by Troy Williams
For those who grew up as Latter-day Saints the act of bearing your testimony is a monthly ritual to strengthen congregations as individual members share stories of faith. Now progressive activists are also tuning into the power of personal narrative – and The Courage Campaign is asking you to share your testimony on behalf of LGBT Americans.
The Courage Campaign is an online organizing network that empowers more than 700,000 grassroots and netroots activists to push for progressive change throughout the country. You may remember them from their controversial “Home Invasion” video that depicted two Mormon missionaries ransacking a lesbian couple’s home to tear up their marriage license. I recently spoke with the campaign’s founder and current chair Rick Jacobs on KRCL’s RadioActive.
Podcast the entire interview here:
photo by David Newkirk
Troy Williams: You are powering a movement through narrative – so let’s start out with your story – you were a gay kid in Tennessee? How was that?
Rick Jacobs: Well it was a little difficult. I had liberal parents. I grew up in a liberal enclave of Tennessee which I know sounds oxymoronic. Oakridge was built as part of the Manhattan Project during World War 2. I always called it Mayberry with PhD’s. I’m 53 and when I was growing up it wasn’t very common to see out gay people. I knew I was gay but I didn’t want to be.
TW: It wasn’t as hip and cool back then.
RJ: Not only was it not cool it was scary. Thirty years ago was also the beginning of “gay cancer” as HIV was initially called. But I was always interested in the political process. I considered myself a liberal. I always thought I would marry a high school girlfriend of mine. But thankfully that didn’t happen.
TW: I read that Howard Dean gave you the courage to politicize your identity.
RJ: He did. Eleven years ago Howard Dean as governor of Vermont signed civil union legislation. It was historic. The first money behind Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2002 was gay money. He was a hero in the community. He gave me the ability to see that if we are all who we really are and if we have integrity through and through, we have more power. I don’t mean political power. I don’t mean power over others. I mean we have more personal power to live a fulfilled life. I eventually quit my job and went to chair his campaign in California.
TW: I was surprised to read that one of the motivating factors behind the Courage Campaign was quite simply that California lacked a progressive infrastructure.
RJ: It surprises a lot of people. California is not a battle ground state in presidential races. People think of us as solidly blue. The net effect though is that California exports labor and capital for every national political cause because this is where the money is. Are state is broken but we don’t get involved. People here are often times more interested in national politics. That’s why I invented the Courage Campaign. Prop 8 happened and we grew dramatically after that. Today we have over 750,000 members. And now have a national online lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender program designed to give people the power, drive and platform to tell their own stories.
TW: There is something profoundly moving about people telling their stories.
RJ: There is. You know I was thrilled to be in Salt Lake City for Pride. I went to the parade with my sister and her daughter, and I’ve got to say – what Valerie Larabee, Brandie Balken and Jim Dabakis and all of the other wonderful leaders in Utah have done is truly a model for the rest of the country. It is amazing. I’m thrilled at Courage to lift your model up to the rest of the country and see what happens. It’s a lot easier to be gay in Hollywood than it is in Salt Lake City. At least until you and your colleagues came along.
TW: Thanks. So you have a testimony challenge going?
RJ: We do. If people go to Couragecampaign.org you’ll see a video from Dustin Lance Black. It’s about bearing your testimony and telling your story. The way we change people’s minds is we tell our story. We don’t argue with them. We don’t yell at them. We don’t give them a bunch of facts. We tell our stories and we live.
TW: So how can people take the challenge?
RJ: It’s really simple. Just go to couragecampaign.org/testimony. Sign up, make a profile, click and make a video. It’s that simple. The first one I did was about growing up in Tennessee.
TW: And they only have to be a couple minutes long?
RJ: They are better when they are short. People will watch something that is a couple minutes long. Use your iPhone, your computer, whatever it takes. Don’t worry what it looks like just tell your story. You know, I want to go back to your colleagues and friends in Utah. Every story we can get from Salt Lake City is so powerful. The story of what is really happening in Utah is not really well known to people outside. It’s an exciting story of progress.
TW: I love that The Courage Campaign is multi-issue. In addition to LGBT equality you are also working on health insurance reform, cannabis legalization and other issues.
RJ: We are. We believe in our members. We do what they want us to do. We are member funded and powered. If you are gay do you think how taxes are assessed effects you? I do. If you are gay and the schools don’t work that effects you (even if you don’t have kids) because that means the country is not turning out people who can be active and productive in building the economy. I don’t think there is such a thing as a gay issue. The gay agenda is America. A country that embraces diversity and builds power for everybody.
Rick Jacobs photo by David Mushegain for Interview Magazine