“Enough is enough is enough!” seemed to be the message from several corners of the LGBT movement last week. Barney Frank finally just called out the White House for not taking a stand on repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” this year, some New York donors knocked off their first anti-equality state senator, Lt. Dan Choi handcuffed himself to the White House gates, and 19 activists staged a sit-in at House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offices.
While all were important developments, perhaps those with the most potential ripple effects were the three actions staged Thursday by GetEqual.org, a new organization that is working to make a name for itself on the national stage.
In the way of full disclosure, I pre-interviewed Robin McGehee of GetEqual a couple times and knew that the organization was beginning to plan some direct actions. While I personally believe public pressure is a must to advance LGBT equality in Washington, my purpose in this column is to give a 360 view of the how Thursday’s actions were perceived by various people in the LGBT movement and what might be learned from them.
The direct action that got the most attention — though not nearly as much from the mainstream media as one might hope — was Dan Choi’s arrest and arraignment. Here are the basics on how that went down: Choi showed up at a rally staged by the Human Rights Campaign in conjunction with Kathy Griffin and asked if he could take the stage to speak. He was allowed to do so at the tail end of the rally, at which point he asked all attendees to follow him to the White House — essentially hijacking a decent portion of the rally to accompany him.
In some ways the action was a success for any organization looking to make waves — a fantastic photo opportunity that surged through the LGBT media and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
But with a few notable exceptions, mainstream reporters seemed to be either confused by the message or simply didn’t realize the action was taking place. In fact, the White House press briefing was occurring in the rose garden almost simultaneously to Choi’s action out front, yet few of the organizations sent crews out, mostly, I believe, because they weren’t aware of what was going on. True, people protest in front of the White House every day, but very few actually handcuff themselves to the fence.
CNN actually did send a camera operator out after the police had largely pushed back the crowd and cordoned off the area. I overheard him talking with his producer by phone about five paces behind me, calling the situation “disorganized” and saying he didn’t see anyone of authority to interview. As a fellow journalist, I started downloading what I knew about the situation to him and, when he indicated that he wanted to interview someone from an organization like HRC, I told him the protest wasn’t sanctioned by any one of the larger LGBT organizations and offered to talk on-camera if he needed it. He declined to interview me, not so subtly.
My takeaway from that conversation is that any action that doesn’t involve HRC must have a clear message and media folks on hand to steer that message, because what is happening in the LGBT movement right now is not easily comprehensible by the mainstream media.
Which brings me to a discussion of what Thursday signaled about the movement. The message being sent by GetEqual seemed to be twofold from my perspective: (1) To the White House and Congress, you are not moving fast enough and we are willing to lay our bodies on the line to make that point; and (2) we need more outside pressure than what’s being applied at present by Joe Solmonese and the leadership at the Human Rights Campaign.
In some ways, GetEqual appears to implicitly be saying, HRC no longer speaks for us. While I share a certain frustration with the pace of change for LGBT Americans and HRC’s reticence to publicly press this administration, I fear that overt swipes at HRC and infighting among LGBT advocates could be a distraction from the goal of gaining equality.
From my perspective, GetEqual’s mere presence and the actions it is orchestrating signify that the HRC leadership does not represent the entire movement, in much the same way that the National Equality March did.
And if the movement can avoid public bickering, perhaps the alternate groups can each maximize the benefits from acts of civil disobedience. As one veteran activist told me, back in the days of ACT UP, they had a “good cop, bad cop” understanding — where the good cop (e.g. HRC) knew to some extent what the bad cop (e.g. GetEqual) was doing but didn’t have direct responsibility for it, nor did it have veto power. This allowed the good cop to leverage the bad cop’s actions with the powers that be. And although it remains to be seen if HRC will make real use of the direct actions taken last week, it certainly could turn to the administration and say, “Look, people are angry, and the only thing that will stop them from staging actions like Choi’s arrest is real, discernable movement on LGBT legislation."
The benefit to GetEqual for not provoking HRC even if tensions exist is that its message should be focused like a laser beam either on repealing “don't ask, don't tell” or passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or whatever it is trying to accomplish. Any mainstream ink that is spent reporting on the division within the community is a diversion from their goal. If they are aiming to needle HRC, getting earned media with GetEqual spokespeople out front will serve that purpose without publicly stoking animosity.
A couple last points worth mentioning — people whom I would consider LGBT advocates had varied responses to both Choi and the Pelosi sit-in. Some who work on the Hill expressed frustration with the idea of targeting Pelosi for a floor vote on ENDA when the bill hasn’t even been voted out of the committee of jurisdiction — the House Education and Labor Committee. When I responded that I imagined the group was aiming for the top and hoping that putting pressure there would have a trickle down effect, one Hill staffer said, “Get that number of cosponsors up from 198 to 216, that's pressure.”
Other LGBT strategists questioned the wisdom of pushing for a vote to be taken regardless of whether ENDA is assured of passage after Robin McGehee said she would be willing to accept defeat in order to know who favors the bill and who opposes it. As Pelosi reportedly told journalists regarding health care, you have the vote when you have votes.
On the other hand, one of the reasons groups outside the Beltway induce fear is that they don’t subscribe to the conventional wisdom of Washington. In other words, the only way to muzzle them is to accomplish their end goal because they are not going to be appeased by strategy alone.
So if a group like GetEqual can become enough of a nuisance, enough of an embarrassment, then perhaps politicians go to extra lengths to make them go away. At least now that health care reform has passed, equality has a passing chance of getting some attention in Washington.