How do we choose those we honor in community activism?

yellow and white trophy

Earlier this month, the Nashville Human Rights Campaign (HRC) steering committee announced its selection of “three notable Nashvillians” to be honored at its annual dinner, to be held this year on March 31 again at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel.

Community activists Marisa Richmond and Chris Sanders are perhaps two of the most deserving honorees, without question. Over the past few years, which includes a time notable for its heightened political landscape that directly and almost consistently engaged our lives as GLBT citizens and parents, the two have arguably become the most hard-working and easily recognizable fixtures of our community.

Nowhere in any local news report, nor on the HRC Web site, have I found a definition of the “Equality Award” that Richmond will receive. In a city—and within this community—where there is still debate as to whether the T belongs among the GLBs politically, Marisa was one of the most visible volunteers and one of the few who devoted an overwhelming amount of time toward the work of the anti-amendment campaign going into this past November’s election. By knocking on doors and traveling the state to knock on more doors (and who knows what else she did) throughout the campaign, she ironically defined equality for those among us who, when asked, did not heed the call to stand up for "our" community.

There is also nowhere to be found a definition of the “Community Leadership Award” that will be bestowed upon Chris Sanders. Yet from his work with the (formerly) ambiguously gay-identified Nashville Association of Professional Persons (NAPP) to his post now as president of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) there is little confusion regarding his value to this community. Chris was instrumental in changing the atmosphere of NAPP from what some believed was an unwelcoming selection of Nashville’s upper echelon gay elite—an assumption few attempted to correct—into a out-and-proud GLBT chamber of commerce, then spent this past year coordinating and organizing the work of TEP for its work in the legislature and toward “Vote No.”

(An additional community acknowledgment, called the “Ally Award” will be awarded to twenty-year Nashville CARES volunteer Iris Buhl.)

On some level it’s clear that public acknowledgments like these may appear to run secondary to the primary financial purpose of these events. One year I sat in on a few meetings of Nashville Pride, the organization that annually presents our Pride festival each June. It seemed, at least that year, the selection of the community service award recipients, as well as the grand marshal of the parade, came in very low on the list of priorities.

I recall the conversation—I’d hesitate to use the word debate—opened with one board member saying, exasperated: “So…who we gonna choose?”

In their defense, we can assume these selections most years require no more than a single conversation among board members, and what with the planning of the Pride festival and all of the events leading up to it, there would inevitably be a sense of relief attached to a task that can, for once, be easily completed.

There will always be those among us who seem to be perennially excluded when it comes to these awards: the staff and management at channel 5 (and channel 5+) have contributed an untold amount of support and visibility for and to the GLBT community; Bridgestone/Firestone contributes an overwhelming amount in sponsorship support to both Nashville Pride and the local annual HRC dinner; Pam Wheeler has been one of the most consistent and tireless advocates, activists and volunteers for this community, especially these past few years.

There had to have been years that necessitated a serious debate within the ranks of these organizations, and one can’t help but assume this year presented one of those instances, when the local HRC organization chose to not honor the work of Randy Tarkington.

From the moment he accepted the position as campaign manager for the TEP-sponsored “Vote NO on 1” drive, Randy was the face of the anti-amendment movement. Whether it was from the pages of the Tennessean, the City Paper, GLBT publications like this one—including a almost-weekly column he wrote for Inside Out Nashville —or the plentiful newscasts from all major network affiliated local TV stations, we all came to know we had substantial representation in the media.

Two key words there: “face,” and “representation.”

Though he’s originally from the middle Tennessee area, Randy spent the past twelve years in California. He may not already know this: before him, there was nobody in this community who so consistently represented gay Nashville, nobody who allowed him or herself to be the face of our community.

Don’t get me wrong: there has been much progress here since long before he arrived. We are further ahead now in our quest for acceptance by the masses than we were five or ten years ago. Still, we can all admit this much: it is one thing to let your money buy your way into a “meeting” with an elected official, or to ingratiate yourself into the media/political bubble here in town; it’s quite another to publicly avail yourself to (oh…say) 80% of the state’s voters, many of whom may not be as willing to treat you as respectfully.

Don’t get me wrong (part two): I was not always the greatest supporter of Randy’s work. The fact remains, though, that his work here—specifically regarding the anti-amendment campaign—has, by contract, started and ended. The time that has passed since last year's HRC dinner has not only introduced him as an activist to this community and this city, but has turned him into the most visible advocate for equality among us. All within one year. The mainstream “visibility” standard he alone set during that time is a high one.

J. Noble, a representative from the local HRC organization, offered this prepared statement regarding the local HRC organization’s selection process:

Each year, a committee is formed to facilitate the HRC Equality Dinner. Among the expected event planning activities, the committee is responsible for spearheading the selection of award recipients. After soliciting feedback from the local HRC Steering Committee, Board, and various community leaders and organizations, the honorees are chosen based on an established and proven history of leadership, level of dedication, and impact they have made in the GLBT community. Fortunately for our GLBT community, each year the list of potential honorees is significant, and it is HRC’s sincerest hope that the chosen recipients of the Equality, Leadership and Ally Awards portray an accurate representation of the spirit of our diverse and extraordinary community.

Given the wealth of opinions solicited each year (local HRC steering committee, local HRC board, various community leaders and organizations) Randy’s name had to have come up at some point this year.

The reasons why this particular group might not choose Randy are plentiful. Rumor has it that national HRC president Joe Solmonese will be attending the dinner this year. There is a great likelihood he’ll tell us about the amazing wins, about the great political strides forward the gay community took last year. A few eyebrows will rise as he says this, yes, though I’m sure we’re too polite to point out that, here in Tennessee (“home” for us), there was no political successes to speak of last year. That courtesy will be difficult to maintain, of course, when the face of the failed anti-amendment campaign, Randy Tarkington, is not just sitting among us, but sits as an invited honoree.

Solmonese, as well, is unlikely to take any credit on behalf of HRC for any political success that has ever taken place in Tennessee when he visits us. Just a quick meeting with the HRC accountant should quell any chance of that happening. He’s hopefully coming here to thank us for the continued cash infusions, hopefully coming here to remind us how (apparently more) important the business of Washington is, hopefully to explain why fights at home in Tennessee require only a high profile $7000 donation to TEP in the waning hours of the campaign (money that, incidentally, was specifically forbidden for use by the “Vote No” office).

“Why do you care?” you may be wondering. It’s not as though the HRC honorees are granted full scholarships to prestigious universities. They don’t have to commit to attending a pre-determined number of beer bust nights at the Chute in the next year. Truth is: there are very few instances that this community gets to acknowledge one of its own for the past year’s work and, as a concerned citizen, I’d like to see acknowledgment go where it’s most deserved.

Whether he chooses to stay here or go back to California (or anywhere, for that matter) is a decision Randy is free to make. This is not intended to take anything away from the work that Chris Sanders and Marisa Richmond have done this year, or the praise they’ll receive from the HRC group for it. But, unlike Randy, they’ve committed themselves to GLBT activism in Tennessee and Nashville specifically. They’ll continue to work on behalf of us all for years to come. Randy's work, by contrast, stands out so much because it all took place within one year.

There are most certainly going to be some people who will disagree that Tarkington is an “obvious” choice. Some will argue that he didn’t raise nearly enough money; that he didn’t engage himself well enough with various (or certain) members of this community; that—to put it bluntly—he was put in charge of a campaign that lost by an overwhelming margin, and for that last reason alone he shouldn’t be acknowledged for any of the work he’s done.

Numerous (mostly informal) polls within this community have found the marriage amendment vote to be the single most newsworthy event of the past year locally. To hold Randy single-handedly accountable for every part of the “Vote No” effort would be nothing short of ignorant. And to withhold public acknowledgment of the work he’s done—especially with something so dubiously defined as a leadership or equality award—seems to beg an explanation.

It was the TEP board—a board that includes both HRC honorees Chris Sanders and Marisa Richmond—that ultimately chose him among many applicants for the campaign manager position. So for the local HRC organization to now honor two of those board members and not the man that was selected for its most high-profile leadership position last year leads one to wonder if there's something more—something substantial; or just something petty—about the selection process that the rest of us aren’t supposed to question.

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