Bil Browning

Tipper Gore & the Accidental Activist

Filed By Bil Browning | March 24, 2011 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: accidental activist, ACT UP, Bill Clinton, Evansville, Tipper Gore

On Sunday night Jerame and I attended a GetEqual fundraiser with Jillian Weiss. During the speeches it was announced that Tipper Gore was in attendance. Mrs. Gore smiled and waved brightly to the assembled guests and 275px-Hillary_Clinton_Bill_Al_Gore_Four_principals.jpgaccording to the Washington Blade donated $100.

After the event, Jerame and I went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant with a couple of colleagues. A mutual friend stopped by our table to chat briefly and we noticed that he was dining with Mrs. Gore. As we were leaving, we stopped by their table to say our goodbyes.

Our friend introduced us to his companions and, to my delight, Mrs. Gore asked me if we'd met before. Seizing the opportunity (and fortified by a couple of glasses of wine), I proceeded to tell her exactly how we'd met, how mortified I'd been, and how it gave me my start in activism.

You can find out too after the jump.

The Tour Rolls Into Town

I lived in Evansville, Indiana during the summer of 1992, but spent a lot of time traveling the country. In fact, I'd wager that I spent more time driving around the Midwest, South, and Texas than I spent at home.

The first Clinton campaign for the presidency was doing a whirlwind bus tour of America that summer and I noticed it would be rolling through Evansville soon. Of course, I showed up 37282_403057216821_726546821_4803732_297232_n.jpgpromptly and then stood around waiting for the always-late future President to arrive. While I was hanging out I noticed a handful of guys waving signs about AIDS and went over to talk to them.

They were from the New York chapter of ACT UP and were following the bus tour as it made its way across the country. At each stop they'd wave signs about HIV/AIDS and shout at Clinton to "Talk about AIDS."

I was only 18, but I'd done my requisite searches for gay history and I knew exactly who ACT UP was and that they were the pre-eminent queer direction group. When they invited me to join them on their protest tour, wild horses couldn't have kept me away.

Without a dollar in my pocket and about the same amount of political knowledge, I jumped in the van after the campaign rally and took off on the open road with four or five activists I'd known for a few hours. My big adventure had begun.

My Secret Service Agent Friend

One of our next stops was in St. Louis. The campaign had set up in a big open square and I got into position on the steps of the large nearby library; I had a bullhorn and was prepped to deliver my chants.

A well-dressed gentleman with an earpiece soon sidled up next to me; he was obviously a Secret Service agent. He never revealed himself as such, but simply smiled when I questioned him about his occupation. He asked me my name, where I was from, and why I was there; he also warned me that I shouldn't point the bullhorn actually at candidate Clinton or "someone would have to take action." Message understood, Secret Agent Man.

photo-1.JPGAfter a rousing speech that kept me enthralled throughout, Clinton started wrapping up. Remembering I was supposed to be interrupting him, I raised the bullhorn and started pleading with the candidate to talk about AIDS. I was summarily ignored except by those around me who were upset they couldn't hear the end of the spiel.

I was a failure as a protester. Instead of causing a ruckus, I'd been sucked in by a speech and made friends with a Secret Service agent. A little crestfallen, I explained my predicament to my new pal. How could I save face in front of my new activist friends?

The man considered me for a minute and must have assumed I wasn't a threat to anyone except myself. With bleached blonde hair, rubber and silver bracelets up to my elbows, a dozen ear piercings, effeminate disposition, and slight build, I wasn't exactly a hostile menace.

"If you go stand over there," the man said as he pointed to an area across the square,"You'll be able to meet Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Clinton."

Grateful for a chance at redemption, I bounced through the crowd, met up with my group's leader, and told him what I'd learned. He took back the bullhorn and gave me one objective: grab ahold of Hillary Clinton's hand, look her in the eye and tell her "Please ask your husband to address HIV/AIDS, Mrs. Clinton."

The First Time I Met Tipper Gore

I squirmed my way through the mass of people to the rope that separated the politicians from the masses. Suddenly there was movement and people started calling out to the candidates and their wives, hoping for a handshake, a smile, and a greeting.

As I peered out over the crowd, I felt my first pang of doubt. While I knew the difference between Bill Clinton and Al Gore, both of the women were blondes with shoulder length hair and big smiles. I had no idea which one was Hillary Clinton and which was Tipper Gore.

All around me people were excited and reaching out to the group as they worked their way down the rope line. I decided that my best chance of success was to join the shouting and started yelling out, "Hillary! Hillary! Over here!"

Suddenly there she was. She was right in front of me and put out her hand to grasp mine. I held on firmly and delivered my line.

"Please ask your husband to address HIV/AIDS, Mrs. Clinton," I said loudly.

Very cooly, she turned her megawatt smile to face me full force and said, "I'm Tipper, honey." She dismissed me automatically, took her hand from my now limp grip, and started greeting the next person down.

Desperately embarrassed, I shouted, "Next time I'll know better!"

Mrs. Gore turned back to me and quietly said, "I hope so," before walking away.

When I returned to the ACT UP home base, my comrades asked me how it had gone. Was I able to give Hillary the message?photo-2.JPG

Ashamed to admit I'd screwed it all up after my bullhorn fiasco, I lied and muttered, "I told her, but I don't think she heard me."

"Don't worry about it," the group leader said. "Next time you'll have the hang of it."

A Lesson Learned

That was the day I realized that it wasn't enough to have a fire in your belly for social justice. You have to know what the hell you're doing too. While it's commendable to use your body as a vehicle for change, what do you do when you have the chance to create some actual change but you've got no idea what to say or do?

My embarrassment with Tipper Gore led me to make a simple vow. Before I stepped into the middle of something important, I needed to know what was going on. I didn't want to be in that same humiliating position again.

I studied my activist teachers over the next few months and I asked a lot of questions. I made it a point to read the local newspapers and watch the broadcast news. I started to learn some basic political strategy and founded a local chapter of ACT UP.

I boned up on HIV/AIDS issues and learned the statistics and talking points. I started doing some local television appearances and organized a few shouldn't-have-been controversial actions. When you know what you're talking about, people want to talk to you!

Thanks to Mrs. Gore, I learned a simple life lesson that has kept me in good stead all these years.

The Accidental Activist

Without realizing it, I'd become a local leader for the LGBT community. Don't get me wrong, Evansville, Indiana isn't a thriving metropolis. It's a small town and I wasn't the most well known activist, but, still, it was something.

My personal life was in shambles though (leaving the state for a few months without paying rent doesn't equal a necessarily happy return), and while I was having fun and starting to make a difference, I slowly faded out of activism in favor of putting food on the table.

This was fine with me actually. As just about every activist knows all too well, LGBT rights is chock-full of personality conflicts, massive egos and territorial rivalry, all topped off with a big spoonful of burnout. I'd had my share and when I moved away, I was proud of what we'd accomplished but still a little thankful that I could leave that role behind.

Through the years though, I've often found myself thrust into the spotlight for what I'd consider ordinary actions. When Bloomington passed a gay-inclusive human rights ordinance shortly after I moved there, my then-boyfriend and I found ourselves on the front page of the local newspaper. photo.JPGLater, after Jerame and I had become an item, I lost my job at a local convenience store chain for being "too gay." We used the site to wage one of the first online LGBT activism campaigns and won our case while gaining quite a bit of support nationwide.

When Jerame and I moved to Columbus, we ended up co-founding a gay/straight alliance organization and leading a counterprotest of a religious right crusade against a local business that made television news. It was the largest LGBT protest in state history at the time.

Once we'd moved to Indianapolis, Jerame stayed more tuned in than I did but we both re-engaged by co-founding a direct action group to protest a religious right rally at the Statehouse. The group did several Indy-area actions and garnered quite a bit of media attention for LGBT rights.

This brought us to the attention of Indiana Equality. While Jerame joined their board and started actively participating, I was more reluctant but let him drag me to a townhall the group had set up. I was intrigued, but more interested in doing direct actions than lobbying.

Shortly after I found myself in charge of a local coalition of LGBT groups determined to pass a sexual orientation and gender identity inclusive human rights ordinance in the state's capital city. I tried to decline the leadership position several times originally, but ended up taking on the role after much coaxing. The group had organized under the Indiana Equality umbrella and soon enough I found myself hired by their lobbyist.

During the fight for the ordinance, I started using as a blog instead of just a homepage. Slowly, years later it's grown into Bilerico Project - a site I originally made a group blog so I could escape the responsibility of dealing with it every day. When I quit my position with the lobbyist, I started working full time on the blog.

Hope Springs Eternal

photo-3.JPGIn spite of my attempts to the contrary, I've become the accidental activist. I try to pull away but my natural instincts and curiosities draw me back in each time. My passion for justice overpowers my innate laziness and irresponsible nature.

I tried to relay all of this quickly to Mrs. Gore that night as we left the restaurant. I'm sure I looked a babbling mess as I tried to explain how my embarrassing gaffe had translated into my larger life.

"I hope so," Mrs. Gore said as she turned on her million dollar smile.

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Thank you Bil! We need more like you to fight for us.

Cudos Bill - wonderful and inspiring story.

what a wonderful story. Thank you. It makes me think that I can also make a difference, even if I haven't stepped up and done more than write a letter or two. Perhaps I will have an epiphany like that and find a way to make a larger difference. I can only hope that the opportunity will arise. A story like this makes me know that what I do can become something larger, so I keep doing my little bit...

Thank you Bil for having a wonderful sight and letting others speak.

Bil: Interesting story, interesting life... thanks for sharing it with us. I tip my hat in respect and admiration for you...

Rick Sutton | March 25, 2011 7:16 AM

Very interesting story. And pictures.

$1.18 gas? Those were the days.

I was sad to learn about the Tipper-Al divorce. I had friends who worked for both of them during their VP years. Contrary to what you usually hear from staff people--there's ALWAYS someone who doesn't like the boss--nobody had a bad word for either of them. Or their kids.

I think they simply lived a lot of life...too much campaigning, Democratic infighting, visionary climate activism, a won/lost election, kid stuff--in some ways, they were married 100 years. And then the Clinton dalliances, which challenged us all. Al and Tipper were likely just worn out. They packed a lot into those years--enough for two or three lifetimes. We all wish them the best.

Accidental Activist. Maybe you ought to see about expanding on that name. I'll help with the book.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | March 25, 2011 7:29 AM

Uh-oh.....if first an extended autobiographical paragraph, can a book deal be far behind? And then.....

Can your birth certificate stand the kind of scrutiny it takes? Had Evansville been admitted to the Union in sufficient time for you to have established residency there?

Can you still see Monument Circle from your front porch?

Is Jerame in the running for you campaign manager?

And do you have a map of Iowa?

Thanks for sharing Bil. I always wondered how the Bilerico Project came about. You're truly an inspiration.


What business was at the center of the protest in Columbus? I'm trying to recall the protest, but my tired old brain can't find things on the shelves as well any more.

Cummins Engine Company started offering domestic partner benefits to their employees and the religious right had a "prayer rally" outside the corporate headquarters to try and pray the gay away. We held a counter rally in Millrace Park.

Thanks everyone! I had fun writing this piece.

Bil - a really inspiring piece. All activists are accidental, aren't we? It's because for LGBT people and women - the personal has always, sadly, been political.

Bil, What a Great Story......Thank you so Much for your Part in making this a Better World, we will keep fighting.

David Castillo David Castillo | March 25, 2011 12:07 PM

Thanks for writing this, Bil. This passage was especially poignant:

"My passion for justice overpowers my innate laziness and irresponsible nature."

You've clearly come a long way since those days, and I'm looking forward to following your lead in the years to come.

Rick Sutton | March 25, 2011 12:32 PM

The gas price. THE GAS PRICE.

I remember it got as low as .92 a gallon that summer.

Since moving to DC, I've seen prices as high as $4.78/gallon. I'm so glad we "kicked the habit" by getting rid of our car when we moved here. Were saving a ton of money that way. You'd be surprised how quickly it'll add up!

I love to hear people's activist biographies, and I love that this one shows us how we can wax and wane and still stay connected. Plus, "big spoonful of burnout" may be my favorite phrase of the day.

Awesome post,Bil!

It's funny how trivial events can change the direction of our lives. My activism began in September 1992 with call to a local radio show about a gay rodeo that turned into a 20-minute interview about gay rights issues. The Washington Blade did a story about it. I wrote about it a couple of years ago in a post I called the Accidental Activist: A Blast From the Past.

Teddy Partridge | March 29, 2011 4:06 PM

Great story, Bil, but Tipper's still a bluenose censorious beeyotch in my book. I love that you insulted her right out of the box in 1992, though. That cannot have made for a happy Mrs Gore!

Thanks for this.