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LGBT Activist David Mixner Will Not Be Put Out to Pasture

Hold Your Applause

A legendary LGBT activist reflects on his legacy, the resistance, and why he refuses to be lauded as though his work is done.

After 50 years of fighting against corruption, racism, homophobia, and bigotry, activist David Mixner continues to shape D.C. politics and educate queer youth on the importance of remaining in the fight.

Young people, Mixner says, have always been at the heart of change -- from the early civil rights movement to modern day student-led gun reform protests. Mixner understands that youthful passion: By the time he was 23 (in the late 1960s), Mixner was already a prominent leader in the antiwar movement. He'd refused to serve after being drafted and faced five years in prison.

Then he turned his attention to LGBT rights. In 1978, the activist helped defeat the Briggs Initiative in California, which would have made it illegal for gays and lesbians to be schoolteachers. It was a fight Mixner pursued alongside Harvey Milk. In the '80s, during the AIDS crisis, Mixner (who is HIV-positive) helped draft the legislation that would enable California to deal more aggressively with the epidemic than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Reflecting on that time, he says, "There are people who were much more talented, much more articulate than I was. But unfortunately, they didn't make it through the epidemic."

In the early '90s, Mixner led a march on Washington for the Campaign for Military Service, pressuring President Bill Clinton to lift the ban on gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the military; then, when Clinton opted for the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise that let LGB people serve as long as they stayed closeted, Mixner denounced that. (DADT was lifted in 2011 by Barack Obama.) In 2009, Mixner worked with Cleve Jones to organize the National Equality March, bringing 250,000 marchers to D.C. to advocate for LGBT rights and marriage equality.

While Mixner's advocacy is recognized worldwide, far fewer know of his creative contributions. A natural-born storyteller, the New Jersey native has documented his life in reverse; through a trilogy of one-man shows starting with 2014's Oh Hell No!, covering his coming out, facing HIV, and the Clinton years; 1969, about his experiences leading antiwar marches; and most recently, Who Fell Into the Outhouse?, covering his early life as a gay kid living in poverty. The latter ran in New York this March and will soon be touring America. The shows are tools for Mixner to teach audiences about queer history. "I really believe if we come out of nothing, if we don't know our history, then it's impossible to build a future," he says.

Mixner, who calls himself a "liberation theologist," argues, "You're only put here on earth by God for one reason: To serve others." He adds, "I developed a set of values and principles that I would not let anyone touch. And sometimes they were very popular, and people cheered me and carried me on their shoulders, and sometimes they booed me and accused me of the most hideous things. ... It didn't make any difference to me because I was living [by] my values, my principles."

"The purpose of a movement is not to prove how right you are... but to make it comfortable for others to join you," Mixner tells young activists now. "And they can't join you if you're self-righteous or if you punish them because they came later. So, our job is to ... welcome people into our [movement]. To make it an attractive enough place that they want to be part of it. Not to repel [them]."

Mixner recognizes the role he's played in the nation's fight for equality, and he's not finished yet. "I understand I'm respected and I understand I am required to step forward and share history and share our joy and help with the resistance," he says. "[But] I refuse to become a relic. I refuse to be someone that they stand up and applaud when I walk in a room because they think my work is done."

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