The Rise of GetEqual

How the activist group GetEqual came to be.

BY Kerry Eleveld and Andrew Harmon

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.”

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