The Rise of GetEqual

By Kerry Eleveld and Andrew Harmon

Originally published on Advocate.com June 01 2010 2:50 AM ET

Even civil disobedience sometimes requires a dress rehearsal. On an April night before the new direct action group GetEqual staged one of its attention-grabbing protests, a small number of activists practiced handcuffing themselves to a backyard canopy outside a large red brick home in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

Three of them had done this before, attracting both fanfare and criticism. One was a West Point graduate whose coming-out story during an appearance last year on The Rachel Maddow Show precipitated his ongoing discharge proceedings from the National Guard. Another was an Army veteran who had been discharged under “don’t ask,’ don’t tell” in 2004, while a third was a mother of two from Fresno, Calif., who says she’s grown tired of waiting for national LGBT groups to seize the moment with this purportedly gay-friendly administration. Together they staged a dry run of what would happen the next day, using several sets of cuffs bought at a Dupont Circle shop. Expediency was key.

The iconic photographs taken the following day, as six LGBT service members including Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. James Pietrangelo II attached themselves to the White House fence with the aid of Robin McGehee, opened a new chapter in a movement where having a real voice often means writing a big check.

But although GetEqual appears to have sprung up from nowhere and arrived with haste, the group is an amalgamation of grassroots passion, Beltway savvy, and well-heeled support. Conceived out of a desire to revive the legacy of civil disobedience as exemplified by the civil rights movement and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the group has both directed and inspired a spate of protests by activists nationwide. Its members have taken on the Fred Phelps “God Hates Fags” clan, disrupted congressional committee meetings, and heckled President Barack Obama at Democratic fund-raisers, as Kip Williams, who founded the group with McGehee, did last week, leading to his second arrest since GetEqual’s founding.

Along the way, they’ve also been portrayed as “rude, rash and paranoid, and virtually impossible to please” — words used to describe ACT UP members in a 1990 New York Times story. The historic compromise vote in the House and the Senate Armed Services Committee to begin the process of DADT repeal did little to modulate GetEqual's communiqués: "We keep asking the question, 'When will the military discharges end?' and have not yet received an answer from the legislative or executive branches," one recent release reads. "It is the President’s moral responsibility to issue an executive order banning the firings under 'don’t ask, don’t tell' until the process can play itself out."

McGehee says she’s certain that GetEqual is helping to fill a void, however intransigent the message may seem. “We’ve heard from the top political advisers all the way down to organizational figureheads that we need to have both roles in the movement, from the suites of power to streets of activism,” she says. “Without the street pressure, political insiders would not have made the gains they have.”

GET EQUAL MAIN GRAPHIC X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMThe D.C. home where GetEqual often plans its direct actions — and where members routinely crash on bunk beds and mattresses — belongs to Paul Yandura, known by many in Washington as the man who fervently supported his partner, Donald Hitchcock, as he sued the Democratic National Committee after being fired from the organization in 2006. Yandura claimed Hitchcock had been wrongfully terminated for an e-mail Yandura sent to major LGBT donors criticizing the DNC; after months of he-said, he-said articles, depositions, and lawyers’ statements, the DNC settled the workplace discrimination and defamation lawsuit for an undisclosed amount. But the scuffle put Beltway insiders on notice that Yandura wasn’t afraid of the political establishment in a town that feeds on group-think and rewards those who worship at its altar.

Last summer, Yandura began requesting a meeting with senior White House officials such as chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and political director Patrick Gaspard. In spring 2009 he’d been told by the administration’s de facto LGBT liaison, Brian Bond, that repeal of DADT was slated for 2010 — a revelation that came right around the same time Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese was asserting in the media that the administration had “a vision” and “a plan” for LGBT legislation.

“I said to Brian, ‘We’ll help with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’—we know it’s going to be a heavy lift,’” Yandura says. “We will fund polling, data collection, lobbying, but we have to know there’s a plan and that there will be benchmarks.”

By “we,” Yandura was referring to himself and Jonathan Lewis, an heir to the billion-dollar Progressive Insurance fortune. Yandura has served as Lewis’s political adviser since 2003, when Lewis started taking an active interest in getting young people more involved in politics. “They’re the only class of people that continuously inspires me and gives me hope that there’s going to be change,” Lewis says of youths.

Between 2004 and 2008, Lewis poured nearly $14 million into efforts encouraging youth participation in the political process. Although tracking isn’t an exact science — some polls count youths as those aged 18-29 and others use 18-35 — Lewis and Yandura say they’ve seen tangible results. In 2000 the youth vote accounted for about 36% of the electorate, Yandura asserts. Four years later they were up to 47%, and by 2008 represented 53%.

“It’s uncomfortable to take credit for any of that — it could just as easily be coincidental,” Lewis says of the uptick. “But at the same time, that’s what’s happened.”

Though Lewis is gay, he says he never felt uniquely drawn to investing in LGBT issues. Sure, he’d made sizable donations to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign, including $1 million to fund the building for HRC’s current Washington headquarters. But he had never experienced his sexuality as a major hurdle to his goals.

“I wasn’t persecuted, I wasn’t bullied,” he says, reflecting on his adolescence. “My weight — being chubby — was worse than being gay.”

But the more he worked with Yandura — who began his career in Washington working in President Bill Clinton’s groundbreaking gay and lesbian liaison office — the more Lewis paid attention to the gay movement, or what he says he soon determined to be a lack thereof.GET EQUAL BODY 2 X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Shortly after Obama took office, Lewis joined a group of about 50-75 of the most progressive donors in the country — all of whom had contributed heavily to the Obama campaign — at a Democracy Alliance conference in Miami to hear about the administration’s agenda. Lewis expected to hear about issues like health care and financial reform, but LGBT concerns were also on his mind. The White House sent deputy chief of staff Jim Messina to address the group and, although Lewis said he was surprised the president himself didn’t show up, the administration made a big fuss over sending such a high-level official.

Lewis and his contemporaries were well aware that the administration had a lot on its plate, but Messina’s message caught him off guard. “There was something about that moment when Messina came instead of the president to talk to that group of people, and his theme was ‘Give us time,’ and ‘Have patience,’ and ‘We can’t get to everything,’” Lewis says. “Something at that moment told me, you know what, this doesn’t feel right.”

Yandura calls that “the lightbulb moment” when he and Lewis realized they couldn’t sit around and wait for the administration to deliver on LGBT issues. “The final break for me is when I heard them using the same excuses that myself and Brian Bond and Andy Tobias made during the Clinton administration,” Yandura says, citing the DNC colleagues he worked with during Clinton’s 1996 campaign. “I mean, when do [LGBT people] stop taking all the hits for the team and get to play?”

Yandura ended up making two entreaties in 2009 to meet with high-level White House officials and to strategize about “don’t ask, don’t tell” — both of which went nowhere.

At the same time, he started reviewing other movements — labor, women, civil rights — and that’s when he began fixating on a concept central to each cause. “You have to create a crisis,” he says. “Every social movement I ever read about, you have to start causing that crisis. And it’s not about getting arrested, or even civil disobedience. It’s that you’re creating a pathway for people to do the right thing, that you give them no choice but to do the right thing.”

McGehee’s work seemed like a synergistic fit. She and Kip Williams codirected the National Equality March in October at the urging of Harvey Milk-era legend Cleve Jones and gay rights pioneer David Mixner. McGehee and Williams defied criticism that the Washington, D.C., event would be too costly and complex to pull together in a matter of months. The rally drew an estimated 200,000 people, attracted speakers ranging from Urvashi Vaid to Lady Gaga, and may have been the impetus behind the keynote address Obama gave at the HRC national dinner on the eve of the march, as McGehee asserts it was.

“The White House was asking HRC how to recognize the march,” she says. “But I think they learned that HRC specifically is not the leader of all of us. ... The White House, legislators, and the national organizations are realizing how much anger and agitation is out there from the community. They’ve underestimated it.”

McGehee began her activist career speaking out against Proposition 8, both before the 2008 anti-marriage equality ballot measure was passed and after the state supreme court upheld it last year. L.A. Weekly called McGehee “a plain-talking, hard-charging lesbian” who embodied the new grassroots movement. She has a preternatural ability to articulate her outrage — against both the forces trying to railroad gay rights and the gay leaders whom she deems to be out of touch. “I’d bring No on 8 signs to Fresno and people would fight over them like rice rations,” she says. “There’s something wrong here when the people most disenfranchised by conservative politics are not protected by their own.”

And perhaps inevitably, McGehee has apparently stepped on toes in the process. “I think she’s heartfelt about what she does in the movement, but a lot of it is centered on her own ego,” says one activist who worked with McGehee last year and no longer speaks with her. “She’s good at putting shit together, but too often she’s manipulating the media to come to her, and she is definitely not the one who deserves the attention.” 

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Prior to the march last fall, McGehee and Williams asked Yandura and Lewis for $25,000 to initiate a program to help get college students involved with the planned rally on the National Mall. Their plea was simple: The gay rights movement had lost its focus since the height of the AIDS crisis and needed to go back to its roots, “to train people in a deeper narrative beyond lobbying and giving money,” McGehee says. Yandura declined, “but he said that if the march was successful, we’d have another conversation.”

Yandura admits that he was skeptical about the march at the time because he didn’t see how the collective energy of the event could be channeled into a continuing force for change. But after seeing how successful Williams and McGehee were, he told them, “‘Look, now there’s going to be a lot of people who want to push and pull you in different directions,’” Yandura recalls of the conversation. “‘If at any point you feel like you’re not really doing what you want to be doing, call me and I’ll try to help.’”

By December 2009, less than two months after the march, McGehee and Williams were flying to Miami to meet with Lewis and Yandura. It was an intense few hours for Lewis, who was tired of feeding the beast of inertia.

“At a certain point you wake up and say, ‘Again? Another check, another day, another trip to Washington, another trip to God knows where to meet with a group of people who are trying to work with these politicians and officials to effect change? I’m frickin’ exhausted and nothing’s happening,” Lewis says. “I found myself angry and I think to do this kind of work, you need to be angry. It’s not enough to just be disappointed or upset.”

At the same time, Lewis says he saw something different in McGehee and Williams. Perhaps it was their sense of urgency, their willingness to push the status quo into a corner, their penchant for public action over backroom negotiations.

“I really liked them as human beings from the first moment. They also had a track record — they had been pretty effective at doing some political gymnastics,” Lewis says. “I felt like I was talking to friends, allies, and capable people who were saying to me, ‘Let’s figure out what it is and let’s go do it.’”

Yandura felt a similar sympathy — both for McGehee and Williams and for their efforts to educate people to incite change in the gay rights movement. “I remember thinking this could be a game changer, that we could put the fight back into fighting for our rights,” he says. 

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So Lewis gave McGehee and Williams $45,000 to train a group of 45 activists of their choosing at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., where civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. had studied in the 1950s. The five-day summit in January included advocates from LGBT groups that sprouted up in the frenetic weeks after Prop. 8 passed, but, judging by their outdated websites, had since flagged as solitary entities. Representatives of ACT UP, Greenpeace, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were also in attendance.

While at Highlander the group of 45 engaged in trust-building exercises and studied civil rights movement strategy, aware that those who participated in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott or the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins were no accidental activists. “They knew how to create the media moment,” McGehee says. “That’s why this [training] was invaluable. Because national organizations have chosen not to take on this realm of activism, we had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we mentally prepare ourselves for the ridicule that we’ll inevitably face?’”

Yandura was anxious at the retreat. He arrived ready to pound out the details of a direct action plan, but says he instead found himself enduring hours of “touchy-feely, 'Kumbaya'”-type moments. “When I walked out of there, I will admit that I wondered if we had wasted $45,000,” he says. But once the group began planning some of its first protests, Yandura started to appreciate the tangible benefits of the bonding time. He estimates that at least half of the people who have participated in protests where arrests were a likely consequence had attended Highlander. “The truth is, it does take courage to put your body on the line and you need to feel like you have a family behind you,” he says.

Activists on the outside were equally as dismayed by Highlander at the time, if for different reasons. “You had this situation where various members of the group just started tweeting about how much fun they were having, there was never anything organized about their messaging,” says Laura Kanter, an Irvine, Calif., social worker who has since devoted herself to full-time activism, both in conservative Orange County and elsewhere. Kanter, a friend of Dan Choi’s, had worked hard on the failed marriage equality campaigns in Maine and New Jersey. Tired of losing and mad as hell, she was the first activist to shout at Obama while he spoke at a Los Angeles fund-raiser for California senator Barbara Boxer in April (the event Williams disrupted last week in San Francisco was also a fund-raiser for Boxer, who faces a tough reelection campaign).

Kanter readily admits she was resentful about not being invited to Highlander but also felt that the exclusivity of the group ran contrary to the history of grassroots organizing. She wrote as much on Facebook and on her blog, No Back Seats — about how a steady stream of self-absorbed tweets coming out of the retreat smacked of one sloppy revolution.

“The minute [McGehee and Williams] got my Facebook post, they got on the phone,” Kanter says. “They didn’t say, ‘Take it down.’ They listened to what I had to say. This was a new world they were entering into, and what they’ve done is amazing. I can complain all I want, but they’re actually delivering.”

In terms of media attention, Kanter is right. No LGBT group comes close to the amount of press GetEqual has recently generated. Lewis is amazed by the ruckus they’ve kicked up in such a short amount of time with only about $130,000 spent, including the Highlander retreat, according to Yandura. As far as return on investment goes, Lewis says, “They’re my Apple Computer stock for sure. They’re better than Apple or Progressive.” Perhaps that’s partly because military vets handcuffed to the White House fence is a more reflexive news story than, say, a congressional committee markup meeting. But it’s also because GetEqual seems to tap into the exasperation of many LGBT people; it’s their version of Network’s Howard Beale.

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Since its founding, GetEqual has slowly developed its internal structure. Its codirectors each earn “less than $90,000” in annual salary from the group and are both on sabbatical from their jobs — McGehee is a communications professor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., and Williams is an online campaign strategist for Radical Designs, which builds websites for advocacy groups. McGehee says she has not decided whether she will continue as a full-time employee with GetEqual and has until August to decide. “I have two children who rely on me, so financially I’m worried about putting that all on the line,” she says.

McGehee and Williams have hired two staff members to coordinate direct action logistics. A third employee, former New Organizing Institute chief operating officer Heather Cronk, will become GetEqual’s managing director starting next week. The group recently invited six yet-to-be disclosed individuals to sit on a board of directors, with a board retreat scheduled for later this month. GetEqual also hired LGBT public relations firm Renna Communications to handle its press. Brad Luna, the former director of HRC’s communications department, serves as a spokesman.

“I started my career 20 years ago in the streets,” Renna Communications’ Cathy Renna says, “and I feel strongly that in the last five or 10 years we’ve forgotten how important nonviolent civil disobedience is. There’s not one right way to do this. There’s room for a lot of different ways to do activism.”

Lewis plays no role in planning direct actions, though Yandura says he “helps where [he] can.”

“But Kip and Robin and the GetEqual volunteers develop and implement the official actions,” Yandura says, “and Kip and Robin as codirectors have final say over what actions they officially pursue.” Yandura adds that any number of activists develop and implement their own unofficial actions on a daily basis.

Even official actions are organic in their origin. When McGehee first cuffed Choi and Pietrangelo to the White House fence in a March 18 protest, “It wasn’t like we had all sat around beforehand, asking ourselves, ‘We want to chain people to the White House, now who can we get?’” McGehee says. “It was a situation where Dan said he wanted to do this, and GetEqual supported him.”

Nor are all the approximately 100 volunteers who actively work with GetEqual anarchist types. Kanter says she was eager to step up the day a fellow activist called her and said, “I’m going to make your life a little complicated,” but had constant second thoughts about her involvement, right up until the point when she shouted at Obama on live television — provoking his uncharacteristically agitated response. “I love President Obama. If I were going to get my name in the paper, believe me, this isn’t how I would want it to go down: the Jewish lady from Irvine who shouted at Obama,” Kanter says. Her wife’s father, a retired army colonel, was critical of the protest, even though he agreed with the message.

“Was it rude? Yes,” Kanter says. “But was it effective? It’s hard to know. I think it would be very easy for an administration to dismiss our issues. We’re a small minority and we’re a wedge issue. I believe Obama will repeal DADT, but I think he could have easily waited. I think these actions can pressure things to go faster.”

Some repeal advocates have come to agree. Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, says within gay military circles, “75%” of the people have been critical of GetEqual’s actions — largely a visceral reaction to Choi and others demonstrating in uniform, a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that one veteran says “makes a complete mockery of the military.”

“I’ve had a mixed reaction,” Nicholson says. “But I share their frustrations, their sense of exasperation with all these roadblocks to repeal that are made not to look like roadblocks. At the end of the day, I do think they’re helping put the spotlight where it needs to be.”

Some of GetEqual’s recent actions, such as a counter protest of the Westboro Baptist Church as its members picketed Mississippi gay teen Constance McMillen’s graduation, have been positively received. But critics have dinged GetEqual for throwing fits in public spaces and Congressional hearings, alienating the very politicians they should be courting at this crucial point in time.

“Maybe he didn't read the newspapers,” Obama quipped of Williams during his Tuesday night speech, “because we are working with Congress as we speak to roll back ‘don't ask, don't tell.” The reliably verbose Rep. Barney Frank called GetEqual’s April disruption of a congressional committee meeting to protest delays on passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act “immature,” “tacky,” and “no help whatsoever.” Perusing the comments section of any online story about the group, one will find plenty of similar sentiments.

McGehee and her GetEqual colleagues make no apologies. “Do I want Barney Frank talking shit about me in the press? No,” she says. “But to people who would argue that what we’re doing is unbecoming, you’re asking us to settle, to just sit and take it. We’ve been lobbying our representatives for 40 years. We’re no longer OK with being complacent.”