By Kelly Jean Cogswell
It's almost time to commemorate those movement-launching warriors of the Stonewall Rebellion, so get out those rainbow flags and cocktail glasses and checkbooks. What a better way to celebrate legendary dykes and drag queens and street fags than by kicking back and doing nothing! Or doing something, but calling it nothing. Because nothing is more shameful these days than calling yourself an activist.
I noticed it recently on Cat Greenleaf's show, Talk Stoop, when she interviewed that musician, Pete Wentz, who spent most of his time pitching a UNICEF project bringing clean water to remote parts of the world, but recoiled in horror when good old Cat called him an "activist." No sirree, bob, he wasn't an activist, just a guy helping a good and deserving cause. You might as well have called him a bra-burner.
And just a few days ago, there was a whole article in The New York Times by Rich Benjamin in which he urged queers to boycott straight weddings, but then carefully declared he wasn't "a gay-rights activist."
"Given the choice between a round of golf and a “discrimination teach-in,” I'll take the golf," he wrote. "Back in college, when I was asked to take part in a protest, I declined because it conflicted with Uncle Duke Day, an annual keg and marijuana bash. But now I'm a conscientious objector to all heterosexual weddings. It's less activism than common sense."
What's with this new wave of hating on activists? Especially, when there are barely any to be seen. It was more understandable in the eighties and early nineties when you actually had functional street activist groups like ACT-UP and the Lesbian Avengers, and there was a discernible split in both the tactics and attitudes of the change-makers of our community.
There were the pissed off street activists who believe that shaming and inconveniencing bigots was the quickest way to see change, and that efforts against all the antigay campaigns bankrolled by the Christian Right had to be done by out and proud queers as part of a larger strategy of community-building, that yes, included speak-outs and teach-ins.
On the other side, seemingly, were the far more conservative and patient activists of our national LGBT organizations who believed we'd get further with the honey of campaign contributions and mellifluous requests rather than the vinegary, in-your-face fury of loud-mouthed, tasteless queers just out for attention. They counted on legislation, lobbyists, behind the scene meetings, and professional polling companies that recommended their media campaigns avoid the words lesbian and gay since those words clearly inspired hate.
In Idaho, in '94, the two went head to head when the Lesbian Avengers Civil Rights Organizing Project was invited into the state to help fight an anti-gay referendum. A bunch of national organizations were already there, and their field workers were actually seen ripping down posters with the words lesbian, gay or queer. They also warned local queers not to work with the Avengers because we were nuts, irresponsible, practically pedophiles.
They did everything they could to get us to leave so that they, the professionals, could get on with their own closeted multi-million dollar campaign featuring literature that talked all about civil rights and doing the right thing for all Americans, but never about lesbians, or gay men, the bi, or transgendered.
As it turned out, the regions in Idaho where the Avengers managed things with our out, honest tactics did far better than the regions where our nicely funded organizations did their work. I hated them for years. Bunch of asshats. And wasn't it ACT-UP that pressured all those drug companies to work harder fighting AIDS, wasn't it activists that started projects like Housing Works? And was all this the product of deranged minds and narcissists? Why should activist be a dirty word?
The quarrel's not just about tactics. I'm pretty sure that with a cooling down period we could have agreed that both sides were better off if the carrot, on occasion, had a working relationship with the stick. And vice versa. Street activists need a few inside men. The lobbyists-types are better off if there are bigmouths in the streets, and stock exchanges, and cathedrals, giving them more political room to maneuver.
But I don't think it's just that. For a while I decided it was a question of color and class. Bigmouths after all seem so white trash, so ghetto. No matter who they actually are. While the institutions are extremely white and upper, and upper-middle class, speaking with appropriately refined accents.
But the key could as easily be gender, since Mr. Benjamin takes such care to define himself as a fun-loving guy taking a commonsense stand, in opposition to activists who are what? Illogical? Emotional? Female? Dour lesbians who alternate teach-ins with hysterical actions governed by vagina dentatas?
Screw you. Let's hear it for the girls, the dykes, the drag queens. Let's hear it for the activists.