Movements Then and Now

Last night I gave a talk about my history in activism. I started with a description of coming out as bisexual back in 1985 and what it was like to try to organize a national network in 1990.

I was presenting at Stanford and I felt the need to point out to the young people in the room that this was all before the Web. I painted a picture of standing in room with people from all over the country and feeling the pressure to get a decision out of them before everyone boarded their planes that evening because once they were gone they were gone.

I talked about becoming a pointperson for the movement because I was the one left holding the literal key – the one that unlocked our P.O. Box where letters written by hand would start to pour in from around the country. I spent the next two years writing back (also by hand) to people coming out in rural towns, suburbs, and cities, to reassure them that yes, there were others out there.

It’s hard to remember sometimes what it was like before we all used the Internet. Back then, I had never met or even heard the story of a bisexual before I came out. The people I wrote to hadn’t seen any videos reassuring them it was going to get better. None of us had seen comments on articles written by people like us that let us know others were thinking about similar things.

Nearly all means of mass communication were still in the hands of large companies. Communication between individuals was largely invisible to the wider universe. I used the phone and mail to collect articles from around the country for a newsletter I assembled and then photocopied to mail out. Finding out who was talking about what and how to reach each other was a difficult and somewhat random process.

It was not a better world. It was not a worse world. It was just the world as it was and it’s a different world now.

I am thinking about this as I read what is happening in the Occupy movements. I get updates and see photos within minutes from people who are there and read commentary from around the world. I read the stories and send my support to other activists in all corners of the globe and their updates come to me in real time via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

We are just learning how to use these tools effectively. The power is clear and has already been realized in more than one situation. It’s exciting and wonderful to see how these tools are used to get information out and to coordinate actions online and off.

As Occupy encampments are getting cleared out around this country, I maintain hope that they have sparked a dialogue that is still gaining momentum. I hope that the energy becomes simply relocated, not stalled.

In the past it was hard to gain momentum because communication tools were slow. This time the momentum picked up swiftly and has been reacted to just as fast, but it’s not clear what’s happening next. Even the challenge of this question and the confusion of responses is happening quickly.

Past movements had only physical presence to convey a message. The current movements have that plus online tools that can weave us together and involve many more than those who are able and willing to put their bodies on the line.

This has been called a leaderless movement. I beg to differ. It strikes me as a movement that calls on each of us to bring out our own leadership and creativity to create a world that believes in the rights of individuals and the collective good. If everyone does a part, there will be no limit to what we can achieve.

1 Comment

  1. Paul Overton

    Powerful stuff from an active mind. Thank you for stirring me up on a dreary Wednesday. There’s a level of urgency and electricity in here that is up a notch from your usual brilliance. An authoritative power? Maybe just crystal clarity. Anyway, bravo, my friend.

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