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The Case Against Activism

The Case Against Activism


I've long wanted to contribute to the It Gets Better Project. However, my familial relationship to suicide is extremely difficult for me to talk about (I smile because I'm nervous), and at the end of the day it isn't my story to tell. So, remembering the music that kept me off the brink when I was in the closet, I compiled a list of 19 antisuicide songs that I thought could be helpful for queer youth. Taking this theme one step further, I recruited a couple indie bands to play thematically appropriate antisuicide tracks for IGB. Given my abilities and interest, it was the best way for me to add to the project and further its noble aims.

Last Friday I saw an official response fromThe Bilerico Project. Bil Browning had written a post called "Making a Killing: Rocking Out to Dead Kids" where I was accused of being some Katy Perry-level hack, approaching a sensitive personal topic with dollar signs and fame in my eyes. Most damningly, in the comments, Bil called me out for being "not an activist," as if that was the least forgivable of sins.

Folks, welcome to the world of queer organizing.

I personally think of queer activism -- in my definition, any and all attempts, on any scale, that an individual makes to better the world for LGBTs -- as a group effort akin to building a city. If you are building a city, you will want parks and schools. You would not ask a math teacher to plan a playground. You would not ask a construction foreman to coach softball. But the second one enters the so-called "activist" arena, their individual skills, intentions, and decisions go the way of the dodo. No sooner will a person announce their desire to try to help than six others will pop up to tell them exactly how they're doing it wrong.

In Washington, D.C., this past summer a group of individuals organized "The Big Commit," a counterprotest to the nearby National Organization for Marriage hatefest that rolled through town the same day. They brought in members of D.C.'s religious, musical, artistic and organizing communities to make a strong statement for gay rights. What did they get in return? They got their own counterprotest!

Yet another group of change-minded queers disrupted the said "Big Commit" with their own banner and message. The change that the Big Commit folks were striving to create, their message, got so tripped up in another's ego and vitriol that effort was spent infighting when it could have been used to undermine an actual hate group.

Those attempting small-scale awareness campaigns are now armchair activists. High-profile fund-raisers are dismissed as "Gay Inc.," whether or not it's deserved. I've seen gay marriage panels hijacked by one angry person who wonders why their own (unrelated) pet cause was ignored. People would never order sushi at a pizza restaurant. Yet the anger of an activist scorned can rival that of Jerry Falwell at his most hilariously apoplectic.

I have met some folks within the traditional activist circles who are among the nicest and most supportive I have encountered since I came out. People who greet others' attempts at change with open arms and encouragement, even if they don't agree with the cause or the tactics. (Bil Browning, in fact, is one of those people.) But on the other end of the spectrum, I can safely say that a couple activists I've met count among the pettiest, nastiest, and most self-centered people I've met in the last five years.

GetEQUAL's experience has been a spectacular example of the ire directed at an activist group that is "doing things the wrong way." Inequality is a puzzle. Many forces conspire, in many insidious ways, to keep us down. Hence it makes sense that a surfeit of choices might be advantageous when seeking a solution. It's been shocking, then, to see such a visible and hardworking group become the whipping children of the queer blogosphere. So they have a budget! Awesome, that means they can support a full-time staff that fights for equality. So they're not transparent! For the work they've done, I don't care if Hitler himself is writing checks from some slow-moving line in Hell's Kinkos. Most ridiculous is the notion that they are somehow setting back the movement with their high-stakes actions. Our lives are high-stakes, and it's not like any other one group has gotten the job done on their own.

God, even the Human Rights Campaign deserves a word here. The trans-exclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act was the absolute nadir of our equality movement, but it's probably better having HRC around than not. Black-tie fund-raisers have their place too, unfortunately.

The word activism carries some terrifying connotations when, really, there should be no barriers to entry for those who are interested in doing something constructive. Especially not from within the community. I'm dreading the day when some 16-year-old will put up a donation box at his suburban supermarket and get criticized for collecting money for the wrong factions, the wrong identities, the wrong causes. For having the wrong intentions, for not having enough life experience to know he's wrong.

Activism is a personal decision to go out in the world and do anything to make it more positive. If it must pass some nebulous consensus vote, weather criticism and a stinging paucity of community support, how is anyone going to work up the courage to try?

Activism, as defined by certain activists, is quickly becoming an members-only club. It's time to open the doors and let in the public. Work with the incredible breadth of skill sets and interests possessed by the individual members of our community and -- I shouldn't even have to say this -- embrace our differences.

That said, as I write this I'm gearing up to participate in Creating Change. I'm praying it's a more positive experience than Netroots. If you agree with me here, say hi. If you don't, please write your name on the flaming bag of dog shit before you place it on my doorstep so I can keep them straight.
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