by Tim Miller
BRAVE JOURNEYS: Profiles in Lesbian and Gay Courage
By David Mixner and Dennis Bailey
Bantam Books, August 8, 2000
Just in time for the 2000 election season, David Mixner, once called by Newsweek "the most powerful gay man in America", has offered us an astonishing new book "BRAVE JOURNEYS: Profiles in Lesbian and Gay Courage". These inspiring life narratives written by Mixner (with collaborator Dennis Bailey) provide a bracing challenge to lesbian and gay citizens as we face our political reality in the new millennium.
"Brave Journeys" focuses an in-depth eye on six crucial examples of lesbians or gay men facing their fears and fighting for justice: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the San Francisco couple who founded the first lesbian organization, The Daughters of Bilitis. Bostonian Elaine Nobel, the first openly gay person to be elected to state office in the Unites States. Famed British actor Sir Ian McKellen, who came out as a gay man, and an activist, on the BBC. Roberta Achtenberg, whose cabinet-level appointment in the Clinton administration was attacked with homophobic venom by Jesse Helms. Tracy Thorne, the U.S. Navy fighter pilot who outed himself on national television and was forced to leave the military. And finally, Hispanic-American Dianne Hardy-Garcia, the executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby of Texas who fought against the explosion of hate crimes against gay people in her state. As Mixner says in Brave Journeys, "These dedicated trailblazers never set out to be heroes. Rather, they felt that circumstances left them no choice but to stand up and be counted, to join selflessly in the fight against bigotry and discrimination. In espousing human dignity, championing the disenfranchised, and confronting injustice, these leaders embody the best of American values - honesty, compassion and tolerance."
Mixner, of course, knows what he is talking about. Since the 1960's he has been an active participant in the fight for human rights in our country. From his involvement in the anti-war movement to his leadership of the Great Peace March to his unique position as a long time friend and ally of Bill Clinton, Mixner has been at the center of the struggle for justice. Perhaps because of the political acumen derived from his long history of activism, Mixner is able to tell these stories in "Brave Journeys" with great drama and a finely honed eye for the social history and context of the time. Whether cannily placing the first meeting of the Daughters of Bilitis in the same cultural moment of 1955 that Disneyland opened or de-constructing the political cynicism of Governor George W. Bush as he does everything possible to stop Diane Hardy-Garcia from passing Hate Crimes Legislation in the Texas Legislature, Mixner's unerring sense of historical and political reality is impressive.
Hannah Arendt, the famed 20th century philosopher, wrote of the "banality of evil" in her examination of how average people can be swept up by hatred and bigotry. Mixner poses a compelling flip side to that coin in "Brave Journeys" -- the completely extraordinary miracle of the courage the lesbian and gay community continues to find from within to fight for equality. I began speaking with David Mixner about his book not long ago at a moving birthday tribute to Torie Osborn, former head of both the L.A. Lesbian and Gay Center and NGLTF, and also clearly another one of our community heroes. With the beautiful night-time display of the lights of Los Angeles basin spread out before us, we began a conversation about the power of individual lesbian and gay people to claim power and effect change.
David, the lesbian and gay community has so many stories and lives that are filled with courage and vision. It must have been both an inspiring and daunting task to regard this rich legacy and manage to choose seven individuals. What guided your decisions for these profiles in lesbian and gay courage in "Brave Journeys"?
You are absolutely right. There are so many stories of courage and that is why we wrote the book to pass on to future generations that this world that they live in was created at great price by some heroic individuals. I was astounded myself at the number of choices and stories that we had to narrow down to put in the book. I realized that this tribe, this community, has evolved from a magnificent history. In our research, we found that lesbians role had been under represented and we wanted to be help correct that. For example, almost everyone in the community knows of Harvey Milk's vision and courage and sacrifice but their knowledge of Elaine Noble who was elected before Supervisor Milk is not as well known. We also picked stories that chronologically tells our story from mid-century on.
Were there life-stories that were particularly hard to leave out of "Brave Journeys"?
We actually had written an entire story on Bayard Rustin, the famous African-American civil rights leader, and I loved it. Unfortunately our publisher took it out because so many great books are about to be released on his life. We also left out many incredible stories that have been told in one form or another. I really wanted to include one of the young students who in high school are taking up the banner but we only had so much space.
In your many years of community service you have witnessed first-hand many of our movement's advances and defeats. How different is it now to fight for justice for gay and lesbian people as compared to Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founding the first lesbian organization in the US, the Daughters of Bilitis, in the 1950's?
When you realize that our meetings had to be held with blinds pulled down or our mailing lists hid in trunks of cars to prevent the police from finding them or that people had forced lobotomies or police raided fundraising events you can't imagine it getting worse. We have made extraordinary progress but we still have young students being beaten in high school, people losing their jobs, the numerous cases like Matthew Shepard and so many things to keep fighting. Hate doesn't take a holiday or know a decade. We always must be vigilant against it.
As you researched and explored these truly heroic stories, what did you discover about the particular chemistry of what manages to call up the courageous from an individual gay or lesbian person?
I think individuals deciding they can't live in the closet any longer or live with fear. They rather face danger and an undecided fate than live a lie, live in fear or deny their gifts to society. It is sheer determination to live life honestly with great dignity. All of our subjects we interviewed were filled with dignity and integrity. We were so fortunate to have been able to hear first hand their stories. The other common thread we found with all of them was that they were surrounded by incredible people. As we interviewed people, and we did extensive interviews, many of those who were involved in battles with our subjects themselves could have had a chapter in our book.
David, your own life has required you to find courage and resolve from within. Your role as both a crucial friend and gadfly of President Clinton is surely one of the major challenges you have faced in your life. How do you see the legacy of Clinton in relation to the lesbian and gay community?
It is no secret that I have differences with this Administration over gays and lesbians in the military and DOMA. But like any other group we can have differences with our leaders without being blinded to see the overall picture. President Clinton's work on behalf of Gays and Lesbians will be one of the great legacies of his Presidency. Everything he has done on behalf of the community has been a 'first' and 'historic'. He had done more for our community than all the Presidents combined and I predict that future generations of Gays and Lesbians will be hanging his picture in their homes and in our community centers.
As I finished your book (with the scary GOP convention on TV in the other room) I couldn't help being reminded of what a truly charged historical moment we are all in right now. What kind of heroism do you think we try to look for inside each of us as we face the new century and this hugely significant election in the next few months?
This election year is one of the most important of my lifetime. Never before can I remember a moment when the US Senate, The House of Representatives, The Presidency, and The Supreme Court have all been up for grabs. We could wake up the day after the election with all those institutions in the hands of a party hostile to our community or one that is flawed but basically friendly. It takes no courage to hide one's head in the sand and not to vote. It takes individual courage to become involved, to come out to family and friends so they are aware that the politicians are talking about their family, to give up time to protect our young and future generations. Many of my friends who have died of AIDS, some from the neglect of the Reagan Administration, would give anything to be here to fight, to vote and to obtain our freedom. It is totally cowardly to be sit on ones hands and commit the crime of silence. This election is crucial. Like the subjects in the book all individuals have to do is step forward and say, "Count me in". Then that individual has to organize, talk to their families and friends and give their time. I promise them that if they do step forward they will experience the most amazing thing in their life...an incredible community, a powerful inner peace, a new dignity and the honor of being a participant in the history of their times.
Tim Miller is a solo performer and the author of Shirts & Skin, published by Alyson.
David Mixner was previously profiled in Oasis in July, 1998.