Four days ago, at a fundraiser for Senator Barbara Boxer’s re-election campaign, President Barack Obama found himself dealing with protesters who called for action on the Pentagon’s policy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, an issue which has been drawing more and more attention through factors such as the declared commitment of the current Administration to repeal DADT, and the actions of demonstrators such as Lieutenant Dan Choi and Captain Jim Pietrangelo, who, along with others, handcuffed themselves to the fence of the White House in protest against the policy.

Zoe Nicholson was one of the protesters at the Boxer fundraiser, and took the time to shed more light on her actions, the protest, and the wider background of the current state of DADT.

You got in trouble. For heckling the President. What happened?

I find the word ‘trouble’ kind of funny. Being 61 and never the quiet one in the room, I feel almost impervious to being in trouble.  And being an avid devotee of Emmeline Pankhurst, Alice Paul, Gandhi and Dolores Huerta, I was just answering a call. It was literally a call, by the way. The phone rang with a request by the most radical US LGBT group, GetEQUAL. While this group is new, on the heels of the National Equality March (10/11/09) and the terrible loss of Marriage Equality around the US, it is founded on the principles of Act Up; the famous group of the late ‘80s when queers were dying in record numbers from HIV/AIDS. The founder Larry Kramer met with people who were on fire as they knew that silence =death. Their actions are legendary and inspiring – and, most importantly, successful. Government funding came through for research, pharmaceutical companies sped up meeting this new disease and support organizations unfolded all over the country. Frankly, I think one reason they were so effective then and there are so many “casual” activists today is, in the late 80s, death was present in every circle of gay friends.

My phone call asked if I would join people from GetEQUAL and interrupt the President at a pricy fundraiser for Barbara Boxer. They told me to buy a ticket on line and they would reimburse me. You may find it interesting that you never know who it will be, how many or even the nature of the interruption. You either say yes or no. A Satyagrahi* just says yes. That is the commitment. I hung up and bought my ticket, sealing the commitment (good to do before the nerves kick in). Over the next week, there were conference calls, rehearsals, changing messages, tee shirts made; bringing it all into focus. Of course you don’t know what the room will be like – seating or standing; what the law enforcement will be – friendly or stern; what are the real unknowns. In this circumstance the worst of it is that we would be alone in a crowd of people who paid a lot of money to see their beloved President and we would be embarrassing them.

Embarrassing the audience?

If you read Gandhi – his key word is EMBARRASS. The opponent’s embarrassment is the goal. That discomfort is the quaking of their conscience in the light beam of your truth shining on them. However, as in my case, a nearby man was very, very angry. He was so aggressive and violent that I knew it was about a whole lot more than me and it made my Secret service escorts switch into protecting me! But I lurched ahead in the story.

OK. So, the event had begun, all the pieces were in place…

We agreed that once the initial applause quieted and POTUS was selling his party to the crowd, one by one, we would shout a chant, “Mr. President, it is time to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  We are waiting for you to show leadership, Mr. President. Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is the right thing to do. Get Equal.” Between each of us, we would wait 2 minutes. I was third (and last – obviously no one would know that).

And then… showtime.

Plants in the audience chanted out the first disrupter with, “Yes we can.” Clapping drown out the second one.  I waited for POTUS to get back to his easy rhythm and the room to quiet down. I took off my jacket – revealing my GetEQUAL tee – put my head down, invoked Lady Gaga at the National Equality March, took a deep breath and let it rip. I bellowed, “Mr. President.  Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is the right thing to do,”  twice. At that moment, he invited me to the podium saying, “If you have something to say, come up here and say it.” I raised my right hand and replied, “I would love to.” (Funny thing to know is that I would be more comfortable up there than in the crowd).

I started to walk to the podium, people began to allow me through until 1) the Secret Service kindly took my elbows to escort me out, 2) a violent angry man slammed his feet into mine, his face into mine and screamed at me – “You are the ugliest cunt in the room – get out.” I must say that was unexpected – whoa.  No rehearsal for that! He just kept going, inching his feet, shouting in my face and saying his hateful sentence. I am sure he has quite a proud story to tell his golf buddies on the 19th hole. But for me, the good news was that it made the SS act on my behalf and peel him off of me. I was then passed through a succession of SS and peace officers to make sure all of us were off the property. At the end of the parking lot, we were released.

Everyone seems to be a little bit upset with Obama right now. On both sides of politics, activism is on the rise and getting more and more media coverage – what was it that made you decide to go to a gathering of the faithful and ‘heckle’, as they’re calling it?

You can ask any woman who is 9 months pregnant; it is time to push. Equality is breathing, looking for life, reaching for light; it is time to push. The radicals in every human rights movement start to act up because there is something to be won. There is a sense of urgency.  Finally, after 18 years, POTUS says he is willing to repeal DADT, pass ENDA, and has identified himself as a “fierce advocate.” October 11, 2009, at the HRC dinner he said again that he would repeal DADT. We have military who are willing to sacrifice their freedom for this and officers stating in Congressional hearings that it should be repealed.  We have a super majority in the 111th House – hey, it looks like it is time to push.

Do you think the LGBT community on the whole is becoming impatient with Obama?

Not as a whole, as you put it; but activists (my political peers) are not mapping to the whole.  It is the duty of the activists to stretch convention so the “whole” can step a bit toward the goal, maybe with no personal risk. The activist is moving the red velvet rope so the crowd can move. As an activist, I will share that I am impatient with the “whole”  and it is time for everyone to get on board and MOVE – as we are holding the rope for them.

What was your response to Robert Gibb’s statements about the DOD timeline on the investigation into repealing DADT?

Blah, blah, blah. I wonder if anything concrete and succinct and ringing of truth has ever come out of the press room. To expect that is naïve. We are coming to the end of this Congressional session, elections are on the move, fundraising is happening, a Supreme Court Judge is about to retire and let’s all break out into a chorus of “Sit down, you’re rocking the boat,”  (and you know that is the cue to ROCK).

What about Obama’s own response to the ‘heckling’: “When you’ve got an ally like Barbara Boxer and you’ve got an ally like me who are standing for the same thing, then you don’t know exactly why you have to holler because we already hear you. It would make more sense to holler at the people who oppose it.”?

Answered above

There’s been a lot of commentary, both on your personal media networks and in the larger media about the disturbance you caused. How have people tended to react to your actions?

When I got up the next day and looked at my facebook page, there was a single sentence posted by an overseas soldier – thanking me. It doesn’t get any better than that. Amen brother. The second thing that comes to mind is a post today that a F2M trans kid at CSULB was stripped, molested and “it” was cut into his chest. That is why we do this – we have to integrate our hearts and become the diversity we are seeking. We have to love one another and if one kid, one person, feels that somebody out here gives a damn – that’s all that matters. Today I posted, ‘There will be no graveside folded flag for a lesbian widow.’

We made a ruckus and collectively we made history. I am proud to have been a part of it. Activism is a vocation and I am still upright. There is so much to do.

Zoe can be found online here.

*Satiagrahi: One who adheres to the truth and demonstrates active non-violence.

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SIMON SMITHSON is an Australian writer and editor. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, but frequently finds himself in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His work has appeared on both sides of the globe in print and online in publications such as BLIP, Every Day Fiction, Beat, The Loop, My Sinking Boat, and more. He has a tumblr at www.simonsmithson.com and he runs a lifestyle experiment at www.selfhelpless.net.

38 responses to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Yell (at the President)”

  1. Becky says:

    The Ghandisms are sort of embarrassing…or maybe that’s the point? I’m so confused.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      I don’t think that’s the point… you’d have to take it up with Zoe.

      • Becky says:

        I know it’s not the point. That’s exactly my problem. WTF does Ghandi have to do with any of this? He’s like the Jesus of hippies. People just quote him willy nilly regardless of whether or not the context of the quote has anything to do with what they’re trying to say.

  2. Michael C. McKeon says:

    Zoe is the best. Thank you Sister.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Great interview, Simon and Zoe.
    It’s great to shed light on these things and this interview did that. Nicely done.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks, Zara! Zoe was the main driving force behind it. I merely facilitated.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Really? I’d like to read a follow-up piece in which you interview yourself as to how the interview came to be.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          It would involve my new friend (and your fellow Angeleno) Lindsay, whose birthday is the same day as mine. Strangely, Zoe introduced me to her, then she introduced me back to Zoe (it’s an odd thing) and this came to be when I heard of Zoe’s protest.

  4. Judy Prince says:

    Zoe is wonderfully expressive. I’m glad you gave us, through her, a snapshot of the event and the latest developments.

  5. Joe Daly says:

    Awesome interview from both sides. What I really enjoyed was the way it exposed a *gasp* alternative approach to simply taking one side or the other in American politics. I am far more comfortable having dialogues with people who are aligned with ideas instead of parties. This was great.

    Thanks, Simon!

  6. Judy Prince says:

    Oh, and Simon, I love the title of the piece!

  7. Erika Rae says:

    “Activism is a vocation and I am still upright. There is so much to do.”

    That’s just damn quotable, isn’t it? Great interview.

  8. It’s interesting what she said about “embarrass.” I never thought of it that way, but she’s right. Or rather, Ghandi was right. They’re both right.

    It’s not easy to do, though, is it? Embarrassing someone by throwing the truth at them requires them to be willing to accept that truth. The fact is that the prejudice against homosexual people doesn’t come from a logical place, necessarily. If it was a matter of right and wrong, the homophobic people would have long since realised their folly.

    Anyway, I’m about to burst into a rant about intolerance. I’ll simply stop by saying thanks for throwing the spotlight on this issue. That’s an important step towards equality.

  9. Irene Zion says:

    Simon and Zara,

    This was on the news all day yesterday!
    I had no idea the fly in the ointment was you, Zara!
    Wonderful.

  10. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Reading this tweaked me. I was politically active many years ago–occasional public protest active–and I’d sort of forgotten how much potential violence, seething anger, and blatant misogyny swirled around our activities. Zoe’s account of her experience reminded me of that. Such vitriol, along with doubts that what I did mattered, is why I stopped. I didn’t have the stomach for it any longer, which may be why I feel queasy right now.

    Then later, Zoe mentions the young person who was molested and cut. “That is why we do this,” she wrote. I can relate to that, too. Yeah, I remember that, too.

    Thanks for sharing this part of the story, Simon.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      You’re welcome, Ronlyn.

      I’m not sure as to how to go about replying to a lot of the comments here. This is Zoe’s story as opposed to mine, so, while I’m very grateful that people have read it, and commented to the effect that they’ve enjoyed it, I feel I should disengage myself from a certain level of back-and-forth.

      Journalistic integrity and all that, you know…

  11. Greg Olear says:

    I’m all for a good protest, but it’s my understanding that the president does not have the power to repeal Don’t Ask by executive order, or Obama would have done it by now…Clinton might have, actually, and Bush might have, too, given that he did whatever Cheney told him to do.

    The issue here — and again, correct me if I’m wrong — is that it is expressly, explicitly illegal to engage in same-sex sex as per the military handbook, or whatever it’s called. Changing that requires an actual law to be passed by Congress. Obama can’t even get the Republicans to cooperate on something as obviously necessary and politically easy as a finance reform bill. How can he possibly get them to sign off on a repeal of Don’t Ask, when homophobia is — to their shame and discredit — one of the main conservative rallying points?

    Fine, it’s on the news, but better to heckle Mitch McConnell and his ilk, no?

    Again, if I’m wrong, do tell me why.

  12. Thanks for reading about my Monday night adventure. It was really nice to have this opportunity – rather than the usual one sentence and be done with it. You have some truly worthy questions I will give them a try.

    In regards to talking to the Republicans about it – The idea is to push on the one who is about to give you what you want. Obama was the object of the action as he has repeatedly, publicly promised to deliver the repeal of DADT. In fact, the queer community gave him support in his campaign based on his promises. You push the one who is benefiting from a stated alliance.

    Clinton enacted DADT. He did it after telling the queer community that, if elected, he would end the ban on queers in the military. Instead of doing that, he set in place this new rule which says that at the time of applying, no one will ask. Since then it has parlayed into a hunt and, in particular, a terrible method of sexual harassment for women in the military. (if you don’t give it up – I will report you as lesbian)

    Obama could sign an Executive Order (in the next minute) to end or suspend the dismissals and dishonorable discharges while Congress works it out. However there is also a terrible sense of urgency as the 111th Congress is about to dissolve and who knows who will be seated next year. What we are seeing them do isn’t about DADT – it is about election season and, all the while, DADT is destroying lives.

    Gandhi – (which is spelled with a hi on the end) has been the primary informant in my life. I am not sure what all this anti-Gandhi stuff is however, his teachings are brilliant and usable. His teacher in CD was Emmeline Pankhurst and I like her ideas also. Let me say this, if you are going to be a practitioner of active peaceful non-violence – study the people who did it successfully. I am also somewhat conversant on MLK & Malcolm X & Rosa Parks.

    Finally, and I can only speak for myself – yes, this is all about ending the social segregation and mistreatment of queers. Marriage Equality and DADT are levers. The goal is to stop telling kids they are sick or possessed (as they are told in Uganda, Rwanda and Nigeria).

    Hey Mr. President, a lot of people elected you because of what you promised. Tick Tock.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Excellent explanations, Zoe. I’m delighted you cleared up several things for us. I very much like your writing. Welcome to TNB; keep ’em coming!

      Simon meets amazing people—-maybe it’s because *he* is an amazing person.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        Ah, stop it. I’ve just lucked out with the people who have informed my persona. There have been some wonderful teachers along the way.

        • Judy Prince says:

          OK, you may be right, Simon. You’re just a lucky guy who happens to attract wonderful people. CTTAI, I’m gonna meditate on which Enneagram best describes you. “Observer” fits dear Rodent perfectly; there’s always just ONE enneagram that nails a person. Will get back to you, O Leader dude!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Simon, here’s what I think is your Enneagram number out of the 9 numbers:

          The Questioner (#6), also called the Loyalist, briefly described:

          “Questioners are responsible, trustworthy, and value loyalty to family, friends, groups, and causes. Their personalities range broadly from reserved and timid to outspoken and confrontative.” [p 5, The Enneagram Made Easy by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele (HarperSanFrancisco 1994)]

          And further described:

          “The committed, security-oriented type. Sixes are reliable, hardworking, and responsible, but they can also be defensive, evasive, and highly anxious—-running on stress while complaining about it. They are often cautious and indecisive but can also be reactive, defiant, and rebellious. They typically have problems with self-doubt and suspicion. At their best, healthy Sixes are internally stable, self-confident, and self-reliant, courageously supporting the weak and powerless.” [p 12, The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Riso and Russ Hudson (Bantam, NY 1999)]

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Bam!

          I’m going to have to check out some more Enneagram work now…

        • Thomas Wood says:

          Incidentally, Zoe, you are not an ugly cunt. I always find it super impressive whenever political folk get together to talk about the future and progress and betterment and all and then one of them acts like a complete asshole. Reminds me of a time I got pushed around and then stiffed for a tip by some jerk when I was valeting for a Democratic fundraiser. Indecent political people really impress me.

  13. Wonderful piece, Simon and Zoe.

  14. J.E. Fishman says:

    This is a great contribution, Simon. Most of the coverage of people like Zoe Nicholson — no matter what side of any debate they stand on — too often paints them as crazies. With your questions, we see her as a person of some depth. Well done.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks Joel. I personally had noticed – and discussed – that we seem to be living in a winter of discontent; that people are growing more and more vocal in the criticism of politics and politicians.

      They can’t all be crazy rabble-rousers, right?

  15. oksana says:

    I could never be an activist; don’t have the guts. But of course, these are the people who change the world. It’s interesting to get inside their heads and find out what drives them.

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