There is a different world in our activism these days, a world where woe unto those who dare to cross the line of the high-rollers, you better look perfectly acceptable to white bread America if you want them to back you up.
Welcome to the world of suit and tie activism.
Dig, this is a true story. Back in January 2014, we were facing HJR-3 here in Indiana. It was the latest attempt by our statehouse in enshrine marriage discrimination into our state constitution. They had been trying it for the last ten years or so and this looked like their last realistic chance to do it. Anyway, they were having a public hearing about the matter there in the statehouse chambers and the call went out to the brothers and sisters through the vine to show up and support equality in Indiana.
So I showed up, decked out in a red Hawaiian shirt (we were told to wear red to show our support) and of course, I had my Pride Flag wrapped around me. I don’t go into a fight without the Colors, you dig? And this young man in a suit who looked like he stepped out of the pages of GQ stopped me and looked at me a bit oddly. He was with Freedom Indiana (the “official” group on our side) and he said to me “I appreciate the enthusiasm, but is there another way you could hold your flag? We don’t want our opposition taking a picture of you looking like that and using it against us.”
I didn’t look like white bread America; I was a flat-out stone-obvious freak, a street activist with the weight of many picket lines around my eyes and this young man was worried how such an image would play out in the papers. Never mind the fact that I was there to show my solidarity, I didn’t meet up to the dress codes standards, so there was no room for me to show my dedication.
That incident really lit a fire under my buddy Mike Shipley. He’s connected with the Outright Libertarians, so he decided to investigate a bit and called the folks at Freedom Indiana and he got this explanation from Megan Robertson (one of the campaign managers), “Freedom Indiana has become a brand in and of itself, while the rainbow flag certainly has a place in this overall movement, our campaign is currently focused on a very small constituency. It is great to have these allies step up, some even to the level of contributing $100,000 to our efforts.”
You hear that, brothers and sisters? This wasn’t a fight for equality, nope, this was a “brand” and all folks like me were good for was ponying up the cash to keep the brand going.
But is this sort of squeaky clean activism without precedent in our history? It is not, many of the early movements in the pre-Stonewall days of the 1960’s were absolutely insistent at marching in conservative suits and ties with the women in respectable skirts. Their demonstrations were completely civil, nothing dangerous, nothing outrageous, just a group of LGBT folks and their supporters marching quietly with their picket signs.
For the time, it was radical in and of itself to march for support of LGBT people, what those people were doing was risky on its own, they believed if they kept it clean and conservative they would have a better chance of making their point. While admirable, they were ultimately ignored by many in the political establishment. It wasn’t until the streets burned in NYC on that hot night in June of ‘69 that people started to take us seriously.
Looking beyond history and even beyond what’s been happening in my home state of Indiana, the corporate activism of the HRC (Human Rights Campaign) is a major part of the national movement. One of our other national fights right now, outside of marriage equality, is the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). ENDA has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1994. In 2007, Congressman Barney Frank introduced a version of ENDA known as HR 3685. Many LGBT groups pulled their support from the legislation due to its absence of protections for transgender folks. The HRC didn’t, they continued their support of the legislation. They considered the opportunity too great to pass up and if it meant throwing our transgender siblings under the bus, so be it.
So why did they throw our transgender siblings under the bus? I believe it was basically for mass appeal, to reach the greatest number of potential donors and supporters. We are at a point where gay and lesbian folks can be presented in political advertising as all-American couples, no different than your neighbors next door. Our transgender siblings are not in so great a position, they still strike fear into the hearts of Main Street USA (for whatever reason), and thus they are politically expendable.
It’s a sad thing to see as we march closer to the mountaintop of equality and liberation. The voices on the streets, the vanguard of our revolution, are being told to quiet down, don’t upset the neighbors, don’t make the donors anxious. The HRC are always quick to claim the victory when we win, always quick to pat each other on the back and send out another donor email asking for money to continue the fight.
Who’s gonna ultimately win this war, brothers and sisters? Who gets the party at the end? Is it gonna be the suit and tie folks who use us as bartering chips with donors and legislators? Or is it gonna be those of us who do more than just cut a check, those of us who pick up the signs and banners and march in the streets when the drums roll?
It’s up to you, whose faces will we ultimately remember?
The Stonewall Riots, Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, ACT UP, Queer Nation, landmarks in our history, tales of bravery by countless brothers and sisters armed with nothing but their identities and a sense of right and justice; nothing pretty, nothing fancy, pure unadulterated street action, a bold and desperate move to proclaim our rights and humanity.
Or, some company that puts up a meaningless “workplace equality policy” that shines on paper and soon has high-rollers of the HRC pop the cork on a bottle of champagne and raise a toast to the CEOs and bosses. The high-rollers who brown-nosed a few folks in local government, maybe even scored a congressman or two (er, not in the sex scandal way), and soon, they had those elected officials in their back pocket and the lavender vote locked down for that candidate.
The latter should not be the faces of our legacy. The face of our legacy should be the ones that had to get sweaty and angry and unkempt. Faces like yours and mine.