It’s hard to believe what’s happening in San Francisco only a month before the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. Two weeks ago Bradley Manning, the whistle-blower being prosecuted (many, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, say persecuted) by the Obama administration for leaking documents about America's role in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several covert wars while an Army specialist, was named grand marshal of the San Francisco Pride parade.
Then the honor was withdrawn. San Francisco Pride president Lisa Williams issued a statement from the board attacking Manning as a traitor who put thousands of lives in jeopardy. She also said the choice of Manning was made without the board’s full consent and that service members and veterans had protested the action.
Protests about rescinding the honor followed.
But this wasn’t just a little local flurry of discontent among a handful of activists and the corporate pride organization. Manning’s notoriety catapulted the incident from a local LGBT story to a mainstream press news item.
S.F. Pride fought for damage control, but Wednesday, 20 San Francisco activists led by David Waggoner, former president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, as well as five organizations, including San Francisco ACT UP, filed a complaint against S.F. Pride with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.
Also among the notable signatories is Lt. Dan Choi, himself a grand marshal in 2009. Choi, a 2003 graduate of West Point, served in combat in Iraq. Choi supports the choice of Manning for grand marshal.
The five-page complaint alleges that the S.F. Pride board’s action violated a series of city codes as well as the organization’s own policies and also, because S.F. Pride receives city grant monies, violated the provisions of that funding as well.
The complaint asserts that the board’s action "has caused embarrassment, discord, and outrage in the community and has resulted in scathing criticism from San Francisco to London to Cairo. We therefore respectfully request that the Human Rights Commission take immediate action to ameliorate the Board’s prejudicial, discriminatory and unlawful action against those members of the Electoral College who nominated and voted for Bradley Manning."
The debacle has put a harsh spotlight on queer politics in this era of mainstreaming LGBT issues. If all politics is local, then the small but very queer town that is San Francisco is providing a litmus for what activism means in 2013 and what direction that activism should take.
About 125 activists showed up for a meeting hastily convened by the S.F. Pride board Wednesday night. But only 20 were allowed in as other protesters chanted "You say court-martial, we say grand marshal."
The situation devolved quickly. San Francisco activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca said that police were called on the protesters, but that they were more reasonable than the board of S.F. Pride. There were no arrests, but Avicolli Mecca said a tense situation was exacerbated by the way the community was treated by the board.
As someone who has detailed the inhumane treatment of Bradley Manning for three years — his third anniversary of incarceration is next week — I have been personally stunned by the ignorance with which his case has been met within the LGBT community. I’ve received dozens of emails from gay men — some former service persons — attacking me for detailing Manning’s plight.
True progressives and especially LGBT activists must recognize that Manning has been unjustly imprisoned and penalized for an act of heroic dissent that has benefited all Americans. Manning’s actions provided a level of transparency that has been withheld by the Obama administration, which pledged to be the most transparent administration in history.
Instead the draconian Espionage Act of 1917 was revived nearly a century later, specifically to quell dissent about this president’s overt and covert wars and stifle whistle-blowers like Manning. (Obama has prosecuted several whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act.)
The LGBT community has embraced President Obama for his belated comments in support of same-sex marriage (after spending nearly four years filing numerous court cases in support of DOMA); acceptance of whatever Obama says regarding wars or Manning has also been given tacit approval.
Daniel Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers whistle-blower from 1971, was an early supporter of Manning. A haunting photo of him at the protest last week in support of Manning and against the S.F. Pride board shows Ellsberg, now 82, holding a hand-lettered sign reading "I Am Bradley Manning."
Ellsberg was Manning 42 years ago, doing exactly what Manning did. But he wasn’t prosecuted and instead was on the cover of Time magazine. With that sign, however, Ellsberg has made clear that any dissenter to the Obama (formerly Bush) war machine will be viewed through the prism of Manning’s actions.
Ellsberg, who was one of the few allowed into the meeting Wednesday, explained to me, in contradiction to Williams’s and S.F. Pride’s early and vituperative condemnation of the young gay soldier, that "Manning’s release to WikiLeaks of a State Department cable revealed U.S. knowledge that an American atrocity which the government had denied had actually occurred, without leading to any prosecution of the perpetrators. That publication forced [Iraq prime minister Nouri] Maliki — who had been inclined to allow President Obama to keep 10,000 or more American troops in Iraq beyond the end-of-the-year deadline agreed by Bush — to insist that there be no immunity from prosecution by Iraqi courts for American troops remaining. Obama couldn't keep American troops there — to be accused, perhaps correctly, of atrocities — without immunity. He had to pull them all out." Ellsberg explains that Manning saved lives, rather than causing harm to thousands, as Williams had claimed.
Photos of the meeting called by the board tell a sordid tale. The transparency promised by Williams et al was rendered moot by the setting. Many people were crowded into a tiny space. Ellsberg described the room to me as "the size of a closet," which he found an unsettling metaphor for the LGBT community. Speakers were restricted to a minute’s time — literally 60 seconds — to speak. Rainey Reitman of the Bradley Manning Support Network attended the meeting and noted that the board said in unison that no "indecorous" speech would be allowed.
Initial talk of moving to a larger space was immediately quelled. Ellsberg joked that perhaps it would be a secret location like where Dick Cheney had been holed up during the post-9/11 period.
San Francisco activist Lisa Geduldig, who had organized the original protest with Avicolli Mecca and Michael Petrelis, described the meeting as farcical and said the use of a Sharper Image speakerphone by the board’s attorney was more reminiscent of the set of a Charlie’s Angels episode than addressing serious complaints from an activist community.
Geduldig noted, "In the one minute I was allotted for public comment I said that the Pride parade used to be more political. It was more about gay politics and gay freedom, and I think we should stay true to that. Bradley Manning represents me more than someone from The L Word does."
Where Geduldig used her minute to plead for a return to activist pride rather than an increasingly corporate pride, Ellsberg used his to defend Manning.
"There were 10,000 to 20,000 American combat troops who would be in harm's way in Iraq at this moment, and some of them would already have died, if our president had had his way. It was due to Manning's revelations that they are not in Iraq right now. And hundreds of thousands of American troops had been put in harm's way. Over 4,000 had died, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis because no Bradley Manning in 2002-03 had existed at a high level to do what he did in telling the truth about ongoing policy, which was then lying us into a wrongful war."
Under Williams’s direction, S.F. Pride has tried to quell dissent over the Manning pick just as the Obama administration has tried to quell the dissent Manning’s actions instigated.
As Waggoner’s complaint reads, "The Board’s invalidation of a democratic vote by executive fiat is unconscionable. Moreover, it’s illegal. The Pride Board must reinstate the will of the Electoral College. Failing that, the Human Rights Commission should investigate this complaint of discrimination and take whatever steps necessary to ameliorate its harmful effects as soon as possible."
In a statement released after the complaint was filed and just before the meeting to discuss the issue, Williams said the choice of Manning violated the board's policy because no one outside the community could be grand marshal.
Really? That’s what you came up with a full week into the furor and months after the vote was first presented? Had this San Francisco-only clause actually existed, then the first statement from Williams would have said that and only that — those who nominated Manning were unaware that the bylaws stipulate that only San Franciscans be grand marshal. Period. There would have been no slanderous accusations about Manning, no self-righteous statements about "disciplining" those who had chosen Manning. It would have been simple and straightforward.
And there would have been no controversy.
But the controversy continues and likely will until Manning is either reinstated solo or made co-grand marshal with a member of the San Francisco LGBT community. As Avicolli Mecca said, "This is not going away."
The story of S.F. Pride versus Bradley Manning and S.F. Pride versus the activist community of San Francisco is an ugly one that illumines the maggoty underside of assimilationist politics and policies. In the quest for straight acceptance that has propelled the LGBT community headlong into the arms of two of the most historically repressive institutions, marriage and the military, dissent has become anathema. The values of ads that used to pepper the personals in queer newspapers and magazines "seeking straight-looking, straight-acting, no fats, no fems" have become internalized within the community.
The controversy over Manning highlights what has happened in the juggernaut move toward equality — there’s no room for outliers. Either you are a Lisa Williams-style straight-acting, straight-looking martinet with no temper for dissent or you are like the people who signed the complaint — activists all — who recognize that our queer story is not going to be told simply through marriage equality and being able to enlist openly in the military.
Marriage and military equality are important, but they aren’t our only issues. Manning took the actions he did because of his outrage over DADT, which was still in effect throughout his deployment. But he also acted like so many patriots have over our nation’s history — out of loyalty to American democracy. Manning thought the government was lying to the people.
So he told them the truth.
S.F. Pride has been unable to tell the truth to the LGBT community in San Francisco. It denied access to the community in what was billed a community meeting.
The problems in San Francisco are problems we face as a minority community. What are our objectives 44 years post-Stonewall with another state validating marriage equality the same day as the fracas in San Francisco? Is straight tolerance so important to us that we are willing to throw any gay man or lesbian under the bus who doesn’t adhere to that singular goal?
The debate in San Francisco began over Bradley Manning but has become about the very roots of our movement: Where do we go from here?
Manning exposed the government for who and what it is. In San Francisco, Manning has exposed the LGBT community as riven — are we a community of activists or a community of assimilationists?
Carol Queen may have answered that question with her comment at the board meeting. Queen, who was a grand marshal in 2001 and 2008, saw the board’s recent actions as conservative and concerning. "I came out in 1973, and I just want to say on an historical level that this is a more conservative community than it was when I came out."
In 1973, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, Bradley Manning would have been our unequivocal hero — like Ellsberg was. If an 82-year-old straight man who stood up against another war can identify with Manning’s actions and fight for justice for him, shouldn’t LGBT people be doing the same?
That’s a question not just for San Francisco but for us all.