This summer was the most rewarding experience of my life, and the strangest.
I quit my job on July 18th, 4 days after my 18th birthday. I hadn’t been working for a couple days (I was also a counselor for an LGBTQ+ camp) but when I was working, I was a canvasser for the Human Rights Campaign, or HRC, a well-known LGBT organization. For those who came to Grinnell from Chicago, New York, or San Francisco, this meant that I was that asshole who asked whether you had a minute to spare for LGBT equality during your busy day. I would spend about 5 hours a day standing on a street corner, accosting strangers for contributions to the organization through any tactic necessary.
It was a tough job. We worked from 9 A.M. to around 6 P.M. from Tuesday to Saturday, spending 11:30 to 4:30 out on the streets of downtown Chicago. The whole premise involved learning specific sentences in order to gain monthly contributions to our campaign, and as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, we had to reach a daily quota of about $190 per day.
If that seems easy, allow me to enlighten you. Some days, I was assigned to work at what we called “Third Step”, which is this space on Michigan Avenue, the busiest street downtown, in the heart of the shopping district. From 11:30 to 4:30, I would probably greet a thousand people. I was lucky–I’m very cute and personable–so on these days, I’d average 20 people who stopped to talk to me. By the end of the day maybe 4 or 5 of these people would have contributed to the campaign.
Most days, I didn’t meet my quota, so I was often in hot water. Coupled with the fact that even before this job, I didn’t like the HRC, I had a very hard time enjoying myself. In fact, I hate the HRC. They focus so heavily on the rights of gay cisgender men that they are essentially a GLB organization, as opposed to an LGBT one. They consistently make decisions regarding their mission that push out the most underprivileged of the community. At certain times, they have attempted to push anti-discrimination legislation through Congress while removing protections for trans people in order to gain political support. These are legislative compromises that protect some, to the detriment of the rest. Their board is notorious for being packed with cisgender people with the skin tone of soft mayo.
The HRC’s exclusion of trans needs ignores one of the most fundamental concepts in LGBT writings–Audre Lorde’s assertion that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”–because they entice activists by offering them a salary funded by white/cisgender capitalists. I took the job because I needed the money, and so despite my ideological differences with the organization, I figured that I could compromise just a little and get a small amount of money to save.
I worked with the HRC for just over a month during the summer, and I quickly learned how canvassers are supposed to deal with people who reproach us on the street for the organization’s slew of problematic behavior. We were told just to give them a sticker, smile and say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and then send them on their way. I learned this from J, who had a particularly ugly experience in Evanston. I was stationed across the street from him, and as the day progressed and we greeted increasingly more people, I saw someone come up to him and start wildly gesticulating at my boss and speaking a little louder than most people would consider appropriate in the street. We were in Evanston, I thought, a very LGBT-friendly neighborhood, is someone saying offensive things to him? The person left, and I headed across the street to see what happened. J explained to me that the person was a radical and hated the organization, and I thought that this was the exact emotional state that I was in. Nevertheless, I continued to hide my disillusionment, and attempted to qualify my argument in a way that took away responsibility from myself.
“Oh no, its okay that I’m working here… in capitalism, none of us are to blame for what we do to survive, as long as I don’t profit excessively from this job, I’m not the issue” or even “this organization isn’t that bad, these people are nice, there are POC working here, there are trans people working here, myself included, it seems pretty inclusive…” I said all of this to myself and ignored the real issues that remained ever-present and caused me to be incredibly unhappy. I didn’t know what real, progressive, on-the-ground advocacy work really meant until the day before my birthday.
I had asked for a week off so that I could work at the camp: a small parcel of land in Sheridan, Illinois where the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance host their youth program “Action Camp” for students in high school or middle school LGBT clubs. When I arrived, I worked 16-hour days for a week, surrounded by people who came for a sense of community, togetherness, and the opportunity to be surrounded by peers. I was a camp counselor as well as an individual leader for 6 campers. I taught workshops along the topics of queer rebellious history, gender identity, and conflict resolution, I lead a 60-person privilege walk, and I learned what it meant to actually make some sort of difference. It was a week of learning that for activism to be effective, it has to help the people who benefit the least from the system. These were kids that faced bullying from people at their own schools, abuse from their families, and traumatic experiences that no one, especially no one that young, should ever have to encounter.
On the last day, after speaking to campers who were anxious and upset after spending the day actively challenging individual bias and prejudice, I realized that this was the work I should be doing—not fundraising for an organization whose values I didn’t even believe in myself. I started work the day after I got back, and I had decided that I would quit on Tuesday. As I asked the passersby if they had a moment and attempted to convince them that they should give me the contents of their wallets, I felt absolutely terrible. I remembered the friends I had made as a counselor and I felt hollow inside as I worked for an organization that wouldn’t help them.
I got back to the office and I quit my job. I finally understood both the good that I was capable of doing as well as the bad. I was excited by the fact that I had come to terms with not compromising with my own beliefs, and that in college I got to live in a gender neutral dorm and continue my existence as a trans radical.
It surprised me then, to come to Grinnell and to see the symbol of my ideological enemy, in the form of the fucking HRC sticker. Honestly, I never thought I would be so mad at a piece of plastic. I saw them everywhere, on laptops and water bottles, in my classes and outside of them. It infuriated me to no end, and still does, that this organization that waters down LGBT issues for liberal whites gets so much representation on a campus that I live on.
Grinnell is an odd sort of safe haven for trans students. I can live in gender-neutral dorms, have people around me use the right pronouns, and use gender-neutral bathrooms, but Grinnell presents the issue of gender difference as if it was already solved. As if the dorms and the bathrooms were the only problems trans students have, Grinnell ignores teaching these things to professors, the student body at large, and some counselors. Students and professors end up adhering to the cis-normative assertion that gender can be determined by a three-second glance in a person’s direction, that gender difference ends at the binary, and that pronouns are a conversation best relegated to NSO–because now school’s started and it’s alright to drop the ball.
The worst part about discovering these HRC stickers at Grinnell was that I found a stack of them in my backpack a couple days into my time here. When working for the HRC, whether we failed or succeeded in fundraising, if a person stopped to talk to us, they got a sticker. This caused canvassers to carrying a large stack every day when we went out in the field. On some occasions, I’d pack too many and come back with some still in my bag. I had forgotten all about these extras until I saw a clump of them next to my pens, both physically and symbolically taking up too much space in my life.
I toyed with the idea of getting rid of them somehow, of making sure that I would never have to deal with this piece of shit organization manifesting itself in my life ever again. A few days later, I decided to burn them. They were plastic, and didn’t burn well, but it was important to me. I thought of the camp where I spent my time and I thought of my friends whose mental illness and plight remains off of the HRC’s ‘to do’ list. I was surprised to find myself with a stack of stickers and a lighter surrounded by members of an odd group of first years who classify themselves only as “Mom Cave.” They had no reason to be next to me, burning the symbol of a well-known LGBT organization. But they were there.
Mom cave members weren’t decided by randomized process. Housing arrangements decided kinship, but this community is so accepting that the primary goal of this coalition of friends is to allow diversified individuality to flourish, regardless of campus location. This group does not just tolerate its members’ quirks–it supports and encourages them. I think about whether my friends from high school would have stood by me, would have understood that the organization, and to me these stickers, stood in the way of true progress. Would they have understood that you can’t stand here and tell me about LGBT equality when the true issues that face us are ignored by a group that maintains economic security through gift shops and fundraising as its main source of activist activity?
I was really uneasy about how other people would perceive this action, partly due to the myriad of different issues that are brought to mind by this conundrum, and partly due to my own severe anxiety. I’m not worried about that anymore.
I’m not worried about compromise anymore, and I am definitely not going to sell my soul for minimum wage and a pit in my stomach. The people with these stickers on their laptops have a right to express themselves in such a way, and have a right to think how they think. But these stickers don’t provide my people with safety, so I went to Kum & Go, bought a lighter, and put it to them. I don’t think I’ve ever slept better.