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We Don’t Need Another Celebrity

Jim Burroway

March 23rd, 2010

Lt. Daniel ChoiLt. Daniel Choi, who was arrested last weekend along with former Army captain Jim Pietrangelo after handcuffing themselves to the White House fence in protest over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” appeared in a Newsweek interview today. He articulated a couple of key opinions that many of us share about the state of LGBT advocacy organizations today:

Within the gay community so many leaders want acceptance from polite society. I think there’s been a betrayal of what is down inside of us in order to achieve what looks popular, what look enviable. The movement seems to be centered around how to become an elite. There is a deep schism [in the gay-rights movement], everyone knows this. But this shouldn’t be about which group has better branding. There is a tremor right now in every gay and transgender youth that these groups are not grasping. I would say to them—you do not represent us if all you are looking for is a ladder in to elite society.

…They say freedom is not free, but it doesn’t have to cost anything either. Jesus up on the cross did not have a party with all his major donors to raise money for his cause, his cross was free. Ghandi did not need three-course dinners and a cocktail party to get his message out. These are people who sacrificed their lives. For them it was hemlock, a cross, the bullet that shot Harvey Milk … it was not the size of their distribution list, but their message that endured.

He also had this pointed dig at the Human Right’s Campaign going with a frivolous celebrity spokesperson again to lobby for DADT’s repeal:

When I heard Kathy Griffin was going to be a spokeswoman for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I wondered about that. I have great respect for her as an advocate. But if [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. To be at Freedom Plaza and not at the White House or Congress? 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. Kathy Griffin and [HRC president] Joe Solmonese said they would march with me to the White House but didn’t. I feel so betrayed by them.

You know, I have to agree. This strange instinct the HRC has to turn to celebrities to pretend they are serious observers and advocates for the LGBT community is truly bizarre. Remember Melissa Etheridge at the 2007 presidential debate — err, forum — sponsored by the HRC? She also provided cover for Saddleback Rick Warren when he endured criticism for comparing married gay couples to child molestation and apparently forgave him on our behalf.

We don’t need any more celebrities. We need heros. The next time I see a celebrity being touted as an advocate for a serious issue, I’m throwing my shoe at the TV.

Comments

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Ben in Oakland
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Dan Choi is the Harvey Milk of his generation. Everything he says is direct and to the point.

As for HRC, I can only quote Bill the Cat:

“pfffffffffffffffffft”

Ben in Oakland
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

“You know, I have to agree. This strange instinct the HRC has to turn to celebrities to pretend they are serious observers and advocates for the LGBT community is truly bizarre.”

Actually, it is completely understandable. It is the same deeply closeted mentality that gave us that waste of time known as No on 8. Gay people cannot be seen and cannot be visible. they certainly can’t challenge anyone to use the brains and the hearts that their local deity gave them.

What is bizarre is that they claim to be out of the closet, and would speak for those of us who know that the closet is the enemy, not the religious right.

mikeksf
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Rachel Maddow! Dan Choi! Whatta duo, real heros, true star power for our time.

Rossi
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

A great post.

Jason D
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

couldn’t agree more.

Matt
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

I have not supported HRC since they supported Al D’Amato over Chuck Shumer for U.S. Senate.

Before and certainly ever since, they have become the beast that feeds itself. They have huge fund-raisers to pat themselves on the back so they can have MORE fundraisers that get bigger names so they can have MORE fundraisers to show how important they are and so they can build an edifice in DC (which needs even BIGGER fundraisers to pay for the upkeep and their bloated payroll).

Yes, you have to pay to play in Washington, but there’s a difference between real lobbying and the photo op back-slapping they prefer.

Other organizations (Lambda, Task Force, GLSEN, PFLAG) put troops on the ground in the states and use their more modest funds far more efficiently and to much better results.

Lindoro Almaviva
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

The problem with HRC is that it is now part of the same establishment it says it is fighting.

Matt
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

P.S. I worked with Wilson Cruz on Task Force field operations.

HRC’s celebrities make stage speeches. When HRCs celebs start knocking on doors and handing out literature on the street, I will re-assess.

Fred in the UK
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Whilst my gut reaction to celebrity advocates is the same as Jim’s, I do not think they came about for no reason and it is worth considering why.

TV, radio, newspapers, most news websites etc. simply do not allow proponents of a particular policy to give detailed argument, carefully explaining their reasoning, rebutting counterarguments, etc. Its too long and too boring, even if such argument were broadcast many viewers would change channel. Therefore proponents need to look for short cuts, ways to help convince the general public in much fewer words than formal debate. One of these is the celebrity advocate, someone who the general public knows and trusts their opinion, usually someone with whom the general public identify with. If the celebrity agrees with something strongly enough to publically advocate it then the general public will be inclined to think that it is a good idea. Celebrities also generate publicity, announcing a celebrity will attend a particular protest does generate direct press coverage and stimulates comment in the press about the issue. The problem with celebrity advocates is they can cheapen the argument, they can end up convincing people that the detailed argument doesn’t really stand up and needs to be hidden, particularly if the celebrity in question lacks credentials in the particular field.

DADT is major issue, the President has said he would like to see it repealed. Celebrities just aren’t needed to generate press interest, major protests will be covered anyway. We may see it as an equal rights issue, but the general public see it as least as much as a military issue. Unless the general public believe a celebrity knows and understands about the military they will be inclined to believe that there are real military readiness questions that we are trying to gloss over.

Strategists should, I think, be more judicious with celebrity advocates in general and when it comes to DADT, unless they have one that meets the requirements (appeal to moderate republicans, knowledge about the military, etc.) then they shouldn’t use one.

Priya Lynn
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

“They have huge fund-raisers to pat themselves on the back so they can have MORE fundraisers that get bigger names so they can have MORE fundraisers to show how important they are and so they can build an edifice in DC (which needs even BIGGER fundraisers to pay for the upkeep and their bloated payroll).”.

If HRC is doing such a poor job then why are these fundraisers so successful? Apparently a lot of LGBTs agree with what they are doing.

I don’t see any harm in having celebrities support the cause, in fact I think its helpful. Their pressence isn’t preventing the Dan Choi’s of the world from advocating as well. The more people vocalizing support for us the better off we are.

John
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

I strongly disagree with Choi’s method of protest at the White House, but his comments on HRC are about right. SU & SLDN do far better on this matter than HRC has ever done.

TonyJazz
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

HRC makes mistakes, just as much as any organization, but they remain important in our cause for equality & justice.

And please don’t blast Kathy Griffin. She is a wonderful supporter, generous with her support, and very funny. What’s wrong with her very public support? (As much as I love Rosie:) who do you think has been more effective with her support: Rosie or Kathy?

…and Mr. Choi, you are a hero! Good for you for your stance and your legitimate protest last weekend.

Regan DuCasse
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

I agree with Dan Choi, and the celebrity advocate is worthwhile.
But there IS a star struck streak to Joe Solomese and the HRC meme that takes the seriousness from their presence.

There are formidable advocates like Maya Angelou, Steven Spielberg, Rabbi Marvin Hier, Rep. John Lewis and Cornel West and Rev. Eric Lee. These are HIGHLY respected advocates (who are taken seriously in GENERAL) in the way that trash mouthed comediennes can’t be, however well meaning and supportive.
To say nothing of exemplary soldiers, gay and straight who are living proof that gay/straight alliances are healthy within our fighting forces.

There was lost opportunity with the women of the King family, and considering there IS support and outspokeness from soldiers from the front lines of the civil rights movement like Julian Bond and Andrew Young, Joe Solomese is utilizing any of this to the full potential it deserves.

Choi is right about what it takes to get attention focused where it belongs. And being seen among the elite, ISN’T one of them.

I about threw up and decided to NEVER go to the Pride parade in West Hollywood again when Paris Hilton was made Grand Marshall.

It’s not just Joe Solomese who has a problem with choosing priorities.

Regan DuCasse
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Ooops, typo.
I meant to say that JS ISN’T utilizing any of this to the full potential it deserves.

Guffey
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Choi has quite a way with words too.

I’m not much for “heros” but I am very moved by Dan Choi’s actions. He may not do things that please everyone, he may mistakes… but he is really showing some true grit. It’s hard to be public and always right and always please everyone – I say “Good work Dan Choi!”. ( More than I can say for myself )

Mark F.
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Has anyone else noticed the the “gay rights” groups have not said much, if anything, about the fact that the recently passed Health Care bill screws over gays? (Gay relationships are not recognized for Federal tax purposes.)

Candace
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

May I propse the GLBTT Shoe Award, to be given to the gay poser du jour?

Marlene
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

I will say that HRC sent a ton of queer youth to help campaign for a friend of mine on her 2007 run for Congress during a special election.

But I too will never support HRC financially, mostly because Uncle Joe threw the trans community under the bus back in ’06 when Barney Frank said he couldn’t get ENDA voted on if it included gender identity. This was because mere weeks prior, Uncle Joe pledged to the Southern Comfort convention that he’d *never* endorse ENDA without gender identity included.

gar
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

That’s why Lt. Choi’s actions last week were so powerful, if under reported. I was annoyed that the emphasis was initially on the silly rally, and not on the fact that not only was it a silly rally, but that they REFUSED to let the Lt. speak. That doesn’t makes any sense to me.

Lt. Choi is absolutely correct. We don’t need to waste time courting celebrity spokespeople and being polite. Being polite is what helped us lose Prop. 8. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.

mattymatt
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

I understand HRC’s motivations. Kathy Griffin will draw a bigger crowd than Dan Choi. Sad but true!

Celebrities are magnets for growing membership, attracting media, and raising money. They made a business decision and I can’t really fault them for it.

John
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

The HRC doesn’t seem to understand who they represent. Instead of putting the interests of gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans out front, they are too concerned with their own status and supporting their friends in high places.

We have an opportunity to get some significant things accomplished and HRC refuses to put proper pressure on the White House and Congress. I no longer contribute to them, because they appear to be betraying my interests in favor of Mr. Obama’s. Now, I voted for and contributed to Obama’s campaign. But in my book, that means that he owes me some loyalty, not the other way around.

jeff
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Damn those celebrities! Remember how much Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diane and Elton John hurt the A.I.D.S. issue?

cd
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Choi is right in the sense that DADT, as a rule generallly about average military servicepeople, is fundamentally an issue of blue collar people about blue collar people. And blue collar people are not always well behaved.

Kathy Griffin is about well-meaning and essentially well-behaved (though not necessarily polite) white collar people, like journalists and lawyers.

I don’t say that to say one is better than the other- both have an important part in what develops. But Choi is probably right in that blue collar people and their kinds of gestures and opinions is what DADT is in essence about, and therefore more popularly relevant.

Richard Rush
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

We should NOT be alienating celebrities who are supportive of us. Many millions of Americans listen to what celebrities have to say. I suspect that many of these people hear more supportive words from celebrities than from any other source.

But Lt. Daniel Choi is a hero.

Jason D
March 23rd, 2010 | LINK

Jeff – And that was HOW many decades ago? Times have certainly changed. You can’t throw a brick out a window in LA or NY without hitting several dozen gay-positive entertainers before it hits the ground. Not only are they gay positive, they’re gay themselves these days. No longer do we need other people to speak on our behalf, that’s the point.

Richard – What sources are you reading? Since about halfway through the Bush administration the drum people keep banging is “hey celebrities, shut up!” for the Dixie Chicks, it was “shut up and sing”. Virtually every time I see an actor, singer, reality star, or anyone else “speak out” on a topic I hear more people saying “shut up” than I hear saying “oh, well if Roger Moore feels that way, I’ll have to rethink this…” Certainly they have SOME influence, but today it’s a mixed bag. Celebrity endorsements only work if the person ALREADY likes the celebrity and I’m sorry, Kathy Griffin has been a gay icon for at least a decade now. Anyone who gives a fig what Kathy says is likely to be gay or gay-positive themselves. She’s preaching to the choir. Whereas someone like Bruce Willis, who’s fanbase skews straight (and older) might make a bigger difference if he were to speak out on our behalf. It’s not really enough to just have a celebrity endorsement anymore, we can get that without even trying. I think Jim is right, we don’t need them to speak on our behalf, and even if we did Kathy Griffin isn’t going to win anyone over who wasn’t already on our side to begin with.

andrew
March 24th, 2010 | LINK

Richard, we shouldn’t be alienating any allies… but they shouldn’t be taking lead in lieu of serious players of substance and heft on these issues. I’m happy to have Griffin and Lady Gaga hollering from their own platforms, and marching with us.

But when it comes to spearheading movements and giving fiery speeches, maybe we can have them make the introductions for Lt Choi. Because that boy’s got it.

Matt
March 24th, 2010 | LINK

“If HRC is doing such a poor job then why are these fundraisers so successful? Apparently a lot of LGBTs agree with what they are doing.”

Priya,

Because those who can afford to go to their dinners are just as awed by celebrities and being in their midst and taking their photos in tuxes with said celebrities as most Americans in that tax bracket. I also think they happen to be very good at this type of fundraiser.

HRC takes a “corporatist” approach. I’d guess that half of those attending the dinner in NYC are there because their companies (mostly Wall Street, Huge Law/Lobby Firms & Phrama) pay for them to be there and be seen and get their companies recognized. In fact, the ONLY people I know who attend go as part of a corporate table. No one I know personally pays their own way to the NYC dinner.

While I am a big fan of HRC’s corporate scorecard, you can’t help but think about the incestuous nature of the corporations with high scores also patting themselves on the back and basking in the adulation.

Matt
March 24th, 2010 | LINK

“Damn those celebrities! Remember how much Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diane and Elton John hurt the A.I.D.S. issue?”

Jeff,

These celebs (and others) fight/fought very hard and raised a sh*tload of money for EFFECTIVE (not bloated) AIDS service/research organizations. I can recall pictures of all three personally volunteering in AIDS hospices and food programs.

Aside from marching/speaking behind a HUGE “HRC” banner (gotta get the brand out there) or attending cocktail parties with politicians, when have you seen any of HRC’s A-Listers in the trenches? I will give them credit for putting Candace Gingrich to work, but I can’t think of a single other one.

Matt
March 24th, 2010 | LINK

When I lived in DC in the mid-90s, I volunteered often for HRC–I even did some background work on their early Website when I was unemployed and had free time on my hands. In those days, there was less separation between HRC and The Task Force (and everyone else) and only “friendly” competition among them all. There was a recognition that lobbying was a necessary evil. The more “activist” organizations did the field work letting HRC work inside the system.

Sometime around when HRC came up with the “=” sign logo and went about trying to become “THE” LGBT rights organization is where they went “bad” in my mind. Liz Birch–one of the poorest public speakers I ever had to endure–kept showing up as the “spokesperson” for the movement. HRC became more and more a BRAND–they didn’t just start selling Equal Sign T-shirts, they opened frigging RETAIL STORES filled with “=” crap. Because Bill Clinton pretended to care about us and attended HRC dinners, their “legend” grew and they started believing their own press releases as everything snowballed.

It was a perfect storm and the organization knew that it had to keep showing growth. They did start sending out field staff on campaigns that already had a lot of attention–leaving the Task Force and state organizations to work on the real grassroots campaigns. They ignored the Marriage issue in the early 1990s (running away from it) until the pre-DOMA build up when they finally took a stand. They pushed from the beginning for a (less-threatening) transgender-exclusive ENDA. They ignored gays-in-the-military until it became “chic.”

They bought the B’nai B’rith building at 1640 Rhose Island Ave. for $20+ million (plus millions more to fix it up) after devoting much of their fund-raising to “capital” instead of using it for either field ops or lobbying. I don’t even want to guess what percentage of their fundraising gross goes to building upkeep.

HRC used to lead and now they only follow. And only if they can get their name on top–even if other organizations have been doing the real work for many years prior. I view HRC as leeches now–draining money and time from the community that could be used more effectively elsewhere.

As bad as I feel doing so, I usually lecture the poor kids canvassing the streets in NYC trying to get people to sign up for HRC. When they approach with, “Do you support Marriage equality?” I will explain that I sure do, that’s why I actually give my money and time to organizations like the Task Force and Lambda Legal to actually achieve that instead of to HRC.

(and how do you really feel??? ;)

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