Why Activism?

Jim Burroway

September 25th, 2006

I wonder sometimes if activists have lost sight of the purpose of activism.

Is it to try to convince the general public to listen to your views and consider your arguments, so they can form well-informed opinions which (hopefully) come close to reflecting yours?

Or is it to make a lot of noise so you can feel better afterwards?

I think we saw a little of both this past weekend in Palm Spring, CA, where Focus on the Family sponsored a “Love Won Out” conference, highlighting their programs for gay men and women who wish to try to change their sexual orientation. The conference took place on Saturday at Southwest Community Church in nearby Indian Wells.

Me and Timothy Kincaid at 6:45I joined Daniel Gonzales and Timothy Kincaid of “Ex-Gay Watch (along with Ex-Gay Watch readers and frequent commenters Regan DuCasse and Scott) for a morning vigil to greet the 1,400 participants as they arrived at the church. (You can read Daniel’s description of the events here. He also provided the pictures for this post.)

We arrived bright and early at 6:45 in the morning and staked out our corner next to the entrance. From there, we smiled and waved and offered a cheerful “Good morning!” to everyone who arrived for the conference. Most smiled and waved back, others were more determined to ignore our presence. Only a few passersby yelled anything unfriendly, but only one was a conference participant. Out of 1,400 who attended, that’s pretty good.

A bright and early Daniel observed that this is pretty common. When he attended other vigils, it wasn’t unusual for some participants to walk over to where they were gathered to engage in a friendly conversation with them. And sure enough, one very nice young lady came over to introduce herself and welcome us to Indian Wells. She commented on how great it is that we can all gather peacefully to offer our own perspectives on any subject, no matter what side of the debate we’re on – and no matter how strongly we may disagree.

On that point, at least, we were in agreement. Which is terrific, because all conversations have to start somewhere.

We were there to show by our own examples that gays and lesbians are not the disturbed, disease-ridden, depressed, lonely, intolerant, maladjusted malcontents that conference organizers would portray us to be. On that note, I think our mission was successful. And as a bonus, I’d have to say that we felt better afterwards.

Things were a little different with the “official” Unity Rally protest.

The Unity Rally protesters arriveFor the morning demonstration, their buses arrived late, some half-hour after the conference check-in had begun begun and the parking lot was nearly half full. They marched around in circles while the leader with the bullhorn prohibited anyone from stopping or engaging in any conversation.

I don’t know much about the rally organizers, but given that this was an ex-gay function we were there to greet, they didn’t appear interested in taking advantage of our backgrounds and knowledge. They did invite us to get in line and walk around in circles with them. We declined, and maintained our positions at the curb next to the entrance, where we could continue to offer our cheerful “Good Mornings!”, waving and smiling to everyone who approached the entrance. We felt that was the best message to send: a warm greeting, a smile, and a welcome.

The rally protestors left after about an hour, even though conference check-in was scheduled to continue for another half-hour. Timothy joked that if he were attending the conference, he probably wouldn’t arrive until about a minute before the official starting time. Me, I’m nearly always running about ten minutes late for just about anything. So we stayed and welcomed the stragglers.

The Unity Rally in Palm SpringsThe Unity Rally that was held later that morning at a park in Palm Springs was rather self-congratulatory – lots of speeches about who called whom to organize the community to do something, and about how proud they were that they had pulled it all off, and that it was a local effort.

Which, as far as that goes, is as it should be. They did a wonderful job with the logistics and organization of a mass-demonstration. It takes a lot of very committed local people to pull off a tremendous undertaking like that. The congratulations were well-earned.

But it could have been better. The rally organizers didn’t use this as an opportunity to educate themselves — let alone the larger community — on the specific issues facing those who are being drawn into the ex-gay movement. They barely had an awareness of what the ex-gay movement was even all about. And they didn’t seem to be much interested in learning. Ex-Gay Watch offered their assistance, but in end the rally organizers chose not to avail themselves of XGW’s background and knowledge.

Instead, they were satisfied to simply portray the participants at the Love Won Out conference as being motivated by hatred and bigotry — which is a pretty easy thing to do. In fact, “hate” was tossed around with remarkable frequency.

I think this was a tactical error to characterize these parents in this way, but I also think it was an error because for the most part, it just isn’t true. The parents who attended Love Won Our are not motivated by hatred or bigotry.

Think of it this way. Imagine if you are told that there is a group of people out there who molest children, spread disease, corrupt society, impose their will on others through non-democratic means, are depressed and suicidal, and are profoundly unhappy and incapable of experiencing true love and fulfillment. And imagine that your child may become a part of that group.

The emotion these parents are feeling is not hate. It is fear. Terror, to be exact. If the things that these conference organizers said were true, then what decent parent wouldn’t move mountains and swim raging rivers to protect their children from such a terrible fate?

Our society is not well educated on why people enter the ex-gay movement, or why parents are motivated to attend Love Won Out conferences. Nor is our society even much aware that there is such a thing as “ex-ex-gays.” And it turns out that gay people aren’t very well educated on these points either.

My first reaction was disdain for the Unity Rally organizers for their arrogance. (And yes, I do believe there was a certain amount of arrogance on their part — perhaps, ironically, a reflection of some arrogance on my part.) But now, after more reflection, my reaction is a bit more nuanced.

So this means that we really have a lot of work to do. We need to figure out how to educate our fellow LGBT organizations, the press, and the broader culture. We need to learn how to formulate our messages that convey real meaning to everyone we talk to. We need to leave aside words like “hate” and “bigotry”, which divide one side from another and put an abrupt halt to all attempts to persuade those parents caught in the middle of all this.

We won’t change many minds at Focus on the Family, nor will we reach any of the leaders who put on the Love Won Out road show. That’s not our purpose.

Instead, we need to change the minds of the many parents who attended the conference out of a genuine fear that their child may be gay. And we need to do this quickly.

I say this because of who I saw sitting in the back seat of a few of those cars (a very few) that drove into the conference that morning. There, slouched in the back seat, by himself or herself, sat a dejected or frightened teenager. A few looked out the window at us, but mostly they just looked down. I don’t think many of the Unity Rally marchers got a chance to look at these kids’ faces. They all wore that expression that I knew all too well, because I wore that same expression for so many years: an expression of deep, abiding shame.

And fear. Because, you know, they don’t want to grow up to molest children, spread disease, corrupt society, impose their will on others through non-democratic means, be depressed, or commit suicidal, or be incapable of experiencing true love and fulfillment., like the folks with Love Won Out say they will.

We really need to reach those parents.

Our aim is to reach them with a different message — one based on accurate facts, living examples, and most importantly, hope. Our objective was not to get something off our chests. Instead, over time, we wanted lift a burden from those parents shoulders. We didn’t go on this vigil so we would feel better at the end of the day. We did it because we wanted those kids to feel better now.

But if we want to be successful, we have to begin to use language that these parents can understand. Accusing them of hatred is not going to accomplish anything.


May 1st, 2011

Excellent piece.

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