As a gay man in his 40s, I have a long history with direct action protests for LGBT rights. I've earned my right to critique and criticize groups like GetEqual when I think their protests are misguided or unproductive. But do I have the same free reign to judge the Black Lives Matter protests? Or does my history of fighting for queer civil rights count for nothing with this new movement demanding racial justice?
As a gay man, I felt justified criticizing the Latina Trans woman who heckled President Obama during the White House LGBT Pride reception. After all, you don't shout down the President of the United States in his home when you're an invited guest. It shows poor manners and breaks protocol.
Many transgender and Latino activists, however, pointed out an important aspect of the controversial protest. When Latino trans people are being incarcerated, raped, beaten, and denied access to medicine, what good is protocol? When was the battle for civil rights ever won by upholding the status quo? Noted lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid, former head of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, once heckled president George H. W. Bush in the White House during a press conference on AIDS. For all of my personal handwringing that such a thing "simply isn't done," we'd already done it. People were dying. Protocol be damned.
The recent disruptions by Black Lives Matter protestors in Seattle and at the liberal conference Netroots Nation targeted Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. Both times white progressives decried the actions, saying activists should have kept quiet because it wasn't "the right place" since both disruptions happened in front of a liberal audience and the "wrong target" for protesting Democrats instead of Republicans.
Where is the right place for a political protest if not a political rally? What better time to address issues of racial justice than in front of the very people who've proclaimed themselves allies? And isn’t our freedom of speech based on the ability to speak our minds and air our grievances in public both in front of and about politicians and our government as a whole?
Back in 1992, I followed the Clinton campaign around the Midwest, yelling into a megaphone at each rally for the candidate to “Talk about AIDS!” In 2005, I joined two other men at a religious right rally in the Indiana State Capitol as we shouted down zealots pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. While attendees may have been upset that we crashed their party and screwed up their plans, the Indiana State Police surrounded us and let us continue to yell and shout. While the Christians tried to reach us to throw us out, the police officers explained that we were exercising our freedom of speech and they would protect our right to dispute their hateful rhetoric.
While we targeted religious right leaders and Republican politicians in Indiana, the Black Lives Matter folks have focused on Democrats as they swing into gear. While many progressives have grumbled that activists have picked “the wrong target,” that knee jerk reaction doesn’t take one big fact into account. No matter how many times activists interrupt them, Republican candidates will continue their race to be the most racist, homophobic, and misogynistic; engaging them would do no good currently. Republicans like to appear as conservative as possible before the primaries; they don’t swing more moderate until the general election.
Targeting Sanders and other Democrats, however, gives an opportunity for change. Democrats need their vote and believe in their issues; out of the two parties, the Democrats are the most likely to give them what they seek - proposed policies for addressing immediate issues like the disproportionate number of African-Americans in the prison system, unequal punishments handed down by the courts, and the violent targeted killing of black men by the police; bringing racial justice activists into their campaigns; raising public awareness among progressives; and, most importantly of all, forcing the candidates to speak about these problems.
When I joined ACT UP members to yell at Clinton to talk about AIDS, he eventually started doing it. As Black Lives Matter activists have ramped up the pressure on Democrat candidates, they’ve started speaking out on racial justice issues, issuing policy papers, and hiring black people for substantive positions. If they’re targeting the wrong folks, they’re doing a darn good job of it.
I’ve noticed that as I’ve aged, I’m not as radical as I once was. I’ve mellowed. I’ve started to settle for the status quo outside of LGBT rights because it’s been such a major focus of my activism. But when I look around and stop considering myself an expert on direct action protests because I’ve organized and participated in several, I see a lot of younger activists who’ve picked up the mantle I discarded. They’re carrying it forward for their own uses and their own cause.
That’s not something to complain about; that’s something to support. Back in the day I would have been incensed by any straight person who tried to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do to “earn” my civil rights. Of course they could have their own opinions, but in the end those didn’t matter as much as mine. Those rights were mine and so was the choice of how to advocate for them. So as a white person, who am I to tell black activists what is and isn’t acceptable?
Did it make me uncomfortable? Did it make me think? Has the country been talking about their issues since their protest? Then they’re doing everything exactly right.