For gays and lesbians across the country, protest has become a way of life, a social activity as ubiquitous as the weekend cocktail party and often as craftily staged as the local drag show. Atlanta, the birthplace of civil-rights demonstrations, is typical in this regard: Last week, two AIDS activists -- one a member of ACT-UP/Atlanta, the other president of the National Association of People With AIDS -- staged a brief takeover of offices at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to protest newly published guidelines for HIV-infected health-care workers. Details were faxed within minutes to local media. The next day, four members of ACT-UP/Atlanta were arrested after they broke away from a studio tour at CNN and burst onto the set of Headline News. (The studio was running tape at the time, so they didn't make it on the air.) Every other weekend, about 100 gays and lesbians with Queer Nation/Atlanta turn out to picket local Cracker Barrel restaurants because of firings of gay employees. Demonstrators recently picketed Grady Hospital, home of the state's busiest AIDS clinic, to protest long waits for appointments. Others staged a "die-in" at the state legislature to express their displeasure at poor AIDS funding and Georgia's sodomy law.
To be gay in America these days, you don't need an attitude -- you need a crash helmet. Says one Southern activist: "I'm shocked it hasn't come to blood-letting yet. It's possible now."
That fear is increasingly common. In some quarters of the gay world, recent events have fanned fears that the militants of the gay-rights movement may be stepping over the line. In Washington, activist Michael Petrelis of Queer Nation has launched a campaign to "out" several politicians and public servants, particularly a well known Department of Defense official. Petrelis tried something similar last year after calling off the Phillip Morris boycott (which some activists insist is still on), but reporters refused to carry his allegations without evidence. This year, however, gay newspapers across the country have run with Petrelis' claims that the official and others are closeted homosexuals, reigniting a heated debate within the community over outing and, more generally, the limits of militancy.
There are no easy answers to any of the questions being raised. Over the last five years, most mainstream gay organizations concluded that "outing" public figures was at best counterproductive. The Terry Dolans of this world are few and far between; it's seldom clear that a public figure is actually harming the community of which he is a silent part. And even if that were clearly the case, the logic of outing has always been fuzzy. The practice, after all, violates the principle gays prize above all others: the right to privacy. "I have real mixed feelings about outing," says Marcia Okula, special assistant to Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and a lesbian. "Coming out can bring terrible harm in terms of child custody and job discrimination, and it's a decision that people need to make for themselves. For someone else to do it is awful." Even some militants agree. Says Chip Rowan, the ACT-UP member arrested last week at the CDC: "I have lots of feelings about it, pro and con. But overall, outing is just not a productive use of our time as a community." Gregory King, communications director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay PAC, denounced Petrelis' efforts as "an outrage."
Yet many gay activists believe the case for outing a high-ranking DOD official comes as close to legitimacy as any in recent memory. No institution in the country, public or private, sanctions discrimination against homosexuals to the degree the military does. Under a policy established in the '40s, gays and lesbians are routinely discharged from the armed forces as "security risks." Only one gay soldier has successfully defended himself against discharge, and then only after appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Under questioning by Rep. Barney Frank at a Congressional hearing recently, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney acknowledged the policy's limitations but seemed disinclined to alter it -- and that, of course, only added fuel to the fire. Petrelis has described his attempt to out the DOD official as retaliation for the military's treatment of Air Force Capt. Greg Greeley, whose impending discharge was held up for two days after his superiors found out he'd marched in a gay-pride parade in Washington.
"Outing is tempting because if every gay man and lesbian in this country were known as a gay man or lesbian, activism for equal rights would be near the end of its journey rather than the beginning," says Gary Kaupman, a gay activist in Atlanta. "These people are enjoying the fruits -- no pun intended -- of the gay and lesbian community, and this community has been established by folks taking the risk of being out."
The DOD official, adds Kaupman, "lives in a city that extends as many rights to gays and lesbians as any in the country, and he's willing to work for the most homophobic institution there. Gays and lesbians in the armed services who don't have his political connections have their rights stripped from them. Not fair. He should be outed. I consider this a dire circumstance."
The debate has produced some contradictory responses. The Southern Voice, a gay newspaper in Atlanta, ran Petrelis' allegations on the front page, above the fold with a banner headline. Yet the paper routinely refuses to identify closeted homosexuals on its own. "The policy of the paper is not to out people," says editor Chris Cash. "We will report on people being outed, but we won't do it ourselves. It's a real moral dilemma when I know that they're gay and that they're doing harm to the community, but usually my feelings about the right to privacy are stronger." Other publications, including The Village Voice and most of the mainstream press, have chosen not to print Petrelis' charges at all.
The Washington controversy underscores a deeper concern in the gay community over when and how to take the hard line. Though the tradition of gay protest dates back to Stonewall and, more tenuously, to the Mattachine Society of the '50s, the demonstrations of the last decade have been driven by two engines: AIDS and discrimination. ACT-UP concerns itself with the former, Queer Nation with the latter. And gays have gained a great deal from their vociferous, take-it-to-the-streets style. The FDA's new "fast-track" drug approval system, for instance, would not have happened without protests from ACT-UP; neither, arguably, would the government's effort to license generic production of AZT. "It is politically effective for a group that has no way to influence politics through normal channels," declares Rowan. "Because we have so little access, I think the only option is militancy. With AIDS, we can't wait for normal political channels to open up to us."
"Working within the system can be effective, but sometimes that process bogs down," adds Okula. "Sometimes politicians need to be prodded."
Militants like Rowan have come to fill a special niche: they drive politicians into the arms of gay community's more approachable negotiators -- HRCF, say, or the AIDS Action Council. It's a dynamic duplicated in city after city. "They serve as a conscience for us and for the politicians," says Sandy Thurman, executive director of AID Atlanta. "When an issue is raised, those of us working inside the system have better entree."
Says Kaupman: "We're finding that with the exception of what the Human Rights Campaign Fund has been able to do with extremely mainstream tactics, around the country not much is accomplished by being nice. In the end, it's a matter of militants waking people up, and then accommodationists stepping in and negotiating."
But the public seldom witnesses the negotiations. Instead, people are barraged with the images of homosexual militancy: gays and lesbians in leather and combat boots, splashing red paint on the walls of public buildings and invading government offices. And lately it seems most anything can prompt a vehement street march. How much does it really matter if Hollywood's latest screenplay stars a lesbian villain? Does it merit rioting in the Castro? "Activism is very important, but thinking that it affects direct change may be too optimistic," warns Thurman. "There have to be those who address the problem from an institutional point of view with the activists -- you have to have both."
Some militants aren't so sure. "Already people are alienated by gays," says Rowan. "It's not our objective to have people like us. Our objective is to have political impact. Power doesn't always come from people liking you. It can come from people being afraid of you, or because you have more information than they do." As for the mainstream, "they're a necessary part, but they don't have the political influence that carries the day," adds Rowan.
"This is what a lot of militant action is about: venting rage," says Kaupman. "I don't care what happens to [the DOD official] -- I want to be free, and he's is part of a conspiracy that prevents that."
Even in these desperate times, some groups manage to strike the fine balance between rage and negotiation. Early this year Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, a Tennessee-based chain of 100 country restaurants, issued a memorandum codifying a new personnel policy: "Cracker Barrel is founded upon a concept of traditional American values, quality in all we do, and a philosophy of 100% guest satisfaction. It is inconsistent with our concept and values, and is perceived to be inconsistent with those of our customer base, to continue to employ individuals in our operating units whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate normal heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society."
Cracker Barrel officials fired a dozen gay employees across the South before the outcry from a wide range of human-rights groups -- including Queer Nation/Atlanta, NOW, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the local ACLU -- forced the company to retract the policy at the end of February. Said officials in a second prepared statement: "Our recent position on the employment of homosexuals in a limited number of stores may have been a well-intentioned over reaction [sic] to the perceived values of our customers and their comfort level with these individuals. We have re-visited our thinking on the subject and feel it only makes good business sense to continue to employ those folks who will provide the quality service our customers have come to expect of us."
Unfortunately, the fired employees were not rehired and the company made no offer to reimburse them for lost wages. The incident, naturally, has outraged gay activists. In February, Queer Nation/Atlanta began picketing local Cracker Barrel locations every other weekend. The cause has struck a chord among even closeted gays; attendance is over 100 at the average protest, and Queer Nation is planning a march on Cracker Barrel headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn., next weekend.
Cracker Barrel refuses to comment on the controversy.
Most important, Queer Nation's tactics in this instance have been well considered and designed with Cracker Barrel's customers in mind. Queer Nation coordinator Larry Pellegrini works at the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and many of the protestors have been through seminars on civil disobedience and nonviolence. On several occasions, the demonstrators have entered the restaurant en masse, waited in lines for tables, and quietly occupied all of them for hours while ordering only tea and coffee. (Waitresses, however, are tipped as if meals were ordered.) On Mother's Day, many demonstrators brought their entire families to the protest with them at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Morrow, Ga. The point, of course, was that it's hard to argue your "family values" when mothers and children are carrying signs on the sidewalk in front of your restaurant. But Queer Nation/Atlanta hasn't completely abandoned shock tactics, either. There have been two dozen trespassing arrests, and the protests have been attended such glittering drag celebrities as "Super Chick," a Christie Love knockoff in an Afro wig and '70s hot pants, and cable oddity DeAundra Peek, hostess of a public-access show called "DeAundra's High Class Hall 'O Fame Theatre."
All in all, it seems the right blend of tactics to Pellegrini. "If we were out there painting the front porch and throwing up on the tables, they wouldn't understand what the issue really is," he says. "There's more likely to be some permanent change if we deal with them on an intellectual basis."