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

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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.” 

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