The Activist's Dilemma

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Should I be preparing to work in the the LGBT rights movement after graduation?  Should you?

Thumbnail image for human-rights-campaign.gifSame-sex marriage is an extremely salient national political issue, a idea that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.  Enormous strides are being made in particular issue areas, such as gender identity protections and Pres. Obama's executive order directing hosipitals to allow visits by same-sex partners (a measure that is long overdue).  Major legislation that the LGBT community has been pushing for years, such a the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," is finally on the verge of passage.  By all accounts, it is an extremely significant and vibrant moment in the history of the LGBT rights movement.

And yet, I feel extremely conflicted towards the LGBT movement establishment and question whether I want to make a career out of LGBT advocacy.

Before coming to Princeton, I was Director of Louisiana's statewide LGBT advocacy organization, the Forum For Equality.  It was an amazing and challenging experience -- as one might expect, there are a unique set of priorities and obstacles for the movement in the American South.  I am incredibly proud of my work at the Forum, and it seems natural for me to return to this type of work upon graduation.

But when I think of returning to work for LGBT issues, I wonder what is motivating me.  Is it a sense of guilt or obligation?  Should smart young gay people who are interested in politics feel as if they "must" work for LGBT rights?  The LGBT community is a small minority, and those with elite educations are an even smaller minority.  Who am I to turn my back on the movement that has allowed me to be who I am?

On the other hand (and this relates to my previous post), isn't it a bit untoward or selfish to dedicate my career to something that directly affects my own well-being?  Others in my public policy program are preparing for careers in African development, learning about and advocating for important issues that have no direct impact on their own lives.  One of the fundamental characteristics of Third Sector work is the sense of altruism.  My classmates have incredible experiences helping strangers while I am, essentially, fighting for a better life for my own community. 

Political advocacy has also polarized me and significantly colored my worldview.  A few weeks ago, a friend who had recently come out described the process as a personal journey, and said we should not judge those politicians and other prominent individuals who remain closeted, as long as they are supporting our rights.  I found myself making a general statement about how it's each gay person's "civic duty" to come out (I actually used those words) and I felt no sense of tragedy for figures like Ted Haggard or Roy Ashburn-- only scorn.

Sometimes I just want to withdraw from political advocacy and join those people -- a clear majority -- who live their lives, don't trouble themselves with the day-to-day political news cycle, and think about these issues maybe once every couple of years when they vote... if that!

But maybe that would be the truly selfish decision.

2 Comments

Great post, Ryan.

"On the other hand (and this relates to my previous post), isn't it a bit untoward or selfish to dedicate my career to something that directly affects my own well-being?"

Keeping within the context that you've framed (non profit focus as opposed to selling out and working in the private sector), I'm going to assume that the vast majority of your friends who are dedicating their talents to African development are straight and white. They aren't dedicating their careers to something that directly affects their own well-being because, frankly, they don't have to. What progress needs to be achieved in the straight and white communities in the U.S.? It could be argued that some of the women going to Africa could remain in the U.S. to work for organizations like NARAL or NOW to further advance women's rights, and in effect, their own well-being. However, because gender equality comprises a large component of the West's focus on African development, your female classmates are essentially working toward positive global notions of gender equality aka their well-being.

By fighting for gay rights, you are not only strengthening the LGBT community, but working toward a broader goal of demanding that the majority treat the minority justly in our society. LGBT legal organizations such as Lambda Legal, ACLU's LGBT Project, GLAD, and NCLR don't exclusively direct their litigation to matters involving LGBT issues. Often these organizations will direct substantial resources to filing friend of the court briefs in cases dealing with other minority groups being threatened by an unsympathetic majority- cases involving issues of religious freedom, protections for the disabled, freedom of speech, racial and class equality, and more. The cumulative effect is bigger than any one issue or group.


This coalition work so frequently becomes invisible, however, it is very necessary. The work may not be news worthy for major media outlets, but the organizations need to be challenged to make these actions visible. Even though the organizations are already overly weighed down by their workloads, it is necessary in the larger movement.

This past February, at the Creating Change conference, the State of the Union address by Rea Carey was very centered in the visible LGBT Movement, in a way that was shocking to hear from NGLTF. However, in that moment Rea shifted the audience towards the next action, immigration. "Immigration is an LGBT issue!" Although the message was not central throughout the whole speech, it was explicit. These issues affect us all.

Too often is this coalition work devalued. Watching POCs turn on Julian Bond, the former NAACP chairman, when he was a constant allied voice for LGBT people, both POC and white, I want to make sure that the cheesy phrase, "Justice not Just Us", is kept close.

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