Last week outside Trader Joe’s I was accosted by charity muggers from the ACLU.
This happens regularly in Coolidge Corner and I generally ignore them across the board. I make it a rule not to support any organization via street harassment, even if they’re a group with a mission I support. (And yes, I have, in fact, been a card-carrying member of the ACLU when personal finances allow).
But anyway. Last Wednesday was the day the federal appeals court in Boston heard oral arguments against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). And the chipper young woman in the ACLU vest was asking passers-by if they had “a moment for gay rights?” so I thought perhaps they had some sort of petition to sign vis a vis the whole DOMA-is-stupid-not-to-mention-unconstitutional thing. So after the internal debate while grocery shopping (“you should just suck it up, self, and be a good citizen and a social person for once”) I actually stopped on my way out of the store and volunteered to hear what she was about.
“So do you have a petition you want me to sign or something?” I asked.
She seemed surprised I was even stopping, but gathered herself together and launched into what the ACLU was about, as an organization, and specifically some of the things they were doing to support queer folks who’d been discriminated against because of their sexuality. It turned out she didn’t have any sort of petition to sign, but was just trawling for donations.
“I’m asking people to make a donation of $29 dollars today for each of the twenty-nine states where it’s legal to discriminate against someone due to their sexual orientation!” she wrapped up with a note of breathless relief in her voice that I’d actually let her finish a thought.
“Well, I don’t give out my financial information on the street,” I tried to break it to her gently, “But I’ll definitely keep you guys in mind.”
“But you’re behind what we stand for, right?” She asked, anxiously.
“Um –sure!” I said, shook her hand politely, and headed off down the street.
It took me most of the walk home to realize what was the most frustrating and surreal part of the interaction. It was that the young woman in question was pitching her persuasive skills at someone she presumed to be straight. Did I stand for “gay rights”? Well, yeah, actually, I’m pretty into having equal civil rights. The whole reason I’d stopped to speak with her in the first place was that I’d been thinking about DOMA that day. Because the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act has a direct effect on my life. Because Hanna and I are talking about getting married and even though we can do that perfectly legally here in the state of Massachusetts, as far as the federal government is concerned (taxes, social security benefits, etc.) we won’t be a family unit.
So I’m not behind the idea of “gay rights” as this abstract great-good-thing that all card-carrying members of the ACLU should, you know, be in support of because it’s the right thing to do. (Though I’m behind it for that reason too). I’m actually in support of it because it’s about my equality of personhood before the law.
I’m not pissed at the young woman I spoke with (well, not much). She’s getting paid probably minimum wage (if she’s getting paid at all) to stand on the pavement and harass people at rush hour for what is probably an incredibly, incredibly low rate of return. And I’m sure whatever job training she received was cursory at best.
But I do find it note-worthy that the ACLU spiel is constructed in such a way that assumes the person to whom the spiel is pitched is outside the group of interest. I think I would have been less irritated by the encounter if I’d been told, “Here’s what we’re doing to support your right to equal protection under the law, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” If you’re standing on a street corner flagging people down, you can’t actually tell whether they’re gay or lesbian, bi or poly, trans, genderqueer, or otherwise. Whether their sexual practices put them at risk of arrest, whether they’re afraid to us public restrooms, or whether they’ve got two partners waiting at home, only one of whom they could legally marry — even in the state of Massachusetts.
So a tip to all you charity muggers out there? Keep in mind when you ask the question, “Are you for gay rights?” The chances are at least one in ten (more of you count family members of queer folks who identify as straight) that the person you’re talking to isn’t a supporter of gay rights ’cause it’s a trendy liberal cause, but because it actually has an effect on their quality of life.
I’d say, just assume everyone’s queer until proven otherwise. It might actually up your success rate.
Cross-posted at the feminist librarian.