Yosi Sergant: Manifest Equality


By Dustin Fitzharris

First there was Manifest Hope, an art exhibition during the 2008 presidential campaign. Now get ready for Manifest Equality. Coming to Hollywood this week, the show features artist from all over the country that have produced more than 175 pieces of art to represent the themes of justice, respect, unity, civil rights, and love.

Yosi Sergant, 33, who describes himself as a community organizer, is one of the individuals responsible for the exhibition. Sergant is often credited for inspiring artist Shepard Fairey to design the 'Hope' and 'Progress' posters that became the iconic images of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Last May he was appointed as the director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent agency of the United States federal government that offers support and funding for projects exhibiting artistic excellence. But less than a year ago he came under fire for comments he made during a conference call that led many to believe he was recruiting artists to create works that promoted Obama's policies. The media frenzy and outcry ultimately led him to resign.

Out spoke with Sergant about Manifest Equality, his thoughts on how the Obama administration is handing LGBT rights, and the truth behind why he really resigned from the NEA.

Out: What do you hope Manifest Equality accomplishes?
Yosi Sergant: To raise visibility for such an important issue. It's an issue that is part of a conversation that is a long time coming. I think it's finally matured to a place where it's finally reached a bit of a tipping point. Our goal is to just help amplify that conversation.

The show will be in Los Angeles March 3-7. Once it's over, do you plan on moving it to other cities?
We plan on rolling this as far and as wide as we can. I'm hoping for sure [we'll visit] New York and San Francisco. I'd like to go to Austin and Miami too.

Manifest Equality grew out of a feeling that you hadn't done enough to prevent Proposition 8. What do you think you could've done differently?
My partners are Jennifer Gross and Apple Via. Apple and I were thinking about if we could make a change in one area, what would it be? This was clearly something we were all very passionate about. One of the reasons was because of Prop 8. At the point when that struggle was happening here in California, we were in the throes of a long-run presidential battle. I was so dedicated at that point to helping Barack Obama get elected, that I had made the assumption, like a lot of Angelenos and Californians did, that there was no way a law like Prop 8 could pass in California.

Why did you think that?
We assumed that people of like minds would vote in like ways. We had assumed that this was a conversation that was already happening in homes and had already been public enough that something like Prop 8 wasn't a real threat. We were wrong.

How did you feel when it did pass?
I think a lot of us felt sucker punched. There's a lot of guilt and shame associated with a lot of people that I know -- and most of my friends voted against it.

How did the passing of Prop 8 inspire Manifest Equality?
I'm a straight male from Los Angeles, and I just thought, Where are places where someone like me can engage in that conversation?

Why should the straight community be concerned with marriage equality?
First of all I think gay rights are equal rights and equal rights are civil rights. Civil rights are everybody's issue. The second we start limiting anyone's civil rights, everyone's civil rights are affected and diminished. Apple and I sat and talked about this for a long time. She said she is doing this [show] for her two-year-old son. She has no idea whether he is going to grow up to be gay or straight. And the thought that her son might grow up to have a limited access to rights is something that's on her mind.

This show is happening during the week of the Academy Awards. Is that something that was planned?
We specifically timed it.

We're a bunch of community organizers who don't have the strength or the capabilities of dominating the front pages of press. We leave that to health care executives and people with long-standing careers of whipping up noise. But what we can do is take advantage of these opportunities that come up in front of us where all of the media is in one place. This is a week where there is a lot of energy in Los Angeles, but only some people get invited to the big show. There are a whole lot of Angelenos who get excluded from this week. So, just like what we did in Denver [for the DNC Convention] and like what we did at the inauguration, we provide an opportunity that's open to the public that is all about the grassroots, the activists, and the artists who are often excluded from these celebrity conversations.