How to Build a Movement: A Conversation with Shelly Weiss Part 3

Part 3 in this series features Shelly Weiss, the queer, Jewish, genderfluid lifelong political activist and founder of OUTmedia, as our subject of intergenerational advocacy. OUTmedia’s global commitment to groundbreaking representations of LGBTQQIA and multicultural talents in mainstream media culture started with Shelly’s early commitment to communication and representation as a form of advocacy. In this last installment, Shelly shares her vision for the future.

Let’s discuss your work with OUTmedia. How did you get interested in working with LGBTQQIA and multicultural talents as your venue for social change?

I took a leap and traded in my emerging career in social work and health and mental health administration to forge ahead as a social entrepreneur and be poor and starving in the arts. OUTmedia has always been mission and not profitability driven.

With the firing of NYC School’s Chancellor Fernandez, and the scutting of the curriculum that taught acceptance of a wide range of families, and valued ethnic inclusiveness, I realized that the arts were a prime vehicle to change consciousness. Forget people’s heads, reach their guts, their hearts. In this new way, I could really reach a new generation and frame thinking.

It was called “OUTmedia” because I really wanted the organization to reflect thinking in the broader realm of communication and culture. In other words, it could affect images that we see on television and film and also impart—in a very close-up way—powerful and impactful voices through live personal appearances.

Why is OUTmedia’s work on college campuses “the next frontier” of media activism?

When OUTmedia started in 1994, I went to a conference of campus programmers. There were LGBTQ seniors who came to our booth and saw the OUTmedia logo and started crying. They had never seen a gay talent represented. OUTmedia really became a leading voice to break down the marginalization and absence of queer culture on U.S. campuses.

I’ll tell you one funny story involving an act with two founding Jewish members. I had been working with the Kinsey Sicks since 2001 when they asked me “What do you think about colleges?” And I said “There is no call for a naughty, bawdy over-the-top politically irreverent Jewishly feisty no-holds-barred dragapella group—but let’s give it a try.” At the time, we only focused on New York, Boston, and San Francisco. In 2005, after George Bush’s 2nd inauguration, I was so outraged, I wanted to do a tour called “Changing Red States into Rosy Shades of Purple” and I only want to do rural, Southern and conservative colleges. I posed this to Irwin Keller, a member of the Kinsey’s, and a lay rabbi. He thought I was out of my mind. He got back to me in three days and said: “We’ll do it.”

They did 52 colleges including 80% Mormon, Salt Lake CC, Baptist, Furman, and Winthrop in Rock Hill, SC. It literally changed the face of campus activities and moved queer culture from confinement on the margins to the campus core. In the course of this tour, there were things that would happen that even stunned me, and my sense of possibilities. I would think it was overreaching and the student would teach me, and say “Students will argue, ‘Oh drag queens, that’s not interesting and I’m not going.’ But if we put them in the same venue as the Dave Matthews Band, people would say ‘I don’t know who they are but I gotta go.’”

When I won an award, I attributed the win to the students who dared to take risks with their peers, who came out, who took on the work and dared to do something that ran against the tide, and to staff willing to risk their probation or promotion

I have been so delighted to forge a partnership with Keshet and Hillel to bring Julie Goldman to campuses around the country. It’s fabulous having young Jews who are students experience this kick-ass, charmingly deviant, and absolutely riotously fun Jewish lesbian who defines herself as a lady-gentleman. She is powerfully relevant to Jewish audiences, gay Jewish audiences, queer audiences, and mainstream broader communities.

I fear that in some ways, we may reinvent the activism wheel. I’d love to have your opinion on what people in my generation should know about. When thinking about your visions for the queer Jewish future, what comes to mind?

There are a few things that I dream of happening.
I think there needs to be immense progress to not look at older people solely as donors. Older folks particularly who are queer or LGBTQ, are often living alone; they’re on fixed incomes; they’re dealing with illness. I had the realization at the (JFREJ) Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s strategic visioning retreat, that we all need to bring our whole selves, all our intersecting identities, to our politics. Because my generation really fought, and saw ourselves, as revolutionaries.

How do we, as a queer Jewish community, look towards early Jewish roots in the immigrant experience and create community that really supports those of us who are disadvantaged? A movement that disables racism and economic exploitation needs to be led by the folks who are most directly targeted by oppression. In Black Lives Matter, that means looking towards Black folks to lead; and in Jewish movements against oppression, we need to look for the leadership in our own communities who are the most oppressed. We need to have leadership that includes Black Jews, older Jews, etc. Moving forward, I’ll be will be working with JFREJ on programs to build a radical intergenerational caring community that respects our profound interdependence.

I dream of there being transgenerational dialogue in our community between ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s lesbians and current folks who identify as queer, genderqueer, gender non-conforming and trans, so we can try to bridge the generational divide.

I think part of what happened to me is that I realized that in doing all of this political work that somehow maybe people don’t change because of rhetoric, hearing fierce exchanges. Maybe reaching people on a more visceral level through culture can change the paradigm, can change the trajectory, by the power of touching people’s hearts and minds.

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