Veteran equal rights activist Zoe Nicholson is no stranger to controversy. Recently, she performed an act of civil disobedience in which she yelled at the president – something, she notes, she’s no stranger to either. Yelling loudly from the audience about repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) during a stump speech by the President for embattled California Senator Barbara Boxer, she faced the wrath of an audience member who yelled in her face and stomped on her feet and then was tossed out by the Secret Service. While fasting for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) inside the Illinois State Capitol in 1982, she faced throngs of dissenters who taunted her while she waited for the state to confirm the amendment.
To celebrate her history of activism, she will be featured in the upcoming film “March On,” about her participation in the National Equality March of 2009, premiering September 12, 2010 at the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival.
In this interview, Zoe discusses her background and influences, as well as the possibilities that lie ahead for activists.
James M. Russell: You recently committed civil disobedience at an event featuring California U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and President Barack Obama. Tell me what you did.
Zoe Nicholson: Let me tell you first something no one else knows: there are rules already in place with what to do with an activist or should somebody disrupt. One of the rules is that the cameras don’t directly broadcast that disturbance. And the second thing is that there is already a script in play for handling a disruption.
So had you been there, you would have heard the first person who got a spot just a few feet away from the President. So he went first, and while the crowd tried to shush him, Obama looked at him and said, “Don’t interrupt this young man, I am in favor of repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ [DADT].” And that’s supposed to undercut that activist. Then the next person interrupted, and people started applauding. Then the President goes on. Then I interrupted, yelling as loud as I could, “Repeal DADT, It’s the Right Thing to Do, I Am Somebody, Get Equal.”
And – surprise! – The President said, “Oh, well, you have something to say to me? Why don’t you come closer?” And you know I’m more comfortable up at the podium than in the crowd so I walk to him. And people actually started to part to let me advance! So I was going to go up there and say my piece only for a minute. But the Secret Service came, as I expected them to. And they came very kindly and very gently, as they always do. They’re very kind and gentle people especially if you let them know at the onset that you will not resist.
So, they got there and the most outstanding thing happened: this man walked right up to me and slammed his closed toed shoes into mine, hoping to inch me back and back, and he shouts as loud as he could in my face, “You’re the ugliest (c-word) in the room. Nobody wants you here, get out.”
After I was escorted out, it took me about fifteen minutes to calm down. I don’t think I ever had a man yell the c-word three inches from my nose before. And the personal disappointment with not being able to say to the president what I wanted to say. DADT, to clarify, is not just a policy that adversely impacts LGBTQAI people, but women as well. It is used as a form of blackmail, harassment. So, with that in mind, here is what I wanted to say: “Thirteen percent of the Armed Forces are women, Mr. President, and 50 percent of those women have been fired under DADT. Not because they were lesbian. Not because they were bi. But because someone else in the military said to them, ‘You either put out right now or I’m reporting you under DADT.’ And those women are valiant, brave women who refused to give their body and integrity to that threat. And I stand here today Mr. President asking you to undo the firings on behalf of those women. “
JMR: So what kind of response did you receive?
ZN: Well, let’s start with the worst response and work our way over. The one I got a kick out of, but was really tragic, was from FOX News. That was interesting. They said I was racist because I shouted at an African-American president. Had he been a white person, they suggested, I might have not felt so emboldened. And not only was that outrageous, it was also untrue. I have shouted at many presidents. I think the first time I got in somebody’s face was with George Wallace, at the 1968 Democratic convention. Race doesn’t really matter to me; I’m happy to yell at any president about anything.
Of course there have been people who have been on the far end of the wonderful meter. But I think the part that pleases me the most is how long-lived coverage of our action has been, that it is still being listed of one of the fundamental game changers for equality for Americans. We did this action on April 19 and people are still writing about it and listing it as one of the contributing components to the president being reminded to keeping his October 2009 promise that he will end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell “because it is the right thing to do.”
For a 61-year-old bag, I had lots of fun. I think everyone in the movement had an opinion and I celebrate that! Because I believe in diversity and it starts with me. So I’m not looking for a homogenous response; I’m looking for a diverse response.
JMR: In a recent interview with Feminists for Choice you set up a challenge to equality movements to “drop the label,” as you put it, and unite. Could you talk a little about the importance of “dropping the label” and creating an inclusive movement for equality?
ZN: Let me start with an anecdote. I had an exchange on Facebook about a month ago with a gentleman and he was proposing from his heart – he’s a heartfelt man – that we advance ENDA without trans people. And I wrote him back and said, “No,” and in fact the intention today will manifest in the outcome. And so if I exclude the trans people, I will be creating that fissure in my outcome. So right now if I want employment for EVERYONE – Harry Reid, who I want re-elected; my advocate friends; all Americans; our fabulous immigrants – I have to work for them all, no exceptions. My outcome will be splintered in the march towards equality if I do not.
So this man wrote me back asking, “Are you lesbian? Or are you a transwoman?” I thought about it a long time. I wrote him back and said, “You are about to create a reaction based on my answer. I will get a broad brushstroke with either answer. So I am just going to tell you that I’m queer.”
There are people in the movement who think we need a single point of view – a leader, a single mission. I want to tell them that is counterproductive. We do not need a single cause besides equality. If you had been an activist in 1962, the question was, were we going to go with spiritual Christian or militant lifted fists at the Olympics? The answer is we need them all. Reconciliation is not our problem.
JMR: Do you think your tactics are more typical of younger or older activists? And do you think there is a difference between older and younger activists?
ZN: I want to reframe your question in a different way: the nouns are the same, the verbs have changed. A lot of my sisters in the 2nd wave think there’s nothing happening – that the younger activists are not there. They think we’re going to lose Roe v. Wade, that we got thrown under the bus with health care reform, that nobody is doing anything about this Target political donation (when really, Target has never provided reproductive choice and we should have been boycotting it long before they gave to this gubernatorial candidate). My sisters in the 2nd wave can’t figure out why there’s no woman’s movement. But I tell them the movement’s on the e-highway: not in chapters, not in meetings, not in bureaucratic organizations but in what you and I call social media. They’re not marching on the Capitol because they don’t need to go to the fucking Capitol. They can start an e-mail campaign at 8 AM and have it be effective by 5 PM.
Activism now is lightning fast. The problem we’re having is how to maintain balance and [prevent] burn out while we wait for lawmakers and courts that operate in a two-hundred year old process to catch up. It’s maddening. And in society, it’s just the same. Gloria Steinem says that from idea to idea being integrated into society to being part of our everyday life is a 150-year process.
JMR: Does your advocacy for trans people and, more broadly, people who embrace gender fluidity, conflict with your activism in the woman’s rights movement?
ZN: Oh yeah, it’s a mess!
I write a lot that I am in two feminist waves – while I am living and functioning in the third, I am friends with many from the second (1963-82). But I’m willing to change in the next two minutes if I’m called to it. I think that’s my break with the woman’s movement.
The second-wave feminists had a terrible struggle with transphobia. They were feeling – and I say “they” because I did not share their opinion then and I do not share it now – transitioning FtMs (Female-to-Male) were women seeking male privilege, that they transition because of male privilege. It’s terribly sad. That breaks my heart. I just hope they come to understand that we cannot deny that evolution is speaking through us.
I understand that if the queer equality movement is to evolve, it starts with each of us first.
See, I believe our trans community listens to their soul more deeply than the rest. They listen to their soul so powerfully and deeply that they are willing to change their bodies, to suffer unbelievable discrimination, to be in harmony between their soul and their body. It just takes my breath away. I feel like sometimes I’m in the presence of the most holy of things. I used to only think it was an experience felt in death and birth. That we actually feel the breaking of the seal between the worlds that we feel in birth when a soul and body fuses and in death when a soul steps out – and takes a rest before coming back. And now, there’s this whole world here on earth where I am so privileged to walk and have conversations with someone whose soul is calling them to be other. “Other,” it says, “other!”
So to embrace my trans friends, I will never answer the “What label are you?” question again!
JMR: Many activists decry legislation, especially marriage-equality legislation, as hetero-normative. I realize this may be familiar to you as a participant in the woman’s rights movement. How do you feel about this position?
ZN: Mahatma Gandhi looked in his culture for specific ways to demonstrate the unjust laws. So the British come there and take over all the salt works. They underpay locals in the factories but make a profit, and then with those profits, they buy guns to kill Indians. And I’m sure the British eating cows was a show-stopper. So he picked a topic, an action that would make obvious, or demonstrate, the inequity.
And I’m choosing to use marriage and workplace equality as that Herculean lever, as a way to say to Bob and Sally, “Hey, you’re going to take care of each other in old age. And Bob, when you die, she’ll get everything. You don’t have to worry about a thing because you said, ‘I do.’ However, Mike and Dan over here found each other at the same time. But they have none of those guarantees. And for Susie and Mary, it’s worse. And for Susie and Maria, it’s worse.” The point being, we have chosen levers to demonstrate to people on a ground that they all understand. In India, all the people needed salt. So Gandhi chose salt. And in America, everyone understands marriage.
JMR: You refer to spiritual leaders and experiences pretty often – how would you describe your beliefs?
ZN: I am a conscious, intended practitioner of karma yoga. One who practices the satyagraha, as Gandhi called it; one who adheres to the truth. “Yoga” means unity. In Karma yoga, you see the truth, and while you’re nowhere near the truth, you try to unify the truth with your life. And then you demonstrate publicly that unity. That is the path of a karma yoga.
Being a satyaghara is about embracing change. For example, I changed my business card last year. It used to say “feminist, activist, speaker, author.” I changed it to say “equality activist” because who are you going to leave behind?
But here’s the real secret. You have to, every morning, or every reboot, dump all of it. Because you don’t want to get attached, ’cause you’ll wake up and say the next day, “Well that worked the day before!” No, no – it doesn’t work that way. You have to reboot.
JMR: It seems that you view spirituality and religion as liberating. How do you think that can be used in activism to counter oppressive elements of religion?
ZN: Your question’s answer is the unfolding of a lifetime. I want to highlight, however, that everyone has their own story, that whether or not religion is liberating or oppressing is very personal. To me, it is the ground on which I stand that is liberating. But it’s also a profound, deep lifetime of seeking that has brought me to now. I will walk you through this process but I don’t want to represent in any shape or form that I want you to walk this highway. You can’t, we have our own highways. On my highway, religion and spirituality and teachers are informing my every breath.
When I was a little girl, I was meshed in devotional Catholicism. I read the Gospels when I was six or seven years old. I was swept into all of the romance of the ritual. I wanted to be a nun! Then came along Bishop Oscar Romero and Gustavo Guitterez and liberation theology, saying when Jesus came, he came as the liberator for the oppressed. The oppressed are God’s favored people and always reaching up towards the light while the oppressors are always reaching down and turning their back to the light. That little equation set me on fire like a Blue Diamond match.
That’s when I started watching what was happening in Latin America. Maryknoll nuns were getting arrested, Franciscans were busy, Jesuits were committing civil disobedience and then I started reading the rich history of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers movement. The far left in Catholicism was busting balls – it was fantastic, oh my God! And miracle of miracles, John XIII became the Pope. He came out with a declaration that he was going to call the Second Ecumenical Council and that this Council that was going to get rid of celibacy for priests. They were going to call women to the priesthood and I would be able to distribute the Eucharist – halle-fucking-lujah!
So I entered college in 1966 and majored in Roman Catholic theology. And then without explanation, with no illness, no disease, John XXIII died and was gone. There are those who believe he had been assassinated but that was it. When the new pope was installed, it was back to the conservative bloodline, and that Pope said, “John XXIII is dead and let us get back to the work of the Church.” I was 21 or 22 and in the market for a new religion.
JMR: So what did you do?
ZN: Lo and behold, I found Buddhism. And I have been searching, seeking, studying every day. Buddhism is one simple thing: embracing change without condition, without exception. You say every day, “BRING IT ON, I’m ready!” And I’m happy to say I’ve been practicing it now for 40 years.
JMR: Ultimately, what do you want people to take away from you?
ZN: Years ago, I met Muhammad Yunus, the founder of microbanking, and asked him, “How did you invent microbanking?” While I know that microbanking was founded actually years before by a woman named Ella Bot – that’s a whole different story.
Anyway, he explained that he was with a group of people and he asked them, “How much do you need?” And he took out his wallet and gave them $28. And within the year they paid it back, with interest. What I took from that was, solve the problem in front of you. That’s all you have to.
There are so many problems in this big world…. I will become disabled and suffocate from that awareness if I think about all that is wrong in the world. So, what do I do? In my experiments with truth, I have concluded I have to deal with what’s in front of me. This is what I’m called to do at this moment, I’m certain of it. I don’t want to do anything else right now. Though I’m not sure what’s next, I hope to be 100 percent for it. I have to be present where I am.
I encourage everyone to ask themselves, what’s your experiment with truth? And get up every morning and say, “Who are you?” And take this mind, this body, this soul, and see what happens. ‘Cause it’s a gas.
Read Zoe’s blog at Online with Zoe.