It was a beautiful day for a protest last Thursday. And so, under sunny skies, much of professional gay D.C. took their lunch break at Freedom Plaza to hear the inspirational words of comedian Kathy Griffin as she denounced “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” all while plugging her reality TV show. The only thing missing was a product placement Starbucks coffee cup in her hand during the speech.
This is what now passes for activism in some circles. But just as the lunch bell was about to ring and send the crowd back to its government-issue cubicles, something remarkable happened. Lt. Dan Choi, the Arabic-speaking West Point grad being expelled from the military because he’s gay, asked if he could address the crowd.
He implored those gathered to march with him to the White House where he would chain himself to the fence. Many in the audience complied; Griffin and her sponsor for the day, the Human Rights Campaign’s Joe Solmonese, did not.
Choi made good on his promise, handcuffing himself to the fence in front of a crowd of tourists and LGBT rights supporters. Police swooped in, secured the area and issued Choi a fresh set of cuffs before hauling him away along with former Army Captain Jim Pietrangelo II and GetEqual co-founder Robin McGehee.
I watched from behind the police tape as Choi was led away; a few vocal supporters applauded. Just then an HRC employee recognized me and approached to make sure I understood that the organization had nothing to do with the White House action.
“Don’t worry,” I replied, “I would never assume HRC had anything to do with activism.”
That’s not a criticism of HRC, it’s simply a fact. HRC’s work is to lobby Congress and the administration on behalf of LGBT rights and to encourage its supporters to do the same on the local level. It’s important work and we need lobbyists with access to members of Congress and other decision makers. That’s how the process works, like it or not, and I’d rather have HRC staffers welcomed behind those White House gates than Tony Perkins and James Dobson, who had President Bush’s ear.
But HRC is not ACT UP and no one should expect a lobbyist organization to storm the speaker’s office. New voices must join the cause to fill that void and play the role of instigator. President Obama has on multiple occasions encouraged LGBT Americans to do just that and to hold him accountable for his many promises to us. Time is short, ticking down to November when the Democrats will lose seats and use their losses as yet another excuse to bump our concerns to the bottom of the to-do list. And so Choi, Pietrangelo and McGehee deserve our thanks for stepping up.
Choi spent the night in jail and, rather than pay a small fine to have the whole incident go away, chose to plead not guilty and go to trial.
There was predictable criticism from some who accused Choi of “hijacking” Griffin’s event. HRC and Griffin would have preferred a scripted, happy ending to their day, but that’s the inconvenient thing about reality — it’s unpredictable. Shortly after his release, Choi gave a refreshingly candid interview to Newsweek
“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is not a joking matter to me,” he said. “To be at Freedom Plaza and not at the White House or Congress? Who are they trying to influence? I felt like they were just trying to speak to themselves. If that’s the best the lobbying groups and HRC can do, then I don’t know how these powerful groups are supposed to represent our community. Kathy Griffin and [HRC president] Joe Solmonese said they would march with me to the White House but didn’t. I feel so betrayed by them.”
He alluded to a growing schism in the LGBT movement between cocktail-sipping Washington insiders and youthful antagonists anxious for immediate change. It’s not a new observation. Younger LGBT people are rightly impatient and have sometimes channeled that anger in meaningful ways as we saw during the nationwide Prop 8 protests and last year’s National Equality March.
But street protests, including actions like those last week, and inside-the-Beltway lobbying are not mutually exclusive. We need effective practices of both if real change is ever to come.
“Being in chains, for me, matched what was in my heart the whole time I was serving and was closeted,” Choi told Newsweek. “ … To me that symbolizes what it is to live under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ the only law that enforces shame. Those chains symbolized how my country is trying to restrict my movement, how we are only allowed incremental, tiny steps”
Without more targeted protests combined with effective lobbying efforts, tiny steps will be all we can expect. True progress will come only with sacrifice, something Choi understands better than most.
“When I get messages from people who want to be a part of this I ask back: what are you willing to sacrifice,” he said. “ … I’m giving up my military rank, my unit, which to me is a family, my veterans’ benefits, my health care, so what are you willing to sacrifice?”
It’s a question we must each ponder if we want equality under the law.