The first week of May proved busy for LGBT Atlantans, with two major events in six days.

On May 1, more than 900 people attended the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Atlanta dinner. Five days later, hundreds packed the sidewalks around Grady High School to join a student-led protest against an unwelcome picket by the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church.

In many ways, the two events were a study in contrasts. One was held in a fancy ballroom; the other, crowded onto sweltering sidewalks. One involved guests in black-tie finery; the other, students in hand-lettered t-shirts.

One featured celebrity speakers; the other, homemade signs. And one was organized by the nation’s largest gay political group, while the other was the work of a straight student armed with little more than Facebook and chutzpah.

There was some overlap among attendees, but not much. Yet while it’s easy to compare the two events, especially for those of us who attended both, we should avoid the urge to declare one as the only “right way” to work for LGBT equality.

Neither event was without criticism. At the national level, HRC has drawn fire recently from some LGBT activists who say the group is too tied to the Democratic Party, and has been ineffective in lobbying for our rights.

At the local level, some lesbians and gay men expressed concern about mounting a counter-protest to Westboro, believing it would be better to ignore the “God Hates Fags” church rather than give it the attention that members clearly crave.

Still, our community is better off for having both events, and here’s why.

‘Polite society’

Criticism of HRC has long been muted in Atlanta, where an active local steering committee hosts many events and includes avid volunteers who help Georgians feel connected to the group.

Not so on the national level, where scrutiny of HRC has been building over the last two months.

On March 18, Army Lt. Dan Choi handcuffed himself to the fence outside of the White House, an action he repeated again last month, this time with more LGBT veterans.
Choi’s first protest surprised journalists and bystanders alike. It also surprised HRC, which hosted a rally against the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that day.

Choi was not originally scheduled to speak at the event, but took the stage after straight comedian Kathy Griffin to urge attendees to follow him in a march to the White House.

Griffin and HRC President Joe Solmonese didn’t follow, but many others did, and witnessed his dramatic protest against DADT and President Obama’s alleged slowness in making good on his promise to scrap the policy.

After Choi’s release from jail, he gave an interview to Newsweek in which he criticized both the president and national gay rights leaders.

“Within the gay community so many leaders want acceptance from polite society. I think there’s been a betrayal of what is down inside of us in order to achieve what looks popular, what look enviable,” Choi said.

Choi went on to criticize HRC, both for its rally with Griffin and more generally for events that are “just trying to speak to themselves.”

Inside and outside

Choi’s protest and comments set off debate about the benefits of working within the system versus protesting in the streets for LGBT rights. But while Choi was dead on in criticizing the Griffin rally, HRC’s dinners still have merit.

While there are likely some attendees who come just for the chance to see and be seen, many more come seeking a night of validation wrapped up in a pretty package.

Indeed, it would be hard to attend the recent Atlanta Dinner without being moved by HRC member Cleo Meyer’s determination to never let her young son feel that his two moms are ashamed of who they are, encouraged by YouthPride leader Gabriel Haggray’s dedication to helping other LGBT young people, touched by transgender activist Vandy Beth Glenn’s humble acceptance of the Community Service Award, and fired up by State Rep. Simone Bell’s rousing call to action as she accepted the Humanitarian Award.

There’s nothing wrong with “speaking to ourselves” if the goal is to empower us to then go out and speak to others. The important thing to remember is that events like the HRC Dinner should inspire your activism, not be your activism.

If the HRC Dinner is the pep rally, events like the Grady protest are Game Day – the time when we take what we learned from coaches and practice sessions, and work to advance our cause down the field.

Judging from the diverse crowd that turned out and the resulting media coverage that reached many more, the Grady students did a tremendous job of that last Thursday.

We’re lucky to have them on our team.

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