[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.