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A Conversation with Alex Nicholson

May 19th, 2009 No comments

Here’s something to think about:

Getting married, or civilly united, as a same-sex couple can get you discharged under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. As the New Jersey Civil Union Commission Report pointed out, declaring that you’re in a civil union is actually “worse” (read: more hazardous) than saying “I Got Married!” — since civil unions are limited to same-sex couples, that simple speech act will do you in. You might be able to get away with saying you’re married, at least until someone asks you “to whom” (and you dare to answer truthfully) or until someone finds out that you’re “gay married.”

At least these acts of commitment are solid evidence that one has a same-sex orientation. Contra the reading of Anne Rice novels, or the possession of art that’s seen as “too lesbian”; these have also passed for “evidence” in the administrative hearings that often lead to discharge for “violation” of this policy.

This last bit of information came courtesy of Alex Nicholson, former Army (multi) lingual “human intelligence collector” discharged under the policy when another soldier discovered his “gay” letter — written in Portugese. He’s the founder and Executive Director of Servicemembers United (“SU”), the primary mission of which is to advocate for the repeal of the DADT policy.

Among the “human intelligence” Nicholson was able to collect surely would not have been a justification for the DADT policy; in fact, there’s not a shred of evidence in support of it. No, this document from former officers no longer serving isn’t evidence; worse, the embedded “Issues Overview” is a distressing hash of homophobic arguments that I’ll address in an upcoming post. For now I’ll just mention that the world is changing more quickly than some retired soldiers know or want to acknowledge. As explained here, that other bastion of presumed heterosexuality, the Greek fraternity/sorority system, has also undergone rapid transformation. (The writer describes her experience at the College of William and Mary, which I also attended. When I was there, in the 1970s, we were all living under “don’t ask, don’t tell. That doesn’t mean there were no same-sex acts. In fact, one of the fraternities had a reputation as being the one to join if you were so disposed! Is this a digression? Not really; a socially enforced (then), or legally required (now, under DADT) invisibility doesn’t “solve” “the gay problem”; it simply drives it underground.)

I recently had a long sit-down with Alex Nicholson, whom I’d briefly met a couple of weeks ago at the Equality Forum event for which I was blogging. Between an appearance on National Public Radio, a screening of the documentary “Ask Not” (which features him among others; see it June 16 on PBS) and a likely appearance on Campbell Brown’s CNN show, he graciously spent a couple of hours with me discussing all manner of things; some related to his organization and its mission, some about his life and background, and some general chitchat (a mutual specialty, it seems).

Alex grew up an only child in South Carolina, the son of a military dad, and left college after one year to join the Army. I asked the obvious question: “Did you know you were gay then?” Yes, he did. Well, then, why on earth join the military? His answer should have been unsurprising: “It was a non-issue in my head.” He knew of the policy, but wasn’t educated about it and somehow didn’t think it would be much of a problem. He might have been right, even though it didn’t turn out that way. The DADT policy is unclear, and randomly enforced. Some can go years with many fellow soldiers knowing they’re gay, while others are pushed out quickly. This inconsistency itself is enough to alert reasonable people that the policy ain’t right.

Alex Nicholson and his colleagues at Servicemembers United are doing something about it. When he founded the organization three years ago,  he followed the “do it yourself” model that seems to be the signature talent of millenials. Without funding,  SU established a website toehold, and then leveraged its influence through a series of ad hoc projects and initiatives co-sponsored by different, better established organizations. For example, SU created “the 12000 Flags for 12000 Patriots” campaign and then invited participation from the Human Rights Campaign, the (evil) Log Cabin Republicans, and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “12,000 Flags” marked the shameful fact that 12,000 able servicemen and servicewomen had been discharged within fourteen years of the enactment of DADT. Here’s Alex, speaking at the event:

SU work is more of a calling than a job. Alex and his partner, co-founder Jarrod Chlapowski, work well into the night — for no pay! (There is no paid staff, still.)  It seems as though their work is starting to claw its way into the collective consciousness. The issue is everywhere, lately, and Presidential press conferences and briefings continue to feature awkward circumlocutions on when and how DADT will finally be given an indecent burial. (Jon Stewart is predictably devastating on the issue here; points out absurdity of our different policies on torture, release of torture videos, and DADT). In the midst of this, Alex Nicholson continues to work on his Ph.D. dissertation in Political Science for the University of South Carolina. The topic is one you might have expected to interest him: How people move from passive to active support of social movements, with emphasis on the involvement of non-affected supporters (e.g., men for feminism, straights for gay rights).1

So, does he want to become a professor? He’d much rather…rejoin the military. He hopes to attend law school, preferably in D.C., where he’s now located, and then join the JAG Corps.  After our long and interesting conversation, I somehow didn’t find this surprising at all. SU exists because Alex Nicholson and others have not given up on an organization that, even now, would rather not acknowledge their existence. That’s persistence.

  1. I’d say that everyone is affected by whatever happens to everyone else, but I understand the point to be about direct effects.

Equality Forum Day 4 (Part 1): Politics 101 (Domestic)

April 30th, 2009 No comments

How important is bipartisanship in pursuing full equality for the LGBT community? Is it better to work on the state law level, or to push for national policy changes? How are our issues connected to larger issues? And what will be the questions facing the community ten years from now?

Moderator Patrick Guerriero used these open-ended questions to stimulate dialogue and a healthy level of disagreement among the members of Thursday’s National Politics Panel, attended by an audience of about 70 enthusiasts. Perhaps in an effort to achieve balance,  there were two identifiable Republicans on the panel (former Mass politician Guerriero and former Log Cabin Republican leaader Richard Tafel), one identifiable Democrat (Jon Hoadley, the Executive Director of Stonewall Democrats so young that he was apparently put on the panel to remind me of my own mortality), and two women whose politics seemed generally progressive,  yet practical (Toni Broaddus, Executive Director of Equality Federation, a national network of state-based LGBT organizations, and Darlene Nipper, Deputy Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force).

The Republican Party came in for a beating, despite Guerriero’s effective advocacy on behalf of some of the GOP’s courageous figures: a Massachusetts Republican(!) who ran against an entrenched Democrat who was ready to support a constitutional amendment overturning the Goodridge marriage equality decision; the Iowa Supreme Court Justices who allowed the Varnum marriage decision to be unanimous; and an ultraconservative district attorney in Colorado who zealously prosecuted the murderer of the transgendered Angela Zapata under the state’s newly enacted hate crimes law.

Tafel, to my surprise, appears to have had a sort of conversion experience (perhaps I should avoid that term). He grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he and everyone else (OK, not everyone else) was Republican.  Now, he says, all of his nieces and nephews under the age of 30 are Democrats. He supported Obama, and urged moderate Senators Snowe and Collins of Maine to join Arlen Specter in the exodus from the increasingly depopulated and brain-dead GOP. When another panelist worried that activists shouldn’t put all of “their eggs in the Democratic basket,” Tafel didn’t seem worried. The GOP will “wander in the wilderness for a long time,” he opined. This was a culture shift on the order of FDR’s.

So, aside from Guerriero’s qualified defense of the GOP, what was there left to argue about? With the tiresome two-party debate on hiatus, other issues swam into focus. All panelists had their eyes on the big national prizes (ENDA, hate crimes, repeal of DOMA and of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), but were in general agreement that, to use Hoadley’s term, advocacy groups that didn’t get to the grass roots level were “Astroturf organizations.” Nipper explained Hoadley’s point to be that effective advocacy had to address the “issues that actually matter to people.” Obvious, right? But national groups1 have often been criticized for not taking sufficient account of these voices.

Broaddus and Nipper were particularly compelling in their account of the many interconnected ways in which state-level work needs to be done. Nipper was just in Maine, working with 150 field workers who came from several local states. (Somehow, I had no idea that this was going on.) That state is on the threshold of marriage equality, and these boots (on the ground) are made for lobbyin’. Broaddus emphasized the need to work on all fronts: through the courts; the legislature; and with the people directly. Iowa supplies a great example here. The state was targeted as a likely success on marriage, because (1) the court was fair and progressive; and (2) the constitution is hard to amend — but not impossible, of course, so advocates worked behind the scenes for some two years to lessen the chance that the legislature would initiate the amendment process. These actions  must be further supplemented by door-to-door efforts.

As for the federal level, this isn’t the first panel where I’m hearing a note of concern beginning to overlay and temper the community’s goo-goo eyes infatuation with Obama. If an inclusive ENDA  isn’t passed this year, then…when? Yesterday’s hate crimes vote in the House was the crumb we need to keep believing, for now.

When Guerriero asked the “where will we be ten years from now” question, I managed only with great self-control and muscular discipline to avoid  rolling my eyes. I hate questions asking for opinions about the unknown. But he must have known his panel, because they did a great job with it. Hoadley made the startling statement that he’d recently spoken to a group of young gays who had never known anyone who’d died of AIDS. His point was that each generation has different issues, new stuff to deal with. For his generation and the one right behind it, he’s hoping (so am I), that most of the basic equality issues will be resolved  in our favor by then.

Then we can get on with the more general construction of a more just society. Broaddus said that “Join the Impact,” an organization formed in angry response to the passage of Prop 8, was doing things like a food drive. There’s nothing particularly LGBT about that, except to the extent that the energy we’re harnessing in our current struggle is “the gift that keeps on giving.”

  1. “Give me an “H”! Give me an “R”! Give me a “C”! What’s that spell?”

Log Cabin (Republican) Syrup

April 23rd, 2009 1 comment

A gay friend of mine moved from New Haven, CT (he was a Yale professor) to Columbus, Ohio for a year. His dating life, he told me, was a disaster: “Every guy I met told me on the first date that he was a Log Cabin Republican.” There were no second dates.

http://www.otrcat.com/z/log_cabin_syrup_1938.jpg

For  those who don’t know, the Log Cabin Republicans are a gay advocacy group that, roughly, adheres to certain “old school”  Republican values like lower taxes and limited government (federalism, as convenient, too) while pressing for LGB (but not always T) equality. They’re mostly a bunch of well-to-do white guys. Their argument for existence is that they can work within to transform the Republican Party in what is, after all, a two-party system.

I’m not one of them. My politics are decidedly to the left, and I generally favor a substantial role for government in working towards social justice (while realizing the limits of this reliance, the benefits of markets,  and the importance of grass roots advocacy and effort). And my  view of the group wasn’t exactly improved after an argument in 2004 with one Log Cabin member who, to my astonishment, supported Bush over Kerry, even asserting that there was “no difference” between them on gay issues. We were (not close)  friends before this, not at all after that.

But there he was in late 2008, at a March for Equality in Philadelphia. We walked together. He stated that he’d been an Obama supporter, and that the Republican party was in danger of becoming a “fringe.” I then regretted my boorish behavior in 2004 (I wasn’t exactly civil, I’m afraid) and sent him an email of apology. His response was more than gracious, and he owned some responsibility, too. I wisely refrained from asking about his continued association with the Log Cabin.

Now I’m feeling a bit more charitable towards the group. A recent story reported that the Log Cabin had been involved in getting the leadership of the Republican Party in the New York Senate to allow its members to “vote their conscience” on the pending marriage equality bill. Given that at least four Democrats are poised to vote “no,” this step could spell the difference between success and failure. It would be neither fair nor charitable to deny that the group has had success in galvanizing what’s left of the moderate wing of the Republican party; as a sign of their effect, they and Meghan McCain apparently have a thing goin’ on, too. If she’s the face of young Republicans (or at least enough of them), then we can have a legitimate debate about policy that takes equality as a given and moves on from there.

But I’m still not syrupy sweet on the Log Cabin. They support formal equality, and their blog lists some recent accomplishments at the state legislative level that are, frankly, impressive. But what about addressing the deep and underlying inequities of race, gender, and even sexual orientation  and gender identity? Formal equality doesn’t really get to those messier issues. Marriage equality won’t help an adult woman who needs time off to take care of her ailing sister or grandchild, neither of whom is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. A law prohibiting discrimination in the workplace doesn’t address the issue of whether employees make a living wage.

But they’re not the only group that focuses on formal equality, and, if I’m being fair about it, they seem to be making more inroads lately than the national, non-partisan Human Rights Campaign, whose efforts on hate crimes, anti-discrimination laws, and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act have yet to bear fruit. (Here’s an example of their behind-the-scenes achievements, though.)

So am I ready to enter a post-partisan era? Nah.