The Gift of Anger: Use Passion to Build Not Destroy
The Gift of Anger
On the morning of December 22, 2010, I found myself standing backstage in an auditorium at the Department of the Interior, waiting for the president of the United States. Barack Obama was on his way to sign into law the bill that would end the discriminatory policy known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). For seventeen years, brave men and women who had been serving their country in silence had been fighting to end this ban. As president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights organization in the country, I had the privilege of leading the organization’s efforts and working alongside President Obama to get this landmark legislation passed into law. On that historic morning, I would have a few minutes backstage to chat with the president before I took my seat among hundreds of witnesses, including LGBT activists, journalists, bloggers, and service members most impacted by the discriminatory policy.
When President Obama walked in, he came right up to me and gave me a hug. With his hand on my shoulder, he said, “Wow, even I didn’t get kicked in the teeth on this one as much as you did. And I’m always the guy who gets kicked in the teeth in tough legislative fights.” The bill to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had come perilously close to failing more than once during the previous few months. As a result, there had been a great deal of anger within the LGBT community— anger that had been brewing since 1993 when DADT had been put in place. More recently, this anger had been directed at me and the other activist leaders who were working hard with the Obama administration to get this bill passed. To be honest, the moment of repeal was bittersweet for me. Even though I was surrounded by people, I was standing alone. The truth was, for the past few months I had spent just as much time responding to negative attacks from my own community as I had working the halls of Congress.
I had heard the anger and frustration from the LGBT community for as long as we had been working toward repeal. However, I was able to dissociate from it because I had a plan: I was resolved to channel my own anger toward a singular strategic end. I always knew that we would prevail, that DADT would be repealed—although I didn’t realize it would be just hours before the end of the 2010 congressional session and days before the holiday break. I was aware that not everyone in the LGBT community agreed with my strategy, but luckily there were many people who helped me achieve the ultimate goal. Others expressed their fury in unproductive ways. Although dealing with all of this anger didn’t always feel good, and the path forward often seemed confusing and frustrating, my team remained laser focused on the six senators we needed to turn. Our strategy emphasized understanding what was at the heart of their resistance to supporting the bill. We spoke directly to that resistance in an incredibly effective way. Our campaign spoke to their concerns, not ours. Ultimately, the plan worked.
Earlier in the day, one of the many LGBT bloggers approached me. He had been unrelenting in his criticism of HRC’s work; I believed he was stoking the fires of the community’s collective anger to keep his readership up. Instead of congratulating me, he simply said, “Well, you must feel vindicated.” Even on this day, when the bill would finally be passed into law, this blogger couldn’t let go of his anger. But I wouldn’t let him spoil my day. As Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva walked onto the stage in anticipation of the president signing the bill, he was beaming. Staff Sergeant Alva gave me the thumbs up, and I saw pure joy on his smiling face. In that moment, I knew that as a community we had channeled our collective anger into something transformative.
During this particular legislative fight, I learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t when it came to getting what I wanted for my community and myself. While much of the resistance we face throughout our lives has the potential to make us angry, it’s what we do about that anger that determines how quickly and effectively we can overcome the obstacles and get to the place we want to be. Today, more than five years later, I reflect on what I learned about confronting injustice, dealing with the understandable anger that is a valid response to injustice, and channeling this passion toward creating positive change.
I came to public service with a very simple goal: to help people, to make their lives better in significant and tangible ways. I have a record of accomplishments that has helped women, LGBT people, and others who have been marginalized or discriminated against become more powerful both within the workplace and in their individual lives. Whether it’s helping to elect people to office who eventually helped to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2009), which states that everyone should make the same amount of money regardless of gender, or the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009), which protects us all from violence, I learned that there is a savvy, pragmatic, and replicable way to have your voice heard and get what you want. How was I able to deliver these tangible results, to create such significant social change for all Americans? I relied on fundamental yet profoundly important life lessons that were instilled in me throughout my upbringing as well as during my early years of professional development. In this book I want to share these lessons, so you can create your own moments of change in your personal and professional relationships.
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