Commentary

How Tipper Gore made me a better LGBT activist

How Tipper Gore made me a better LGBT activist
Trey Durant and Bil Browning listen to the Bloomington, Indiana city council debate a human rights ordinance that includes sexual orientation in 1993. The resolution passed. Photo: Bil Browning
Back in 2011, my husband, Jerame, and I attended a GetEqual fundraiser in Washington, DC. During the speeches it was announced that Tipper Gore was in attendance. Mrs. Gore smiled and waved brightly to the assembled guests and according to the Washington Blade donated $100. After the event, Jerame and I went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant with a couple of colleagues. A mutual friend stopped by our table to chat briefly and we noticed that he was dining with Mrs. Gore. As we were leaving, we stopped by their table to say our goodbyes. Our friend introduced us to his companions and, to my delight, Mrs. Gore asked me if we’d met before. Seizing the opportunity (and fortified by a couple of glasses of wine), I proceeded to tell her exactly how we’d met, how mortified I’d been, and how it gave me my start in activism. The Tour Rolls Into Town I lived in Evansville, Indiana during the summer of 1992, but spent a lot of time traveling the country. In fact, I’d wager that I spent more time driving around the Midwest, South, and Texas than I spent at home. The first Clinton campaign for the presidency was doing a whirlwind bus tour of America that summer and I noticed it would be rolling through Evansville soon. Of course, I showed up promptly and then stood around waiting for the always-late future President to arrive. While I was hanging out I noticed a handful of guys waving signs about AIDS and went over to talk to them. They were from the New York chapter of ACT UP and were following the bus tour as it made its way across the country. At each stop they’d wave signs about HIV/AIDS and shout at Clinton to “Talk about AIDS.” I was only 18, but I’d done my requisite searches for gay history and I knew exactly who ACT UP was and that they were the preeminent queer direction group. When they invited me to join them on their protest tour, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away. With about $4 in my pocket and the same amount of political knowledge, I jumped in the van after the campaign rally and took off on the open road with the handful of activists I’d known for a few hours. My big adventure had begun. My Secret Service Agent Friend One of our next stops was in St. Louis. The campaign had set up in a big open square and I got into position on the steps of the large nearby library; I had a bullhorn and was prepped to deliver my chants. A well-dressed gentleman with an earpiece soon sidled up next to me; he was obviously a Secret Service agent. He never revealed himself as such, but simply smiled when I questioned him about his occupation. He asked me my name, where I was from, and why I was there; he also warned me that I shouldn’t point the bullhorn actually at candidate Clinton or “someone would have to take action.” Message understood, Secret Agent Man. After a rousing speech that kept me enthralled throughout, Clinton started wrapping up. Remembering I was supposed to be interrupting him, I raised the bullhorn and started pleading with the candidate to talk about AIDS. I was summarily ignored except by those around me who were upset they couldn’t hear the end of the spiel. I was a failure as a protester. Instead of causing a ruckus, I’d been sucked in by a speech and made friends with a Secret Service agent. A little crestfallen, I explained my predicament to my new pal. How could I save face in front of my new activist friends? The man considered me for a minute and must have assumed I wasn’t a threat to anyone except myself. With bleached blonde hair, rubber and silver bracelets up to my elbows, a dozen ear piercings, effeminate disposition, and slight build, I wasn’t exactly a hostile menace. “If you go stand over there,” the man said as he pointed to an area across the square,”You’ll be able to meet Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Clinton.” Grateful for a chance at redemption, I bounced through the crowd, met up with my group’s leader, and told him what I’d learned. He took back the bullhorn and gave me one objective: grab hold of Hillary Clinton’s hand, look her in the eye and tell her “Please ask your husband to address HIV/AIDS, Mrs. Clinton.”
Bil Browning and Jerame Davis speak outside of a convenience store in Bloomington, Indiana in 1998 after they lost their jobs because they are gay. Bil Browning
The First Time I Met Tipper Gore I squirmed my way through the crowd to the rope that separated the politicians from the masses. Suddenly there was movement and people started calling out to the candidates and their wives, hoping for a handshake, a smile, and a greeting. As I peered out over the crowd, I felt my first pang of doubt. While I knew the difference between Bill Clinton and Al Gore, both of the women were blondes with shoulder length hair and big smiles. I had no idea which one was Hillary Clinton and which was Tipper Gore. All around me people were excited and reaching out to the group as they worked their way down the rope line. I decided that my best chance of success was to join the shouting and started yelling out, “Hillary! Hillary! Over here!” Suddenly there she was. She was right in front of me and put out her hand to grasp mine. I held on firmly and delivered my line. “Please ask your husband to address HIV/AIDS, Mrs. Clinton,” I said loudly. Very coolly, she turned her megawatt smile to face me full force and said, “I’m Tipper, honey.” She dismissed me automatically, took her hand from my now limp grip, and started greeting the next person down. Desperately embarrassed, I shouted, “Next time I’ll know better!” Mrs. Gore turned back to me, smiled again, and quietly said, “I hope so,” before walking away. When I returned to the ACT UP home base, my comrades asked me how it had gone. Was I able to give Hillary the message? Ashamed to admit I’d screwed it all up after my bullhorn fiasco, I lied and muttered, “I told her, but I don’t think she heard me.” “Don’t worry about it,” the group leader said. “Next time you’ll have the hang of it.” A Lesson Learned That was the day I realized that it isn’t enough to have a fire in your belly for social justice. You have to know what the hell you’re doing too. While it’s commendable to use your body as a vehicle for change, what do you do when you have the chance to create some actual change but you’ve got no idea what to say or do? My embarrassment with Tipper Gore led me to make a simple vow. Before I stepped into the middle of something important, I needed to know what was going on. I didn’t want to be in that same humiliating position again. I studied my activist teachers over the next few months and I asked a lot of questions. I made it a point to read the local newspapers and watch the broadcast news. I started to learn some basic political strategy and founded a local chapter of ACT UP. I boned up on HIV/AIDS issues and learned the statistics and talking points. I started doing some local television appearances and organized a few shouldn’t-have-been controversial (but were at the time) condom handouts at local bars. When you know what you’re talking about, people want to talk to you! Thanks to Mrs. Gore, I learned a simple life lesson that has kept me in good stead all these years.

Jerame Davis and Bil Browning outside of the Supreme Court on the day marriage equality came to America. Bil Browning

The Accidental Activist

Without realizing it, I’d become a local leader for the LGBT community. Don’t get me wrong, Evansville, Indiana isn’t a thriving metropolis. It’s a small town and I wasn’t the most well known activist, but, still, it was something.

My personal life was in shambles though (leaving the state for a few months without paying rent doesn’t equal a necessarily happy return), and while I was having fun and starting to make a difference, I slowly faded out of activism in favor of putting food on the table.

This was fine with me, actually. As just about every activist knows all too well, LGBT rights is chock-full of personality conflicts, massive egos and territorial rivalry, all topped off with a big spoonful of burnout. I’d had my share and when I moved away, I was proud of what we’d accomplished but still a little thankful that I could leave that role behind.

Through the years though, I’ve often found myself thrust into the spotlight for what I’d consider ordinary actions. When Bloomington passed a gay-inclusive human rights ordinance shortly after I moved there, my then-boyfriend and I found ourselves on the front page of the local newspaper.

Later, after Jerame and I had become an item, I lost my job at a local convenience store chain for being “too gay.” We used my website to wage the first online LGBT activism campaign and won our discrimination case while gaining quite a bit of support nationwide.

When we moved to Columbus, we ended up co-founding a gay/straight alliance organization and leading a counter-protest of a religious right crusade against a local business. It was the largest LGBT protest in state history at the time and made statewide news. The group still exists and is thriving.

Once we’d moved to Indianapolis, Jerame stayed more tuned in than I did but we both re-engaged by co-founding a direct action group to protest a religious right rally at the Statehouse. The group did several Indy-area actions and garnered quite a bit of media attention for LGBT rights.

This brought us to the attention of Indiana Equality, the statewide LGBT rights group at the time. While Jerame joined their board and started actively participating, I was more reluctant, but let him drag me to a town hall meeting the group had set up. I was intrigued, but more interested in doing direct action than lobbying.

Shortly after I found myself in charge of a local coalition of LGBT groups determined to pass a sexual orientation and gender identity inclusive human rights ordinance in the state’s capital city. I tried to decline the leadership position several times originally, but ended up taking on the role after some coaxing. The group had organized under the Indiana Equality umbrella and soon enough I found myself hired by their lobbyist.

During the fight for the ordinance, I started using bilerico.com as a blog instead of just a homepage. Years later, it slowly grew into Bilerico Project – a site I originally made a group blog as to escape the responsibility of dealing with it every day. When I quit my position with the lobbyist, I started working full time on the blog. Years later, I sold Bilerico and it merged with LGBTQ Nation.

Hope Springs Eternal

In spite of my attempts to the contrary, I became the accidental activist. No matter how often or how hard I try to pull away, my natural instincts and curiosities draw me back in each time. My passion for justice overpowers my exhaustion and irritation at infighting.

I tried to relay all of this quickly to Mrs. Gore that night as we left the restaurant. I’m sure I looked a babbling mess as I tried to explain how my embarrassing gaffe had translated into my larger life.

“I hope so,” Mrs. Gore said, as she turned on her million dollar smile.

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