So Lewis gave McGehee and Williams $45,000 to train a group of 45 activists of their choosing at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., where civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. had studied in the 1950s. The five-day summit in January included advocates from LGBT groups that sprouted up in the frenetic weeks after Prop. 8 passed, but, judging by their outdated websites, had since flagged as solitary entities. Representatives of ACT UP, Greenpeace, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were also in attendance.
While at Highlander the group of 45 engaged in trust-building exercises and studied civil rights movement strategy, aware that those who participated in the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott or the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins were no accidental activists. “They knew how to create the media moment,” McGehee says. “That’s why this [training] was invaluable. Because national organizations have chosen not to take on this realm of activism, we had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we mentally prepare ourselves for the ridicule that we’ll inevitably face?’”
Yandura was anxious at the retreat. He arrived ready to pound out the details of a direct action plan, but says he instead found himself enduring hours of “touchy-feely, 'Kumbaya'”-type moments. “When I walked out of there, I will admit that I wondered if we had wasted $45,000,” he says. But once the group began planning some of its first protests, Yandura started to appreciate the tangible benefits of the bonding time. He estimates that at least half of the people who have participated in protests where arrests were a likely consequence had attended Highlander. “The truth is, it does take courage to put your body on the line and you need to feel like you have a family behind you,” he says.
Activists on the outside were equally as dismayed by Highlander at the time, if for different reasons. “You had this situation where various members of the group just started tweeting about how much fun they were having, there was never anything organized about their messaging,” says Laura Kanter, an Irvine, Calif., social worker who has since devoted herself to full-time activism, both in conservative Orange County and elsewhere. Kanter, a friend of Dan Choi’s, had worked hard on the failed marriage equality campaigns in Maine and New Jersey. Tired of losing and mad as hell, she was the first activist to shout at Obama while he spoke at a Los Angeles fund-raiser for California senator Barbara Boxer in April (the event Williams disrupted last week in San Francisco was also a fund-raiser for Boxer, who faces a tough reelection campaign).
Kanter readily admits she was resentful about not being invited to Highlander but also felt that the exclusivity of the group ran contrary to the history of grassroots organizing. She wrote as much on Facebook and on her blog, No Back Seats — about how a steady stream of self-absorbed tweets coming out of the retreat smacked of one sloppy revolution.
“The minute [McGehee and Williams] got my Facebook post, they got on the phone,” Kanter says. “They didn’t say, ‘Take it down.’ They listened to what I had to say. This was a new world they were entering into, and what they’ve done is amazing. I can complain all I want, but they’re actually delivering.”
In terms of media attention, Kanter is right. No LGBT group comes close to the amount of press GetEqual has recently generated. Lewis is amazed by the ruckus they’ve kicked up in such a short amount of time with only about $130,000 spent, including the Highlander retreat, according to Yandura. As far as return on investment goes, Lewis says, “They’re my Apple Computer stock for sure. They’re better than Apple or Progressive.” Perhaps that’s partly because military vets handcuffed to the White House fence is a more reflexive news story than, say, a congressional committee markup meeting. But it’s also because GetEqual seems to tap into the exasperation of many LGBT people; it’s their version of Network’s Howard Beale.