Between Floating and Leeching: The Financial Struggle of the LGBT Activist

Posted on 04 Aug 2010 at 12:44pm

NOTE FROM PAM: I have comments about this topic below the fold.


Crossposted on ZackFord blogs

This is a post about making sausage. If you are in any way involved in queer activism, I hope you'll at least give it some thought.

Let's say you want to dedicate a certain portion of your life to supporting LGBT equality. You have a number of options. The most common option, I expect, would be that individuals volunteer. They sing in a gay men's chorus, they spend some time volunteering in their LGBT community center, they help organize Pride festivals or other events, etc. These are individuals who are sustaining themselves financially through jobs not related to LGBT work who find extra time to help the movement.

For others, the priority might be higher. Some might be eager and ready to dedicate their whole lives to LGBT work. They look for jobs in LGBT campus centers (like I am), or go work for organizations in the movement like HRC or NGLTF, or find other ways locally to devote themselves. Some might even be full-time activists who are financially supported for the work they do blogging, speaking, or organizing direct action. (I doubt there are many examples of people who can support themselves as full-time bloggers; certainly only the most-trafficked would be capable of doing so.)

So that raises the question: Should people get paid for LGBT work? A student by the name of Nonnie Ouch at Texas Tech doesn't think so, and wrote a letter lambasting Lt. Dan Choi for charging too much for his speaking engagements:

 


However, I’ve lost all respect for you as a gay- and human-rights activist. In the course of my two short years as an activist in the communities I have lived in, I have met amazing people such as Irene Andrews, C.d. Kirven and Michael Robinson, who travel from city to city, state to state with their own money and ask NOTHING from those who request their speaking services. These people, like myself, live, breath and eat queer activism. They live to inspire others. They live to show the compassion of love to others. They have not lost sight of what is truly important here: equality for all.

You, sir, have lost sight in one of those many ,000 checks written to you, of why you came out and became an activist in the first place. Remember, Lt. Choi? LOVE IS WORTH IT. LOVE is worth cutting a deal to poor college kids in an extremely conservative city who’s only desire is to make headway in their community. LOVE is worth sacrificing money to give my friends and others who are currently serving in silence the hope to remember they are worth it. Love isn’t made by money. Love isn’t made by your agent, Alec Melman. Love isn’t tangible when you’re suffocated by greed as you are. Love is constantly flowing through the heart and brain. Love is giving. Love isn’t defined by financial status, color, gender, creed, age or sexual orientation.

Now, I cannot speak to Nonnie's experience trying to book Dan nor the treatment received from Dan's agent. Nonetheless, I'm going to say here that I think Nonnie's comments are out of line and ignore the reality of our movement.

Where there is money in our movement, it is concentrated. Joe Solmonese can wear his fancy suits and host his posh cocktail parties while others are doing their best with grassroots activism and direct action that is essentially unfunded. Joe can afford to take time from his work duties to travel while other activists are taking time off for their activism. I think a lot of folks fall somewhere in the middle.

Gays aren't rich. We don't all have posh lofts in NYC >a la Will Truman. A lot of us are scraping by. There is a limit to how much we can do before we need to get paid if we're going to do anymore. Certainly, there are "professional volunteers" doing as much as—if not more than—many who are gay for pay. They can afford to.

Nonnie mentions people who travel "with their own money." Where does that money come from? It seems to me there is an incredible assumption of socioeconomic privilege in that statement. There's just this expectation that people should have money (from where?) and all the activism should be on them.

Well, that's not realistic. Some people make their living on the speaker circuit. Some work for the movement and depend upon it for their livelihood. And like it or not, the stereotype that the gay community is well off permeates within the community as well. In many ways, the vision we have of a worthwhile activist is someone who can afford to take the time and can still look good doing the work.

Now, there is a lot we don't know about this story. We don't know if Dan has any other source of income. We don't know how Dan plans to use the money. We don't know what constraints the agent has put on the booking. I think it is safe to say that Dan's goal is not to focus on speaking. Maybe he doesn't want to speak much and the agent thinks because of his "celebrity" status that ,000 is what schools ought to pay to bring in Dan. We're not privy to those details, but I think the ambiguity about it all speaks to the rashness of Nonnie's letter.

Dan is just a person, like the rest of us. He sacrificed his career to further our movement, and surely he brought a lot of positive attention to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in a way no one ever really has. I would go so far as to say we owe him, particularly considering he has continued to work on our behalf. He's not getting a military paycheck anymore; we know that much.

I'm willing to give Dan the benefit of the doubt. Is his cost to speak high? Yes. But it is what it is. It's not like Dan is living the high and glamorous life of the HRC execs. As far as I know, he's just trying to get by. Is every school going to be able to afford to bring him? Maybe not. But plenty have, and I was lucky enough to see one of those engagements. They build coalitions on campus, work with neighboring campuses, and they make it work.

I'm sorry it didn't work out at Texas Tech, but is Dan to blame? I don't think so. I'm sure Nonnie feels disappointed that the efforts to bring Dan were in vain, and maybe there was disrespect on the agent's part. It's not inconceivable. But Dan is a big celebrity right now. There are a ton of great people who are local or less A-list that could have easily been just as powerful and inspiring to the campus community. It's not Dan's fault that Dan is doing what Dan needs to do for Dan. Even if Dan's cost or his agent's dealings are out of line, Dan is human and can learn and grow. It is out of line to suggest that something this inane compromises all of his previous and continued activism.

If anything, Nonnie's comments perhaps speak to a sense of entitlement, suggesting Dan hasn't done enough and he now needs to give even more for the Texas Tech community. This just does not seem fair to what Dan has already done for us.

We have to get to a point where we appreciate the need for balance. There are those in the movement who depend on the movement's support just to keep afloat while others leech more than they need. Ultimately, I think it's more important that we measure activists by what they accomplish and what they give. If they're taking more than they've earned, that's one thing. But it's not Lt. Dan Choi.


Thoughts from Pam: I’d like to thank Zack for this diary. It’s a measured approach to a thorny topic in the community, with Dan just being the stand-in for “Activist Person X” at this moment and time. I wanted to add my two cents to the post on the topic.

Zack gets to core of the the problem with our community (and the larger progressive community) with this statement:

Nonnie mentions people who travel “with their own money.” Where does that money come from? It seems to me there is an incredible assumption of socioeconomic privilege in that statement. There’s just this expectation that people should have money (from where?) and all the activism should be on them.

Why are activists expected to take vows of poverty in this equality movement? Actually, that’s not a correct statement — there are a significant number of people who do earn a nice living in what can be described as a spectrum of activism — and many others who are already wealthy who participate through donations and/or sitting on boards. And many luminaries in our movement work for a pittance; retirement is not an option.

But as I’ve described many times here on the Blend (and on panel discussions about monetization of blogs), these assumptions by people like Nonnie are quite common.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to speak or serve on a panel and I’m expected to do it on my own time and dime. Think about it, clearly someone or some entity thinks my presence is valuable in some way or I wouldn’t be invited at all.

At this point in time in the success of PHB, it’s not uncommon that I’m featured as the “name” panelist or serving as a proxy for “the new media person” or “the LGBT person” or sadly, still “the black blogger person.” They hit multiple demographics with one shot; I’m not stupid.

I think the expectation of a “free ride” on the financial backs of activists in our community is sometimes just a matter of not thinking much about it. But back to the sorry “travel with their own money” issue.

Based on my personal experience only, these are assumptions I’ve seen.

1. I blog full-time as my job. Well, PHB is a full-time blog, but I have a full-time day job unrelated to LGBT activism (at Duke University Press; I am not getting rich in academic publishing).

2. I am readily available. That is, to appear somewhere to speak, liveblog, consult, blog breaking news, whatever. Um, no. See number 1. If I’m at work 5 days a week, with roughly 3 weeks off a year, that means I’m not available most of the time. I have to use paid time off most of the time to do blog-related things.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t have any more paid time off because I used almost all of it on blog travel; in order to go to Netroots Nation, take that long-needed Maine vacation, and now to go this week to BlogHer, I am going in the hole, docked for taking 3 weeks off.

3. I am making tons of money on ads. Some orgs and people get that I have to work a day job to subsidize my work on PHB, but assume that the ad revenue is just rolling in. Well, PHB does well enough to fund travel and lodging for engagements that I (or a barista) really want to attend. And btw, that’s without any honorarium even when travel is covered (more on that later). PHB doesn’t run beefcake or porn ads (which would boost revenue tremendously), so that’s a choice that has reduced potential revenue streams.

Also, PHB is sending three people to Southern Comfort this year. That was a decision made early on because it is an event rarely given sufficient coverage by the LGBT media. It’s an expensive conference, from registration to travel and lodging and a big chunk out of the revenue for the year. Autumn is moderating a panel, so one registration fee was waived. Otherwise, it’s all coming out of the Blend’s ad revenue. I’m ok with this, but it does mean we’re selective about which conferences. All of the baristas here spend money out of their own pockets as well.

In the end, even if we were rolling in ad revenue or supported otherwise, it won’t create more TIME for activism as long as one needs a full-time primary job.

4. That “someone should fund” PHB. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard this statement. That’s at least an acknowledgment that the work here at PHB is valuable in some way. Yes, that would be nice, but no entity has offered to do so, lol. There are a few major problems with this.

* Editorial control. I’m not willing to give that up.

* Grant-based/time limited funding. I’m not willing to give up a stable day job with great health insurance for that level of risk (particularly with my pre-existing conditions).

* Relocating. Part of the reason PHB has flourished is because I’m not based in DC, NY, LA, etc. I’m living in a place where the reality of legal inequality bites hard, and I’ve encountered many an activist from Blue states with significantly more rights who has forgotten what it’s like to live where legal oppression at all levels is a reality. I don’t want to be assimilated into Beltway culture, for example. It’s toxic, cutthroat and professionally incestuous. Besides, I know if Kate and I sold our 3BR/2BA house and had to move to NY or DC, we’d end up in a cramped studio with our two dogs. The cost of living is that different.

So the problems are partially self-imposed; the question is, are those terms I’ve set reasonable or not? Am I being “selfish” for not risking any more of myself for the movement? It is an interesting conversation to have, and I’m up for it.

5. Honoraria. This seems to be the real sticking point in discussions about the “value” of LGBT activism as a full-time endeavor. What is an activist’s time worth, and what value does the community hold in this person’s contribution to the movement? It’s all relative. Do a Google search for speakers bureaus, and you’ll see a wide range of prices for folks on those rosters.

I was pretty floored a month or two ago to be asked to speak at a university and was offered an honorarium for the first time. Yes, that’s right, after six years writing at PHB my first paid engagement (the event hasn’t occurred yet; I don’t have an agent, btw). And it wasn’t anywhere near Dan Choi’s fee, which is appropriate given his level of celebrity and personal sacrifice compared to mine.

So is it evil to take the honorarium? It sounds like for some in our movement, it is a problematic situation – as if the funds are affording a high life or doesn’t get rolled back into more activism. I’m not sure why this generates more public criticism than someone joining a consulting firm or think tank that frees them to be able to speak, write or continue their chosen form of activism. Well, I could be wrong about that one — that would probably cause a piety eruption as well.

Perhaps the problem is a class issue as well – what is perceived as “getting rich” by one person is “just getting by” by another.

It’s all a matter of perspective, but I think the discussion itself is healthy, and commenter ebohlman’s points from Kos’s Crashing the Gates are salient about lowball LGBT activism:

[I]f progressive organizations don’t offer career-level jobs, then all the work is going to be done by:

1) Idealistic young people. The problem here is that by the time they gain enough experience to be really useful, they’re reaching a point in their lives where a “roommates and ramen” lifestyle is no longer tolerable, so they quit.

2) Trust-fund kids. They can be fickle, often bring distorted perspectives, and want to work on pet issues that may not really align with the organization’s priorities.

3) Eccentrics who have difficulty working with other people. Again, there’s the problem of pet issues as well as the inability to engage with the public.

Successful progressive organizations are always going to have some people in those categories, but it’s hard to be successful when nearly all your people are in them.

So what we need is a frank conversation about whether our movement is best served with the above model or not, and whether there is an ethical problem with burning out and cycling through people “for the cause.” Is there a middle ground we can all agree on, or is the class bridge so raggedy that no one wants to stand on it to discuss the issues and able to feel safe?
Pam’s House Blend – Front Page

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