Living Lessons in Activism

 In: Articles

Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE, recently talked with three LGBTQ+ trailblazers who see momentum in the current political environment. It made for an uplifting and powerful conversation.

Michael Adams: Each of you has been a pioneer in social justice movements through the lenses of LGBTQ+ rights, racial justice, AIDS activism, transgender rights, and much more. When you think about the movement building you’ve been a part of, what lessons surface as most relevant to you at this particular moment in time?

Mandy Carter: When I put all of this into the context of the recent election, I have to point out that North Carolina was the only state in the South that did not go all Trump. HB2, which has been called “the bathroom bill” but is much deeper than that, has devastated the state. But [former Republican Governor] Pat McCrory’s support of HB2 cost him the election. The Moral Monday Movement, an incredible co- alition of organizations, made the difference in turning out of the vote that defeated McCrory. Now we have a Democratic governor and a Democratic attorney general. Maybe the bigger picture is sometimes we lose forward. What seems on the surface like a loss might, in the long run, be a win.

Today, there are 79 million of us post-World War II baby boomers and 80 million millennials aged 18 to 25. Now is the time for all of us to come together. Furthermore, by 2050, the majority of people in this country will be of color. We’re in a major movement moment. On a scale of one to 10 in optimism, I’m a 10.

Peter Staley: Like Mandy, I am really heartened to hear how much we are on the same page. ACT UP and AIDS activism were a response to a backlash that was occurring in the country in the early years of the AIDS crisis. What happened this past November shocked us all, but what I’ve seen is the first example in my lifetime of a true, strong, and growing progressive movement in this country across all issues.

Social media is an important tool for organizing now, but what made ACT UP so powerful in 1988 and 1989 was a couple of hundred people coming together in a room for strategizing and for feeling a sense of community as we do this work over the long haul. That component of organizing is still as essential as ever.

Social media is an amazing tool for getting the word out, but I’ve never found an app, a website, or an online tool that has the energy of face-to-face strategizing and brainstorming on how you’re going to create a demonstration against a specific target.

Elizabeth Coffey-Williams: I see a growing galvanization of intersectionality that is replacing the depression people were feeling just weeks and months ago. In my area [Philadelphia], people are coming together who in the past may have been in different camps. I’m seeing people take each other by the hand. I’m seeing people give each other what they need when they need it. I certainly respect the value of social media, but there is very little that can compete with that human connection—being in a room, smelling the issue, feeling each other. Now that the initial shock is over, people are moving to action. It’s also important to remember that this is not our first rodeo.

Peter Staley: What’s so exciting about today’s movement is that it’s those who don’t have skin in the game showing up for each other. When thousands of New Yorkers showed up at JFK Airport within hours of Trump’s horrifying immigration order, and then tens of thou- sands showed up at airports across the country only a few hours later, only a handful of those demonstrators had skin in the game. These were largely non-Muslim people using their bodies to defend Muslim immi- grants. That was a beautiful, defining moment for the resistance and will continue to define us.

Michael Adams: I’m struck by the optimism and incredibly powerful sense of resilience in every one of you. Where do you find that resilience?

Elizabeth Coffey-Williams: Considering the fact that when I completed my transition—which I had begun in the ’60s—in 1972, many of the words we use to describe it now didn’t even exist then. My resilience comes from the fact that my steel was tempered in raw shit. I’ve climbed up through a lot. We’ve all had our challenges, but those challenges have strengthened us. Yes, I’m resilient, and I feel like I have an enormous obliga- tion to lovingly and hopefully act and interact with the people who are coming after me.

Mandy Carter: We lived with Jesse Helms for 30 years. So when we put it in a herstorical and a historical perspective
—the Holocaust, the Trail of Tears—let’s thank the people who came before us who demonstrated the incomprehensible human capacity to endure. It’s not as if we haven’t dealt before with things like what are happening now, because we have. One thing that has really saved me is this quote: “Don’t mourn; organize. If there’s a need, fill it.” I find inspiration in my elders, but I’m also struck by today’s defiance that says, “No, we’re not going to have this, and we’re going to do something about it, darn it!”

Peter Staley: Although the history of AIDS activism is worth drawing lessons from, we weren’t as resilient as Hollywood might portray us. As activists, we’re all human. This type of work can be very painful and very exhausting, and one of the ways to get through it is to cut yourself a break and take care of each other. You can’t be a perfect, high-powered activist running on full charge 24/7. Life goes on while you’re doing this often depressing work. Enjoy life and take care of yourself. Embrace some dark humor about what you’re doing. God knows AIDS activists facing death on a constant basis were famous for their dark humor. That’s the only way mentally we could get through that early period of AIDS. Now we have amazing, cre- ative humor coming out of the resistance. We are not going to be able to get through the Trump era unless we crack a lot of jokes about the horribleness that is going on. But what really kept us in the game in the early days of AIDS activism is that we had our backs against the wall. The death rate kept going up, and frequently it was our own lives on the line.

Michael Adams: If you had to create an elevator pitch to impart your best wisdom for this newgeneration of activists, what would it be?

Mandy Carter: Remember when Edie Windsor won that incredible U.S. Supreme Court decision that killed the Defense of Marriage Act? It was the same court that all but gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We cannot get into the idea that “I’ve got mine and I’m good, and I’m sorry that you never got yours.” If there ever was a time for solidarity, it’s now. A lot of us walk in multiple identities: I’m black; I’m a lesbian; I’m a Southerner. Remember the first conversations about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act? We heard people say to let the transgender part go and we’d come back and get them later. We have to look at the past and come up with new models in which no one gets left behind and no one gets left out.

Peter Staley: Learn your history. Get inspired by it, but please don’t come up to us old farts and ask us what to do. Every movement is different, every time is different, and you’re going to figure it out. Use our history as inspiration, both good and bad, but go out there and make your own movement. Trust yourself to make it happen.

Elizabeth Coffey-Williams: Come to a comfortable understanding of where your skill sets lie. Find your lane. Work in it. I also want to tell young people to look at my successes and look at my mistakes, but don’t do what I did. Do it your way. I’m already good at being me. I want them to be good at being themselves and bring something new and fresh and hot to the table.

Michael Adams: If you had a do-over, what did you get right and what would you do differently?

Peter Staley: ACT UP started splitting apart around year four or five. We were able to save the activism, but the movement suffered. Movements need a mechanism for resolving internal tensions. So if I had a do-over,I’d have a way to force the camps that were developing to work through things and to bring them face-to-face for a facilitated discussion.

Mandy Carter: As a young, black lesbian activist, jobs in the movement that reflected me didn’t exist. Until we formed the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum and the National Black Justice Coalition, there was nowhere for a queer-identified woman of color to get a job, so I had to join a predominantly white organization. If we’re looking into the future, I would ask if there could be a more equitable financial way to work for the movement that represents you. Don’t make it either; make it both.

We also have to create ways for organizations to exist without the people who founded them. So many times the personality of the person who started a movement hangs so heavily over the organization that when they leave, we have to start over from the beginning.

Elizabeth Coffey-Williams: Early on in 1970-1971, it was rather unheard of to be an extraordinarily defiant trans woman who stood up and refused to sit down. I’m really glad I did that, because in some LGBTQ+ sectors, the letter “T” is still a very small “T.” But one thing I might do differently is maybe integrate my efforts of being a fiber artist, being involved in the NAMES project and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and facilitating various gender groups. But the one thing I will never regret is not letting myself be sat down or pushed down.

Michael Adams: This has been an incredible conversation. Is there one last burning thing you’d like to add?

Mandy Carter: Each and every one of us has a moral compass. How do we tap into that and use the gifts we have? We have to realize our potential. The sky’s the limit; go for it!


MANDY CARTER describes herself as an “out, Southern, black, lesbian social justice advocate” and is a recipient of the Spirit of Justice Award from GLAD.

ELIZABETH COFFEY-WILLIAMS is a transgender advocate, artist, and actor known for her roles in classic John Waters movies.

PETER STALEY is a longtime AIDS activist who was instrumental in ACT UP and was a founding member of the Treatment Action Group. He was featured in documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”

MICHAEL ADAMS is Chief Executive Officer of SAGE and has led the organization for 10 years.