An Activist Reflects
Sexagenarian David Mixner has more than 50 years of activist work under his belt — but he's not through yet. Mixner has lived through the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, protested the Vietnam War, and helped an iconic president win the votes of the gay electorate. Nowadays he’s still organizing protests and blogging emphatically, and though he says he typically takes awards "with a grain of salt," when the Point Foundation chose him for its Legend Award for his half century of activism and political work, he couldn't help but be excited. "It’s a real milestone of my life," he says.
Mixner reflects on his lifelong career, back to getting arrested as a teenager, organizing massive marches before Facebook’s founders were even born, and giving a big F.U. to the draft board.
The Advocate: How did you begin as an organizer — what motivated you at such an early age?
David Mixner: I was 14, your classic child of [John F.] Kennedy. I worked hard in his primaries. I worked hard as a volunteer in the general election. He told us we had an obligation to get out of ourselves as young people and into the world. I grew up in a segregated area, but at 15, I joined the civil rights movement. I went to jail for the first time at 17. I went down to Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and Louisiana and went to jail a number of times in those states working on the efforts. Most of my focus was political, on working hard to register African-Americans to vote, getting rid of the poll tax. I remember going to Indianola in Mississippi — well, actually it’s Sunflower County. That’s cuter, don’t you think? And when I got there, there was not one registered black voter. Back then the criteria for registering in Sunflower County was that you had to recite the Constitution of the United States from memory. Amazingly, this county filled with illiterate Anglo-Europeans was able to do it, and not one African-American was. I worked with Julian Bond, worked with some of the great civil rights leaders. The March on Washington in 1963 — I was just a kid. All of us were. All of the Freedom Riders were 18, 19, 20 years old.
That became my life, and that transitioned into my opposition to the Vietnam War. I became involved in National Student Association politics when trying to elect antiwar candidates to the National Student Association, huge battles, and then in ’68 I supported Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. I went back down South and formed the first integrated Democratic slates in history of delegates. I was heavily involved in the organizing of the Julian Bond slate in 1968. At the 1968 convention I got beaten for the first time severely, by the police, which gave me a bad leg and forced me to walk on a cane most of my life. I’ve been beaten a number of times. When Richard Nixon was elected, four of us — Sam Brown, a woman named Marge Sklencar, David Hawk, and I — formed the thing in March 1969 called the Vietnam Moratorium. We said in October, six months later, we were going to have a national strike against the war where all the communities in the country were going to take a day and do nothing but conduct dialogue on the war in Vietnam, protest, read names of war dead, ring bells for every person who died rally and so forth.
On October 15, 1969, we had over 3 million people participate across the country. It was on the cover of Time and Life. Walter Cronkite gave all of the 30 minutes to the Vietnam War Moratorium. We were meeting with Nixon and Kissinger and they were trying to stop us from going to the demonstration. We were threatened with prison terms if we didn’t stop. We were 23, or 22. I think we got a Nobel Prize nomination out of that.
A lot of this activism that is so iconic stems from young people, which is so fitting since your award is from an organization that benefits young people.
That’s why I decided to let them do it. Truly, I had a number of people approach me, and then a couple friends said, “It’s a pretty good milestone, and you’ve been a complete citizen of your times.” With the Point Foundation, it just made sense. What a better way to take my history and my journey to raise money for the next generation of our leaders, and I’m just thrilled.
What kind of advice do you have for young activists who are just finding their footing?
I tell them about the Vietnam Moratorium. Everyone told us that we were going to embarrass ourselves and not to do it. I told them this before the [Equality March in October]. Everyone was telling them, “No, now is not the time.” I told them to listen carefully to what people have to say, but never say no simply because someone says no to you. I said, “Listen carefully, but push your limits. Go beyond what others think are possible, because the four of us with $100 and one phone and one office not only organized 3 million people on October 15, on November 15 we brought 750,000 people to Washington, D.C., which was up until that point the largest protest in Washington, D.C., history.” This was four kids in their 20s. We didn’t have computers or Facebook; we did everything by mimeograph machine and by mail. The thing is that young people have the unique opportunity to create change because they’re not burdened with the baggage that all of our journeys involved. Someone said to me last month, “Oh, my God, they were so lucky to have you at the march,” and I said, “No, you got it all wrong. I learned so much from them.” I had no idea how to do a high-tech march, and they taught me.
How do you think that technology would have helped you?
We had to have a staff on the Vietnam War Moratorium when we were working in the 1960s that filled three floors. We had to have a field coordinator for every region of the country, a hired staff person. We had to have a person who did nothing but get the mail out. We had to have a person set up a system of phone banks. We had to have a person deal with porta-potties. Do you know they never had an office for the March on Washington?! They did the whole thing for $160,000.
they did it all by computer. But if we don’t burden them with our
baggage, if we don’t insist they look at the world as we see it through
60-year-old eyes and then see it freshly, there’s nothing they can’t do.
The problems come when [older activists] say, “No, that’s not the way we did it.” I
had to bite my lip six times on the march because I was like, Where are
they going to get housing? Well, they had a committee on the computer
that got all the housing that was needed. But it wasn’t the way that I
did it. We had three floors of offices and they had none. I had to be
willing to listen and learn, as they did for me. I brought a lot to the
table both philosophically about spirituality and nonviolence and tone
and rhetoric and bringing people together, so I brought a lot to the
There has been an extraordinary sea change that has taken
place in the LGBT community, and it’s still taking place and it hasn’t
shaken itself totally out. Some organizations like Human Rights Campaign became very
powerful dealing with legislators, dealing with the political issues,
and I spent a good deal of my life helping to build that. I was one of
the founders of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. I was Clinton’s top
LGBT adviser, which was the historic moment where we came into our own
political power. Since then we have believed that if we raised the
money, provided the volunteers, created the alliances within the
Democratic Party, when the right moment came, our time would come too.
What has happened is a couple of things. The very first and most
important sea change in this community started with the passage of Prop.
8 [California's anti-gay-marriage measure]. A whole Prop. 8 generation of people under 30 years old who were livid
and couldn’t understand how that could happen because they had never
experienced anything like that — they were radicalized. Then the Harvey
Milk movie really inspired them. You can’t underestimate the impact of
that movie on these people. The third thing that happened was that the
leadership of our national organizations didn’t embrace them. The fourth
thing that happened was they created it themselves. I think out of the
march, four or five different organizations have been created just like
after the March on Washington in 1963.
It’s very important to
have a historical perspective of this stuff. Sometimes the more things
change, they stay the same. Since the march I have met, in my
apartment, almost every week since then, three or four new young people
each week with new ideas and new ways of doing things. I haven’t seen
such energy in ages in this community. It’s amazing. What’s happening
is, with the disappointment in Obama and the passage of Prop. 8 and
[the anti-gay-marriage Question 1 in] Maine, that we are making a transition slowly, but surely, which will
change our institutions, which will change our movement.
Exactly, I came out because of Anita Bryant. I was in the closet, I was helping behind the scenes fighting her, and then she came to California with the Briggs Initiative [1978’s Proposition 6, which would have barred gays from teaching in the state’s public schools]. My partner, Peter Scott, and I were picked to run the entire campaign. Harvey was doing Northern California. The only reason we were picked was because no one would do it. Ironically, at the time everyone said, “Don’t do it, we can’t win. Don’t put the money in.” No one would run the campaign. There was a guy named Don Bradley and Michael Levitt who came in who were the straight figureheads. They gave a lot. They were two straight people who came in to help. Here I had all these experiences organizing in the South and antiwar politics and I was on the McGovern reform commission and working for Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, so they came to me and Peter said, “You’ve gotta run this. You know how to do it.” And I said, “I can’t because they’ll know I’m gay.” So I turned them down. Finally Peter Scott said to me, “It won’t make any difference whether they know or not if this thing passes,” and that made sense to me and I came out. I came out by sending a fund-raising letter asking people to contribute money to [fighting] Prop. 6, and because of Harvey’s good work in the north and because of Ivy Bottini’s good work in the south, with our good work statewide, we won. Big.
It illustrates that one of the things we have to get over as a community is wanting to be liked. Or proving to others that we’re just like them. These ads where we have, “This is my straight daughter, this is my lesbian daughter. We’re just like you, and they’re just like each other.” First of all, nobody’s gonna buy it, not in a million years. We can try to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge before we tell them a homosexual is just like them. But second of all, we’re not. In some ways we bring remarkable gifts to this table of society. How can I be like them when I’ve lost 300 friends to AIDS? When my best friend, Freddie Davis, killed himself at 16? When I know people who had forced lobotomies in the ’50s? When people were rounded up in parks and had their names printed in newspapers and their careers destroyed? When police raided the bars and lined people up outside? How can we be like them? Our experience is so different from them. But what we did in all of that, we triumphed because we had a different, unique journey. When our friends got sick with AIDS we created new health care systems; we created dental clinics for everybody. And we can show society we know how to do this. If they will embrace us and our gifts and talents because we’re not like them. They need us.
Another issue that truly is about young people, when you think about it, is “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Interestingly, a lot of the activists of the 1960s were against the war in Vietnam, but in 1992 a lot of gays who were involved in the anti-Vietnam movement started working on repealing the ban on gays serving in the military. Can you explain if there was a transition made?
I don’t think a transition was made. I think there was some wisdom shown. I’m still a pacifist. I haven’t changed my personal values or belief systems. My supporting the right of LGBT citizens to serve in the military still has nothing to do with my personal beliefs. I hope as I talk and share and write that I might inspire more people to my viewpoint on war and nonviolence. However, I do not have the right to force anyone I disagree with to be discriminated against and denied the choice to make their life choices and career journeys. I have a lot of relatives, because I come from a poor family, that serve in the military. And they come from rural areas and rural poor areas and they go into the military to get an education because it’s the largest education program in America. We don’t have an education program of that size. Now, ironically, the ROTC won’t allow gays in. We’re not allowed to get an education.
Were you ever drafted or close to being drafted?
Yes. I wrote my draft board a wonderful little note saying, “Fuck you, and fuck your war.” I did. And then I was going to be indicted, but I got beaten up badly at the Chicago convention. My leg was so badly permanently damaged that I really couldn’t serve, so I got out for those reasons. You know, all I had to do was tell them I was gay. For me, and I made this choice consciously, it was better for me to go to prison for five years for refusing to serve than to tell my family I was gay. I made that decision because I was going to prison for five years because I couldn’t tell anyone I was gay.
How old were you when you decided to come out?
Oh, I was 30. I had a nervous breakdown; my parents disowned me for a while; I wasn’t home; I lost all my businesspeople who I worked with for 20 years in politics. It was a brutal coming-out. It wasn’t one of those, “Oh, my God, what a pleasant surprise!”
I was really in bad shape. I had a nervous breakdown. I almost became paralyzed. I couldn’t believe what happened to my life. One day I was at a cocktail party and someone who I had helped become powerful politically was there. He didn’t know I was behind him. And I heard him say, “David Mixner is finished. He’s washed up. He’s a faggot.” And that’s all it took. I got angry instead of being a victim and I said, “I’ll show you, you fucker.” And the one thing I knew was that a politician would sell their mother into slavery for money and so that’s when we started the PAC. And I was right.
A lot of the young people involved with the Point Foundation probably see you as an influence in their lives in a lot of different aspects.
I have a very special relationship with the Point Scholars. I addressed them three times at the summer conference and I’ve gone to their events and I just think they’re the most remarkable group of young people I’ve ever met in my life. Anyone who’s going to be in that room that night, the nice thing about honoring someone like me, this is what counts. I’m glad to be validated for 50 years of service, I’m flattered and honored, but it’s a nice thing. What counts is, a lot of people who have had no exposure are coming in that room that night for me — politicians, wealthy people straight and gay, because they know me and they want to be there that night, which is very nice. What I’m excited about is they’re going to hear these young Point Scholars speak and they’re going to hear about the kid in Texas who in his junior year in high school was kicked out of his home, lived in his car, so he could finish high school, in a park and went on to Harvard. Or when Herb Hampshire went over to Presbyterian Hospital the other day and one of the doctors in the emergency room was a Point Scholar, and so this is one of the most remarkable programs I know. It’s taking our dispossessed and perilous and making them gifts to this planet.
Who do you see as some people who are your personal influences as far as activism or politically?
My heroes are Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet; [Nelson] Mandela, who of course is everyone’s hero, but mine too. Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Teddy Kennedy. My whole life has been impacted by the Kennedys. Teddy Kennedy was a friend. Vicki Kennedy is giving me the award that night, this will be her first social appearance since [Ted’s] death. It’s a big deal.
How did that come about?
I was talking to her and was telling her about it, and we got around to who was going to present it. She was my first choice, but given the situation, I didn’t know if she was going to be ready to make that sort of appearance, red carpet social-type thing. She basically said to me, “If I have to get up out of my bed and take the pillow off of my head, I will be there that night to give you that award because Teddy would’ve liked to have given you that award.”
You have 50 years of activism under your belt. Looking forward, what is something you’re looking forward to?
Seeing this Prop. 8 generation glow and blossom. I think it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to our movement since the ’92 convention. I think it’s a turning point, I think they are brilliant. Do you know how many young people I’ve had come in and talk to me? You sort of become the wise man. I haven’t seen this since the civil rights movement of the ’60s. This is without a doubt the most exciting development within the last two decades for our community.