When my son was small, every year at the beginning of school, I would go to meet his teachers and anyone else involved in his instruction -- administrators, librarians, etc. I went with my son and his gay dad and my lesbian partner; all of us were there to pledge our support for our son, his classroom and the school community. We were also there to make it clear that our family would be visible and engaged.
I still remember the response from my son's first-grade teacher, Sr. Marquez. (This was a Spanish-language immersion school, so we used "Sr." rather than "Mr.") Sr. Marquez made it clear at the big group orientation that he'd briefly been an army drill sergeant and that his own five children, along with his first graders, learned to march in straight lines. When we met him personally, I had some trepidation -- based on nothing but stereotype -- about whether he would accept our family. His response to our meeting was admirable. He shook our hands and then looked at our son and said, "How lucky you are to have so many people who love you." Regardless of his personal views, he knew how to do his job. And let's face it, a drill-sergeant-turned-first-grade-teacher is a pretty interesting guy.
That's the thing: Many of us are "different" in one way or another, yet we often tell the stories and put forth the selves that will receive social privilege. I wish we did less of that. Be brave. Be bold. Be yourself. That's how we each come to remember that human diversity is large and innovative and really pretty wonderful. Being queer is one form of "difference" that can still inspire abuse and discrimination. It's becoming more likely to meet teachers like Sr. Marquez. But there's no guarantee. We need to be open about our lives because that's how people revise their fears and prejudices. Living an open life -- in whatever ways you can -- is a form of cultural activism.
Often, activism is only cast in political terms, but it's important to acknowledge both political activism and cultural activism. If you live openly enough to break stereotypes about "people like you," that's a form of cultural activism. It's as vital to social betterment as anything that happens in the political arena. Culture and politics influence each other. It's especially great when we acknowledge what we're doing, continue to learn and organize together.
For clarification, political activism is what happens when you work to change laws, to elect specific candidates, or to change the way rules are made. This includes direct action, campaigning, union organizing etc. Political activism is important, and results are often directly related to the actions. You know if a person has been elected or a law has changed. You can see clearly what is to be opposed (even if people don't always agree on where to go next!). Those who are drawn to learning about public systems and working on their betterment are making an important contribution.
Cultural activism is also important, though it's sometimes harder to see a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the work and the result. This is the work I engage in as a storyteller and writer when I use humor and intimacy to help audiences discover themselves as social creators. I use stories about social life to help people see the absurdity of things like sexism and racism in daily life. Once we're aware, we can continue to learn, to act, to organize -- though not always on a clear timeline toward policy change. This type of activism includes things like performance, speaker's panels, art, consciousness-raising groups, focused prayer, filmmaking, research, service toward others and daily difference. A non-normative life lived openly is a form of cultural activism. (Yes, being yourself, boldly, can make the world a better place.)
Nearly all public change involves both forms of activism. In the U.S. some of our most vibrant and successful civil rights activism took place in the 1960s and 1970s. (And we're still experiencing backlash as well as forward momentum from those movements.) Martin Luther King Jr. was an important figure, as were many working to change laws and policies. Sometimes these activists were at odds with one another. Political activists often found King's methods disruptive and not directly related to changing the policies that would affect people's lives. King was once asked, in a dismissive tone, if he'd ever changed any laws (the assumption being that that was the important thing to do), and he replied, "No, but I've changed a lot of hearts."
These two forms of activism feed one another and allow for people to be and do and want different things. People will naturally gravitate toward different types of activism; there is no one right way. We can celebrate everyone contributing in ways that are pleasurable and meaningful to them. The key is to look for pleasure and community connection in creating all these efforts. The efforts that work best, historically, are those that inspire and bring pleasure. Pursue what feels the most exciting rather than what seems to be most important. Sometimes "importance" is tough to connect to -- trust that what sparks you will lead to what's important and keep the conversation open.
Focusing on positive action rather than defense brings us more clearly into ourselves as cultural creators. The beginning of a new school year is a time of celebration, for instance. It's a time of anticipation, preparation and optimism about the year to come. That's the spirit in which my family approached our son's new teachers each year. It was scary sometimes, and we each contributed and received rewards in the process.
The more we recognize the ability to create what we envision, the easier it becomes to act, and then to act again when the next issue arises. There is no one great mountain to climb in social betterment, after all. We must nurture ourselves and each other as creators, skillful at learning and working and celebrating over the long haul.