Reflections on Being a Gay Activist

by Derik Cowan
May 1996

Well, once again the school year here at Amherst is winding down, and I must say that I'm eagerly looking forward to summer vacation. It's been a busy year -- one that has been both rewarding and incredibly tiring. Between schoolwork and activist work, I'm rapidly starting to feel the drain on my energies, and I need the break summer will give me.

One of the really cool things about being a young activist on a college campus is the opportunity to meet many wonderful national figures in the gay movement. This past month was incredible for me in that regard because we had two of my personal heroes speak on campus: Mary Griffith and David Drake.

To be honest, David Drake wasn't a hero of mine when I went to hear him speak. I barely knew anything about him. Well, I knew that he's Editor in Chief of POZ magazine and that he wrote/starred in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, but beyond that I found him to be an odd choice for the LBGA here to choose as a keynote speaker for Gay, Lesbian , and Bisexual Awareness Week. But I went nonetheless, and found myself blown away by this man. As an activist and a theatre major, I'm very conscious and interested in the ways that theatre can be used for activist purposes, and here was a person who had successfully mixed the two. But what struck me the most was how down to earth he was. There was no trace of disdain or that he was a person who had achieved something great about him. As much as I want to find a way to do what he's done (mix activism and theatre), I hope that if I'm successful I can keep that sense of frank modesty about me as well.

Meeting Mary Griffith was a different matter entirely. When I asked her to come and be the keynote speaker for the Gay Youth Festival that I was planning, I already thought of her as an inspiration and one of my personal heroes. She had become that after the first time I read Prayers for Bobby. I was thrilled when she agreed to speak, and then to have her come after her talk to see a performance that I was doing was even more wonderful. One of the memorable moments of my life will be hearing her tell me, "You're very brave. You've not only survived but you're using your story to help others."

But in spite of the wonderful people that I've met, sometimes I wonder whether or not the results are worth the effort I put into things. This past month I've been involved in organizing a queer-themed event every week (aside from running meetings for the QSA, the gay political organization on campus), and still one of my friends received a harassing note through campus mail saying that "All Fags Should Die." It seems sometimes as if all the effort is for naught. Then I remember that the whole of gay activism isn't necessarily external. A number of things that I do is work for the gay community itself. My work helping organize a dance benefiting the Gay Youth organization in the area, for example, raised a large amount of money, and similarly the fact that I'm on the Northampton Pride March committee won't have any real affect on anyone outside of the LBGT community in the area. My focus is to help/reach/make life easier for the queer community, and while it would be wonderful to end homophobia in the world or at least on campus, it's a rather impossible task for one person to take on.

I don't mean to sound too down on the idea of gay activism. As an activist, I know what a thrill it is to plan an event and have your expectations blown out of the water by reality. My gay activism is something that focuses a great deal of my energies into something wonderful and positive. It gives me a chance to channel some of my anger and hurt about the way I've been treated personally into something that helps others. And it's extremely gratifying to look around your community and be able to say, "I helped with that and that and that and..."

The conclusion that I'm reaching for is to urge others to go out and be active as LBGT persons in their communities. It is a very rewarding experience, and those who are already working in their communities really need your support or they'll burnout. I can remember going up to work on the Maine Won't Discriminate campaign this fall for a day and how thankful the people there were to have some fresh faces come in and do some work for them. If people feel as if their efforts are going unnoticed and unappreciated in their community, or if they feel that they are carrying the ball by themselves, then the work becomes that much more exhausting. So lend a helping hand, and together we can make a difference.

Derik K. Cowan, 21, is a full-time student at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is studying Theater, Dance, and English. He can be reached online at dkcowan@amhux4.amherst.edu.
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