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LGBT Activists' Arrest Reintroduces Civil Disobedience to the Movement

By Joseph Erbentraut in News on Mar 24, 2010 4:20PM

Less than a week on the heels of his appearance at the Unite+Fight Midwest Equality Across America conference, "Don't Ask Don't Tell" activist Lt. Dan Choi made national headlines by handcuffing himself to the White House fence in an act of civil disobedience. The action, in addition to two sit-in protests at the San Francisco and D.C. offices of Nancy Pelosi, sparked a new question of what role aggressive, confrontational activism could play in LGBT communities' quest for the passage of pro-gay legislation.

The action resulting in the arrest of Choi and two other activists took on added meaning as the disobeying activists had staged their action as an off-shoot of a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) rally at Freedom Plaza featuring Kathy Griffin. The HRC is seen as the main U.S. LGBT advocacy organization but has drawn criticism from the community in recent years. In an interview with Newsweek, Choi criticized the group for their perceived elitism, describing their brand of activism as a betrayal.

"[I]f [the Human Rights Campaign] thinks that having a rally at Freedom Plaza with a comedienne is the right approach, I have to wonder. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is not a joking matter to me," Choi said. "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."

Robin McGehee, one of the other arrested participants of the D.C. action, also has questioned the motives of the HRC and other mainstream LGBT advocacy organizations. She founded GetEQUAL last week as a grassroots effort to "serve and grow this constituency by helping them take strategic, coordinated, bold action to demand equality, and to hold accountable those who stand in the way." They are tired of being told to wait by lawmakers - including President Obama - who have gleefully attended gala dinners and accepted the praise of gay groups but whose actions have fallen short of their pro-equality proclamations. As of today, the group's Facebook page has attracted over 7,000 fans.

President Obama has repeatedly promised for the repeal of the gay military ban to a chorus of military officials who agree with him, but the Department of Defense has dragged its feet on the issue in recent months. Meanwhile, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, banning discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace at a federal level, remains on the table despite the assertions of some lawmakers that the votes are there to make it law.

Many LGBT groups are looking to the birthday of legendary activist Harvey Milk on May 22 as a national day of action, which may include protests and further acts of non-violent civil disobedience. Here in Chicago, Join the Impact has already begun its planning for the day.