Editors' Note: Ryan Biava is a Ph.D. Candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on the comparative politics of privacy in liberal democratic countries. He holds a B.A. from the University of Washington -- where he was elected the first openly LGBT student body president -- and an M.A. from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (also known as Sciences Po). He has been active in LGBT activism and politics for nearly 15 years, including as a founding board member of Equal Rights Washington.
I don't normally think of "activist LGBT bloggers" as a modest, generous, and gracious bunch. That's not to say that I imagine them all as arrogant, miserly, and catty... but I think you get the point. It's not like one becomes an online sensation by being, well, something less than a sensationalist.
The same can be true of us academic types. I'm going into my fifth year of a Ph.D. program in political science, and I can tell you that, as a group, university professors are not particularly known for being ego-free. (You've maybe heard the old saw that "academic politics are so vicious because so little is at stake." Ouch.)
This professorial drive is to be expected: they, along with us graduate students, are expected to critique, revise, and generally be skeptical of any and all facts and arguments. Scientific discovery sometimes requires us to behave a little, well, strangely. We're paid to be a bit odd. That's science.
Trapped between these two modes -- academic and activist -- was me at my fourth netroots convention. It's always a special time for me, offering a rare chance to observe the twin processes of technological and political change as they interact in real, human time.
Though many at the convention live for it, I don't tend to go in for the partisan or ideological warfare, since I find much of that tiresome and far too simplistic. Grad school has, I suppose, made of me a political moderate--or at least a well-meaning devil's advocate.
This year's convention broke through that academic shield, though, when I met a group of people who seemed to combine -- with a certain integrity -- intelligence, compassion, and devotion to the fight for LGBT equality.
And by all appearances, they performed this alchemy quietly, with little effort, reminding me of the friends I made during the days of my own LGBT activism. I was hooked.
The Bilerico bunch -- I immediately took to calling them "Bilericans", so similarly did their natures resemble one another -- sat around one evening discussing the internal, institutional politics of the broader LGBT movement.
One of their number was arguing that LGBT leaders should place a far stronger emphasis on "getting along" with each other, even despite serious disagreements over strategy. I disagreed, almost impulsively, arguing like a good political science graduate student that the earnest fight for control over the movement was simply "how power works" and should even be viewed as a desirable, Jeffersonian competition of ideas.
Fair enough, I think, but I went so far as to identify my opponent's position as "Pollyannish" for committing the sin of longing for a more lovely, utopian type of politics. This was a step too far. It is not wrong to hope for warmth and aid from one's contemporaries, nor certainly from one's allies. It is, in fact, an essential impulse within any successful political minority's civil rights movement.
Hoping for harmony is only error when it arrests required, decisive action.
I think these Bilericans knew this. They may live all across the U.S., but they are thoroughly and delightfully Midwestern in their approach, avoiding the twin American political dangers of crass cynicism and infantile idealization.
The struggle for individual freedom is what drives them, but it is not what defines them; these are neither simplistic libertarians nor lefty anti-Americanists. They yearn with broken hearts for a restored, redeemed civic community that loves them -- as LGBT Americans -- every bit as much as they love their fellow citizens.
More than anything else, perhaps, they seemed united by the shared pain of an unrequited, undying love of America and its people. They want to belong.
There is something plainly good, and incontrovertibly American, in all of this.
As Sunday rolled around, I found myself the last of this welcoming clique to be left in Vegas. The spot we'd staked out at our hotel's corner bar evening after evening to share conversation (and the occasional shot of Patrón) felt aimless. The cocktail waitresses and stage performers looked more forlorn and swayed more sadly than before. Even the incessant, assaulting lights and sounds from the casino floor seemed to me muted and thin.
How could they not?