What does it mean to be an activist? Answers from 15 of the most involved leaders in the LGBT community might surprise you.
Cleve Jones, a longtime human rights advocate and founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and longtime friend of the late gay-rights crusader Harvey Milk, says anyone can be an activist but he prefers to be an organizer and solve problems working with large groups of people.
Chad Griffin, meanwhile, doesn’t consider himself an activist at all but instead the strategist behind the American Foundation for Equal Rights’ fight against Prop. 8. For Milk producer Bruce Cohen, it means supporting a cause he believes in and doing the little things that go beyond writing a check. And for Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the term “activist” is too political.
For Rogers Hartmann, the founder of Beat Dystonia who taught herself to walk again, it’s about time and energy. And for scores of others—including such newsmakers as Dan Choi and Charlene Strong—it’s about making a difference in people’s lives.
And for you, it hopefully means finding inspiration from the Fighting 15 and getting involved to make a difference in our community.
“I would refer back to some of the early gay rights ‘activists’ who said, ‘This is our lives we’re fighting for.’ I think that’s still true today, which is why I work not only with stuff that pushes us forward like the American Foundation for Equal Rights, but I also want to work with things like the Trevor Project, which is making sure that we have a safety net in place until a time comes that we have equality, and until the time comes when a child isn’t subjected to the sort of abuse they’re subjected to in their schools, homes and churches ... I try as much as I can to not look at this as a political issue; I try to look at it as a more human issue.” —Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk; narrator, 8: The Mormon Proposition
“Being an activist is simply the action that follows when one decides they are tired of complaining about the way things are, and then do what they can to change it. There’s a certain passion that drives you. It’s not a job, it’s a fight ... DADT, UAFA, DOMA, ENDA—all acronyms for things that shouldn’t even be issues in 2010.” —Mike Manning,
Real World Washington, D.C. cast member
“I don’t so much relate to the word ‘activist,’ but rather ‘advocate,’ which in Latin means to call or summon. When I speak, I ask that everyone find their voice and be that voice for change and equality.” —Charlene Strong, subject of
For My Wife
“Rejecting any false sense of inferiority, helping future generations stand up tall, proclaiming, ‘I am somebody,’ and teaching them the hard-earned lessons to confront our oppressors, ridding them of delusions of abused privilege constitutes the work of the activist.
An activist is the epitome of love.” —Dan Choi, former American infantry officer in the United States Army
“Being an activist for me is turning pain into purpose. Not only my pain, but the pain of another. It begins viscerally for me. It’s a lot like the feeling I used to get when I saw another kid getting beat up on the playground at school. Then, as now, a fire built in my gut that I couldn’t turn away from. It is always a fire that asks a question: ‘Are you going to just stand by and watch this? Or are you the kind of man who puts all on the line to make it better?’ True activism is choosing in that moment to respond to that voice with action.” —Reed Cowan, director-screenwriter of
8: The Mormon Proposition
“To me, being an activist means actually doing the work to support a cause you believe in—whether it’s raising the money, organizing the rally, creating the video piece, writing the check or maybe even all of the above ... True opportunities to make lasting, monumental changes on a federal level don’t come around that often, but when they do it’s an activist’s dream come true.” —Bruce Cohen, producer of
Milk and Oscar winner for
“Being an activist means fighting through the no’s, the criticism and the ignorance and standing up for your cause ... I have two gay dads that have been together for almost 29 years. They are the people that gave me life, unconditional love and help me follow my passions every day. I fight to defy a society that believes they are unfit parents and that they have somehow managed to raise me incorrectly. My dad and daddy inspire me to be a better person and I fight for them and for all gay families and couples.” —Chelsea Montgomery-Duban, daughter
“Activism is about using your own personal strengths to bring about awareness and change, and whether that applies to a lobbyist gathering signatures, a volunteer canvassing neighborhoods or even a photographer taking protest photos, everybody can be an activist in their own right.” —Adam Bouska, NOH8 Campaign creator-photographer
“Being an activist means being present as to what is going on in the world and being part of the efforts to make it a better place. There’s far too much going on in our world to sit this one out.” —Daniel Sladek, Emmy-nominated and GLAAD Award-winning executive producer of
Prayers for Bobby; chair of PFLAG’s The L.A. Event
“One must believe in people, because people believe in you. Being an activist means to be humble and to be grateful to have the opportunity to serve others ... we must know that we are the voice of many who cannot speak and we must have the courage to confront what is wrong, and the courage we get from the people who are marginalized.” —Bamby Salcedo, Latina transgender leading the charge for a West Hollywood city resolution about trans murders in Puerto Rico; Angels of Change Runway Fashion show event Oct. 16 at Arena Night Club
“It can be any action that expresses your message, from writing a song or poem, to protesting with picket signs at a rally; there are many ways one can take a stand for how they feel ... It was actually many people in the Southern California transsexual, transgender, intersex, lesbian, gay and bisexual communities who inspired me to change my life a few years ago. I now believe that understanding, acceptance and protections of our community is possible.” —Ashley Love, LGBTTIQQSA advocate at MAGNET (Media Advocates Giving National Equality to Transsexual and Transgender People)
“I’m trying in my life to be an organizer. I think there’s a difference between an activist and an organizer. An organizer works with large groups of people and that is what I find most satisfying about my work. Anyone can become an activist but I suspect one is born an organizer. There’s sort of a compulsion to do the work. I do this work because I love it. I like working with people and solving problems ... and every now and then there’s a really wonderful victory to celebrate.” —Cleve Jones, author-lecturer
“Being a true activist is when one donates their time and energy to create awareness about a cause they believe in, raise money for it and advocate for others who are in need. At a young age, my parents instilled an awareness in me and my brother and sister that there are others who are less fortunate than we. We were encouraged to donate our time and aim to make a difference in the world while still pursuing our career passions.” —Rogers Hartmann, founder of Beat Dystonia
“Activists, organizers and citizens—those are the people who take seriously the moments of moral failures and personal losses, their mutual social obligations to each other and to the stranger, and their capacity to turn anger, grief and stories into a force for good of the whole." —Pastor Samuel Chu, Executive Director for California Faith for Equality
“An activist, to me, is someone who really has for the course of time been involved with an issue. Like David Mixner and Cleve Jones have committed their lives to activism around this issue. Then there are the new activists who have come up—young people who have refused to accept a ban on gay couples going to prom. Those types of people are incredibly committed. I’ve often said I have such tremendous respect for the young and new, and those who have been there since Stonewall.” —Chad Griffin, founding partner, Griffin|Schalke