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Washingtonian Favorites: Christopher Johnson of the Human Rights Campaign.
Every Thursday, we bring you interviews with noteworthy Washingtonians. This week, we talked with Christopher Johnson, director of interactive communications for the Human Rights Campaign. By Alejandro Salinas
Comments () | Published April 7, 2009
At this point, as the star-studded “Prop 8: The Musical” video makes its rounds on the Web—with 1,230,789 views and counting—it’s an understatement to say the passing of California’s Proposition 8 last month unequivocally changed the gay-rights movement in our country. The clip, posted yesterday on the Will Ferrell Web site, FunnyOrDie.com, is the latest example of the growing viral activism among gays and gay-rights supporters in response to the measure outlawing marriage for same-sex couples in California—an uprising that sprang, as the Daily Kos’s Markos Moulitsas and others have pointed out, not from special-interest groups but from a grassroots level.

For some perspective on the role of the Web in the rise of the individual as a mobilizing force within the gay-rights movement and where—or if—organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign fit in this paradigm shift, we chatted with Christopher Johnson, who as director of interactive communications for HRC, is aware of the power of the Internet. Johnson oversaw the launch of the organization’s blog, Back Story, in June 2007 and continues to manage its day-to-day operations as the main contributor. Prior to joining HRC, he worked as deputy press secretary to Congressman David Scott and communications director to Congressman Melvin Watt. He also works along other bloggers to address issues of interest to the gay community.

Read below for our Favorites interview with Johnson.

Photograph courtesy of Christopher Johnson.

Name: Christopher Johnson

Age: 30

Occupation: Director of interactive communications, Human Rights Campaign

Hometown: Atlanta

Must-have item at all times:
Sunglasses, cell phone, lip balm, and a sense of humor.

Signature drink:
Maker’s Mark bourbon whiskey and ginger ale.

Finish this sentence: When not working, you can find me . . .

. . . either sitting in front of my computer in my Adams Morgan apartment or out laughing and having a good time with my friends.

Washingtonians you admire:
Joe Sudbay of AMERICAblog, Judy Woodruff, Joe Solmonese, NPR’s Michel Martin, and soon-to-be Washingtonians Barack and Michelle Obama.

Favorite neighborhood in Washington:
Georgetown, especially on Sundays.

Washington insider tips:
Personally, the best tip that I’ve learned in a city full of self-important people is to not take oneself too seriously. I’ve had more doors open for me by just striving to remain a down-to-earth yet informed person. Another tip is that Manny and Olga’s on 14th Street, Northwest, is seemingly always open—no matter the weather, time of day, holiday, or blood-alcohol level.

Finish the sentence: Thinking about the Metro makes me . . .

. . . remember the beautiful architecture of the underground stations. I also think it’s a treat every time I get to go through Union Station.

Favorite blog:
The Sartorialist and Huffington Post for news and political stuff.

What would you change about DC?
I wish people were less guarded with each other. I also wish there were more places like Marvin at 14th and U streets, Northwest, where cool people of all races and sexualities can come together, have a drink, chill out to great music, and just have fun. They say the city mirrors the tone of the administration, so maybe President-elect Obama will inspire more of this openness.

As you answer these questions, what Web sites are open in your browser?
I usually have quite a few open throughout the day. Right now, it’s HRC Back Story, AMERICAblog, HuffingtonPost, Pandora (perfect with headphones), Google, TypePad (to post content to Back Story), plus my Netvibes tab where I monitor about 40 RSS feeds. Some of those feeds include Pam’s House Blend, Towleroad, ThinkProgress, The Jed Report, Salon.com, Style.com, Starworks, and the New York Times.

As an African-American, what was your reaction to the backlash from some members of the gay community toward African-Americans after it was revealed an overwhelming majority voted in favor of Prop 8?
This is a tough one. On Election Night, I spent my evening working in the ‘war room’ of the Human Rights Campaign’s LGBT election party at Capitol City Brewing Company, where a team of staffers were grabbing and posting election returns online. I remember the moment when, just after 11 PM, I saw the cable networks call the election for Obama. I could hear the large crowd in the main room loudly cheering. For me, it was a surreal moment that rendered me serene and speechless. I felt such pride in just being alive to witness such a historic achievement that had been centuries in the making.

Later, as I was heading home up 16th Street, I saw people of all races and ages going wild, genuinely celebrating Obama’s win. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. I remember thinking I’d never been more proud to be an American—and to live in Washington.

The next morning, I learned that Prop 8 had passed in California, and I immediately felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I headed to the office. I was actually in West Hollywood on June 17, interviewing couples who had lined up early in the morning to get married on the first day the legal option was available to them. Many of the people I talked to had been together for a decade or more.

Having witnessed the excitement that day, Prop 8 was a personal blow. I felt for those couples I met and all the others whose marriages were in jeopardy. After all, this was the first time that marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples has actually been taken away.

I expected people to be angry—and they should have been. I certainly was. People were understandably asking, “What happened here?” and I think that Los Angeles Times exit poll—which has since been discredited—offered a ready answer to immediately explain away the pain and rage that we all felt.

Still, as one who has consciously straddled the invisible fence that largely divides black and white LGBT people, I was horrified that many were so quick to scapegoat black and brown people in the marriage defeat. Subsequent poll analyses, including a key one by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, soon painted a much different breakdown of Prop 8 supporters—but the knee-jerk racial backlash still stung.

I’m particularly disappointed that some of the anger seems to stem from an underlying sense of betrayal: ‘We voted for your black guy for president, and this is how you repay us whites? How dare you!’ The truth is that millions of Americans voted for Obama because he’s our guy. His vision represents a worthy ideal of what America can and should strive to be. And that vision includes the LGBT community.

Sadly, after years of experiencing and observing the way race plays out within the LGBT community, I can’t say I was really surprised by the tone and targets of the rage. Thankfully, I have been encouraged by the words of David Mixner, Kathryn Kolbert at People for the American Way, and many of my personal and blogger friends who swiftly condemned this misdirected anger.

I can only hope that the setback in California will inspire real, sustained efforts to earnestly understand the complex ways that race, religion, and sexuality intersect in the struggle for equal rights. We need to go back to the drawing board on how we talk about these things. There’s a lot of mutual distrust to overcome.

The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial pointing out some of the weaknesses of the “No on Proposition 8” movement. How is HRC working to address some of these problems?
In all honesty, I wish that HRC had been allowed to take a greater role in the day-to-day operations of the “No on Prop 8” campaign. Without question, I think there should be a full accounting of the way that campaign was waged.

How important do you think it is for the gay community to find a leader or spokesperson to whom people from both within and outside the movement can relate to?
I’ve never really thought about that question. I feel that people’s experiences and priorities within the LGBT community are so varied that it may be nearly impossible to find a single leader to corral such an unruly cast of characters. (Mary Poppins, where are you?).

Comparisons between the gay-rights movement and the civil-rights movement have been drawn, both at protests and in the press. Is gay really the new black, or just how worrisome is this comparison?
I’m not really into comparing battle scars to determine who has suffered the most in our country, but I can certainly identify with the sense of a despised minority using everything it has to fight for its place and respect in our society. I think that’s what makes talking about the LGBT equality movement using the 1960s civil-rights movement imagery so appealing. For many LGBT people who have perhaps always felt oppressed or struggled with feeling inferior, I think the civil-rights language speaks to that sense of unjustified loss deep within them. They want to convey their pain in the most powerful way possible.

I personally think the political danger lies in that for many black people, referring to the civil-rights movement conjures up centuries of brutal racial struggle stemming from their ancestors being brought from Africa in chains and enslaved, followed by years of Jim Crow laws and legal racial intimidation that restricted every aspect of one’s life, etc. It makes them immediately suspicious or even opposed to your argument—especially when they consider religious teachings against homosexuality. There are some black people who promote talking about the gay-rights movement in civil rights terms, but I suspect there are even more voters who are put off by the comparison.

And yes, I know some civil-rights leaders such as Congressman John Lewis, Julian Bond, the late Coretta Scott King, and Bayard Rustin endorsed the comparison, but I just don’t think their position on the issue resonates with the majority of black people today.

How do you respond to Andrew Sullivan's criticism accusing HRC of not taking enough of a role during the Prop 8 campaign? Do you agree with the idea that the organization is in need of reform?
I honestly don’t read or pay much attention to that guy. The only time I think about him is when his name pops up in my “Human Rights Campaign” Google alert—and that usually means he’s in a tizzy about something. I’d agree that there are always things HRC could do better, but how a group can send staff, mobilize volunteers, and give millions of dollars to a campaign and be considered “passive” just really bakes my noodle. I guess there are a few folks out there who are entertained by him grinding his axe, but I don’t think he really speaks to, or for, people like me.

Have any thoughts on Proposition 8, the Human Rights Campaign, or gay marriage? Leave them in the comments.

Other Washingtonian Favorites:

David Malitz
Curtis Sittenfeld
Katherine Kennedy
Barton Seaver
Lindsay Czarniak

Want to recommend someone you know for a Washingtonian Favorites? Send your suggestions to asalinas@washingtonian.com 

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