As the fight for LGBT equality rails on in Washington with Don't Ask Don't Tell, and in California with its Prop 8 trial, a group of artists and activists in Los Angeles have taken it into their own hands to move the California agenda forward. Taking the lead from the Manifest Hope campaign, which was largely spearheaded by the work of Shepard Fairy and his self described art-pusher Yosi Sergant, the Manifest Equality art exhibit is a much anticipated "welcome home" for Sergant.
After his very public separation from the National Endowment of the Arts, Sergant only recently confessed that while his work on the campaign left him rejoicing, it also left him feeling like he hadn't done enough to help the No on Prop 8 campaign in California.
"Thugs Eat Ice Cream Too" by Patrick Martinez
The Manifest Equality Gallery in Hollywood, set to run from Wednesday March 3 to Sunday March 7, certainly marks a shift. In what used to be an old abandoned Big Lots, Sergant, along with his partners in art-pushing Jennifer Gross and Apple Via, unveiled to the public an array of art focused on a call-to-action aimed at changing public perception towards political reform on a local, state and national level.
Steve Alfaro, a Los Angeles artist whose piece sold before opening night and who also showcased work in DC for Manifest Hope, was compelled to submit a piece because of a female friend who once confessed she didn't feel she belonged because of her sexual orientation.
"No one should be made to feel that way," Alfaro stated as he made the comparison that the Latino community is facing similar struggles in efforts to obtain comprehensive immigration reform, "There are people out there, and in DC that want to make us feel different, when we are not - we are all humans, we are all created equal."
If Los Angeles is to set the stage for change, perhaps LAPD Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz, who attended as a guest and private citizen, summed it up best, "I've been married for 33 years, if a couple of guys or a couple of girls want to get married, how does that in any way affect me? Asking simply to be treated like everyone else - how can anyone argue against that?"
Cleve Jones, a human rights activist who was recently portrayed in the movie Milk by Emile Hirsch, was amongst the speakers and invited guests of event sponsors, the Courage Campaign for the special Tuesday private viewing.
"There was a time in my life when I felt I could not go further" Jones began telling the crowd of hundreds, "It was 1987 and almost everyone that I knew was either dead or dying from HIV. My heart was filled with hatred and fear and despair. Hatred for the straight world and the politicians who were allowing HIV to kill relentlessly without responding, fear for what was going to happen to me, and despair that the world would never wake up in time to do anything about it all."
Amongst those thoughts, Jones created the Aids Memorial Quilt, to celebrate, honor and remember the life of those who died of Aids.
As he recalled, in the late 1970's, he was young, white, and gay in the Castro District of San Francisco, but through this art, the quilt reached people all over the nation who longed to be connected as they mourned their loved ones.
Filled with the exhilaration, passion and stage presence only a true organizer possesses, Jones told the moving story of an African American woman in her late 70's who cared for her son until his death from AIDS, and who alone, with her grief, took a Greyhound bus from Kentucky to San Francisco to add a piece of cloth to the quilt.
"This is my son," she said as she gripped a piece of cloth in her hands.
At Manifest Equality, these stories hang at every wall and every corner. Art spins in the music, it's performed by artists, and it's retold through activating the human memory and remembering the struggles for justice and the lives it's claimed. From freedom rides, to sit-ins, to twitter and facebook, organizing community is at the core.
This call-to-action is perhaps what the Obama Generation needs to reactivate a base that Sergant was very much a part of.
"Those who were excited by the Obama campaign will get involved again; make calls, knock on doors, register to vote, hold elected officials accountable" reads a Facebook message from Unai Montes-Irueste, a community organizer and friend of Sergant's.
HOPE and CHANGE was not about one man, it was about our causes, our passions, and our belief that the American Dream is not dead. This nation is as much mine as yours, and my name, my skin color, my gender, my religion, my accent, my sexuality cannot subtract from this fact. Either there is equal protection under the law, and consenting adults can marry one another, serve openly in the military, visit one another in the hospital, and leave their worldly possessions to one another, or the Constitution is worth no more than it was when some were counted as three-fifths human.
Manifest Equality is not just about art. It's about being civically engaged Americans who have a direct say in the policy that affects our lives. It's about accountability, progress and believing that America's future is brighter than its past.
As Jones so eloquently stated, "We are gay and straight together, we are fighting for LGBT equality - but we stand as part of a broader, deeper, larger struggle across this planet...for all of us."