mouth or dashing off a rude email.

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