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4 February 2011, 6:00 pm 7 Comments

Zack's Ramblings: The Case Against Activism

This post was submitted by Zack Rosen

I’ve long wanted to contribute to the “It Gets Better” project. However, my familiar relationship to suicide is extremely difficult for me to talk about (I smile because I’m nervous,) and the end of the day isn’t really my story to tell. Yet I find the IGB an incredibly important undertaking. I decided to go the opposite route of a personal story.

Remembering the music that kept me off the brink when I was in the closet, I compiled a list of 19 anti-suicide 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 anti-suicide 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 from The 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 damming, 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 and help than six others will pop up to tell them exactly how they’re doing it wrong.

In DC this past summer a group of individuals organized “The Big Commit,” a counterprotest to the nearby NOM hate-fest that rolled through town the same day. They brought in members of DC’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 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 in-fighting when it could have been used to undermine an actual hate group.

Those attempting small-scale awareness campaigns are now arm chair activists. High-profile fundraisers 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 that 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 encountered in last five years of my life.

GetEQUAL’s experience has been a spectacular example of the ire directed at an activist group who 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 solutions might be advantageous to when finding a solution. It’s been shocking, then, to see such a visible and hard-working 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 Kinko’s. Most ridiculously 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 HRC deserves a word here. Trans-exclusive ENDA is the absolute nadir of our equality movement, but it’s probably better having HRC around than not. Black tie fundraisers 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 coin collector 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 that he’s wrong. To get bandied about by a queer blogosphere with its head so far up its own ass that it only writes about itself.

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 a members-only club. It’s time to open the doors and let in the public. Embrace 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 dogshit before you place it on my doorstep so I can keep them straight.)

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  • audiored said:

    It’s a good thing you’re so adorable Zack Rosen. =)

  • DR said:

    Zach, while I think I know where you’re coming from in terms of the larger issue, I have no idea what you’re talking about regarding the smaller ones like the disruption at your DC protest. I realize that you just copied and pasted this from the Advocate piece, but could you expand a bit? I want to comment but I feel like I’m missing something here….

  • mim said:

    “So they’re not transparent?” Wait, what? You mean it doesn’t matter if we don’t know how much, or even if, money goes to a particular cause? It doesn’t matter where it comes from or how it was raised? And you don’t think it hurts activism to take away any demands for measures against corruption? In between this post and the last, I’m starting to wonder what they hell you’re going for.

  • Vinod said:

    As somebody who is new to the world of gay activism, I am somewhat puzzled by the fractiousness of the different gay rights groups. You’d think the goals are pretty straightforward… Having said that, I dunno why you had to publish such a long rebuttal to somebody claiming you are profiteering from the It gets better project. I mean, really! I loved your playlist, and still have it on my radio.

  • Syvia Renee said:

    Unfortunately this type of factioning is nothing new.

    The first gay group in the US, The Mattachine Society, was founded by members of the Communist Party who were eventually kicked out by for their politics. They also excluded women, who went off to form their own organization. Then that organization came out against women who broke traditional gender standards. During the days of Gay Liberation, the previous generation of activist were basically all excluded for not being political enough, or for just not having the right kind of politics. Or for being the wrong gender. It just goes on and on.

    Long story short, this is just the latest in a long line of people within this tenuous alliance being jerks to each other.

  • Don Gorton said:

    There is no accrediting body for activists, and no one has a right to revoke your credentials. As a longtime community activist in Boston, I think your contribution to It Gets Better was excellent. I am saddened but not surprised when someone disses someone else’s community service, but such is the dedication and unflappability that most of us persevere to do good work. Hope you had a great time at Creating Change and keep on speaking out!

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