The Rise of GetEqual
BY Kerry Eleveld and Andrew Harmon
June 01 2010 2:50 AM ET
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.”