Drew Cordes

Redefining Our Terms & Approach: The Advantage of Social Activism

Filed By Drew Cordes | September 13, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: LGBT, queer, social activism

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about activism, and how we define the term. When I hear the word I picture people with signs, picketing, chanting slogans. Perhaps if I'm feeling a little wild, my scope expands to consider philanthropy and political donations.

Yet, when I think about what actions really reach people, aka "changing hearts and minds" (in the realm of queer rights and acceptance, at least), shouting slogans and waving signs is not a method I'd choose. DSC01913.JPGNo conservative or religious nut is so weak of constitution that his mind might pull a 180 at the sight of a particularly clever joke about Jesus having two dads or appeal to the more ridiculous, never-followed rules standing alongside the condemnation of homosexuality in Leviticus.

In terms of permanent impact, the thing that changes people most effectively is personal connection. It has been said before, but it's true and it's worth repeating. The attitudes of those who are non-tolerant/non-accepting are more likely to be reconsidered once they find themselves with a queer friend or queer child.

When one has a personal connection to someone, empathy is unavoidable to all but the most hardened and far-gone of human beings. When a friend becomes seriously ill, we worry. When they suffer an injustice, even as trivial as a parking ticket, we share their outrage (even if they deserved it). When parents see their child struggling, their hearts ache. Empathy is our most powerful weapon against hate.

The tricky part is how we wield this weapon. Obviously, you can't make someone love you. (Bonnie Raitt taught us that.) Hell, you can't make someone even like you. (Try walking up to someone sometime and saying "Hi, I'd like to be your friend," and then watch their eyes go dinner-plates as they mumble excuses and gradually back away from you, the crazy person.) In the strategy of amity, confrontational signs and shouted slogans are about as effective as astounding body odor or a fondness for sharing racist jokes. Establishing connections and achieving empathy is sort of a subtle, less-is-more waiting game.

The one crucial item to the game plan, however, is being out. Not just out with friends, immediate family, and cool people we meet in yoga class or at bars - out out. Out when you have the option to hide - e.g., out if you're "straight-acting;" out if you're bisexual in a hetero relationship; out if you're trans and you pass; out if you're a straight ally or a parent of a queer child. Out where people might not share our views - e.g., out at work; out at extended family reunions and weddings; out in the church community. This is easier said than done. There are risks to being out out, and I recognize it's simply not possible for everyone. But it is possible for more of us than are doing it.

This is not about preaching one's beliefs to others or getting in arguments. Hearts and minds are not won that way. In fact, that's the path one encounters the most resistance. (Has anyone ever "won" a political argument with a conservative? Or vice versa? No. A conservative is as inclined to completely abandon his beliefs as we, more left-leaning folks are. No one ever says, "Oh, good point. I was wrong about everything!" These conversations end in agreements to disagree at best, and vitriolic shouting at worst.) It's about simply being seen, being known. Here, setting a quiet example is most successful.

There's no need to go around announcing one's queerness, but make something visible -- a small pride flag or coffee mug at one's desk, for example. And once out, just be yourself. Be friendly, polite, a good co-worker/grandson/parishioner. Every single time you hear a "thank you" or make someone laugh, you're making progress. It's humanizing.

When the intolerant person is faced with the issue, a personal connection transforms the abstract, unacceptable notion of a Faceless Other being gay or trans into Jim, the friendly guy who sits three desks over who helped you change a flat after work that time. It's easy to hate and discriminate against the Faceless Other. It's a lot harder to hate Jim. You see him five days a week. Jim might suck cock, but he's not a bad guy. Maybe the next time this intolerant person heads to the polls or hears a buddy calling someone a fag, he'll think of Jim and change his ways.

This is not improbable idealism. This happens. Republican parents have gay kids and reconsider their views. Casually homophobic high-schoolers go to college and reform their ways after the environment allows them to meet more queer people. Empathy works.

This has become my interpretation of activism. I don't call myself an activist, perhaps because the word is too closely tied to the more traditional signified images I mentioned earlier - signs and slogans. A new term is needed: social activism. Centered around person-to-person relationships over a period of years, it's about as grass-roots as it gets.

Much of the time it seems like nothing is even happening, but gradually it is. It might seem to be a frustratingly slow, one-person-at-a-time method on the surface, but the more I think about it, the more expedient it seems. Considering the degree to which people can be won over, and the utter impotence of shouting and foisting homemade signs upon strangers, social activism seems more and more like the answer.

There aren't many people who don't know someone who's LGB or T, whether they know it or not. If more of us resolved to social activism, empathy could spread like a virus, with increased acceptance treading on its heels. I'm a social activist. How about you?

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Drew, this is one of the most excellent essays I have ever read about why it is important to gay/queer acceptance to come out. It is simply superb. I wish I could show this to every closeted person out there in the world.

The only important facet missing from it is the internal benefits, the fact that coming out not only changes the people around you, it changes you. You get the confidence that you are living in your own skin in a different way. Your internal life and your external become more in agreement with each other. You develop courage (I'm still working on this). Suddenly or gradually, your life makes more sense.

If you care to develop this post into a longer essay, changing the focus from "What is Activism?" more to "Why should I come Out?" I invite you, Drew, to add a few paragraphs that covers this internal aspect also. I'd love to read what you add. This stuff, the two points that coming out changes the people around us, and also changes us, is the gold of our movement.

Angela Brightfeather | September 13, 2011 5:35 PM

For the sake of activism itself and having actually done a bit of it in the past, I love your approach to it, but I think it is limiting. I think that your approach is correct and perhaps even preferred by many, but it is still limiting and just a bit too "handy".

My appraoch to activism is and always will be that if the cause is right and just, then it should happen in many forms and on all fronts. You are correct to say that "social activism" is a slow process and that is perfectly acceptable regarding something like general acceptance, but often times things must change sooner than later and in those cases, more direct activism can make things happen more quickly.

When NTAC began to conduct "educational pickets" at HRC dinners and hand out leaflets, it changed a lot of minds within the GLB community about ENDA being exclusive and why HRC did not support that concept (or more correctly did not mention it). In fact, had we not conducted that kind of activism, many people would have continued to think that we actually would have been covered by the original ENDA. This is just one example of how activism can change minds when done more directly.

I am also quite sure that Dan Choi's version of activism, most likely ginned up a few people about DADT also. Another example of when change must occur and direct activism plays a positive role.

In it's own way and through the many who are involved, Pride Celebrations in towns and cities across America, help to inform people about GLBT people in a direct way and I consider that activism also.

Political minds have been changed and voting members of legislatures have been affected and made more aware by direct lobbying, by activist who have spent the time and energy to make their feelings known and how discrimination affects their lives.

I know of very few laws that have been changed to favor our community, without the direct activism of people taking their message to people in the media and into their offices and places of business.

Obviously, I could go on and on about all kinds of activism...but perhaps the real message here is that, "there is no one type of activism that is better than another." All forms of it are good, so long as it achieves some level of awareness and education that makes people understand that we are asking for their support and acceptance.

I truly believe that anyone who only thinks that one kind of activism is better than another kind is not considering all the issues. Rather than call it "social activism" it might be more accurate to call it "activism by osmosis", which again, is a good way, but is far from the only way. Perhaps you might state that it is a more thorough or convincing form of activism. But again, it is far from the best kind in every circumstance.

Leaving the changing of minds to time and the goodness of other people to accept us, or winning over the multitude in a democracy by gradually getting 51% to support you over protracted periods of time while other people die, is certainly not what Martin Luther King or Gandhi felt would convince people to see things their way. Rev. King would have called something like "social activism" by another name....perhaps something like "convenient activism". Ghandi might have called it "meditative activism". I am sure that both would have said that it was fine, but not for the purpose of creating change in the short run. I do know that Socratese said that "anything worth changing, usually takes more than one lifetime", and really that is what GLBT activism is trying to prove wrong right now. In this day and age of super fast everything, why not embrace super fast and nonviolent ways of activism as well? Why limit the weapons against bigotry and discrimination to "winning people over nicely"? There is no better way to clear the air and let people see the reality of a situation than by calling out the issue and confronting it. In your own way you are saying that by coming out to others, you can accomplish this. What I disagree with if anything is finding out after you come out that to someone they just don't care or they are willing to discriminate against you. At that point, it is not good enough to just fade away to the next person. Sometimes you have to stand up to it and fight because it is your responsibility to do so as a human being.

Thanks for your wonderful response, Angela. I agree with you. Certainly I'm not advocating social activism to replace all our other forms. They are extremely important and you pointed out. Perhaps a better title of this post would've been "Expanding our terms and approach ..." Some things can only be accomplished through more radical, direct action. In terms of grass-roots action though, I like social activism because one can do it easily and around the clock. Protests, vigils, and events don't happen every day. You're right in your criticism of its convenience, too; certainly no approach is without flaw. But instead, maybe think of it as similar in philosophy (not execution) to Bruce Lee's approach to martial arts, jeet kune do -- the art of fighting without fighting. There is a difference between convenience and complacency though. And I agree that if one is to engage in social activism, complacency, especially toward other forms of activism and personal engagement, must be guarded against.

Thanks again for such an engaging response. It's appreciated. :)

"Ghandi might have called it "meditative activism". ...

Indeed, he might have. Something Gandhi actually did say is one of his most famous quotations, and it fits well with Drew's post:

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Even so, Angela, you present good points, and there are times when more assertive forms of activism are necessary. Obviously, to end Jim Crow African-Americans would not have made much headway by walking up to white racists and saying simply, "Guess what! I'm Black!"

You are so right Drew. It does a lot more than the protests and the more attractive "activist" that some like to see beside their name. To me they are just trying to make a name for themselves, "I'm an activist". Whoop t do. That's not activism, that's a big fat ego trip at the expense of us who live in small town USA and can't afford to show up every event to protest something. Being out "out" is the key to our being understood and their are thousands of us doing it everyday but too many who only want to be know as an "activist" who live and work in safe areas. I usually eventually tell everyone that I previously lived as a man anyway because I want to be honest. I am not ashamed of being a woman and I am proud of me that I can live as who I truly am inside, and I want everyone to know and understand about people like me. People have friends and they can speak to those friends in a way that the other person can understand and will be more willing to learn from someone like themselves. I call the people who are out "out" the real activists. They put their lives out their on the front line. Try going into a tire repair shop in the middle of "redneck" USA with your nails painted, flip-flops, a skirt and blouse, with a days growth on you face because you have been traveling for three days and couldn't shave because you broke down on the highway with a flat tire. Where ever we live we are out. It's nice to say you are an activitst when you live and play in a safe haven. These so called activists are too much in their safety zone. I have the same problem with the so called bi-sexuals and transgenderist or transsexuals who live in secret but play in safe zones, ie. the gay bars or places trans folks hang out in the gay areas of any city. If your out at work and out everywhere you go folks who ordinarily wouldn't meet a trans person can have a one on one and I have had many ask me questions and I take the opportunity to educate. Try being an activist in rural USA. Try not getting hired because your gay or trans, living in poverty because you not considered human but something other than. But I go fix things for people, for free, plumbing, screen doors that need re-screening, fix a broken lock, anything, and it changes peoples perceptions, and their childrens and their friends perceptions too.
Great article and very important to our being accepted as just another person.
This "I'm an activist" crap is a bunch of bull shit. If you were really an activist, you wouldn't have to tell anyone, they'd already know it. I never thought too much of people who go around toot their own horn anyway. It's kind of like being a christian, if you were really on you wouldn't have to tell anyone, you'd see it in their deeds.