The Accidental Activist

5.3.2011

By Aaron Hicklin

Here's a story that, in its particulars, is a fable of our times. A young, handsome actor by the name of Jonathan Lovitz is called to jury duty. He goes grudgingly, but intent to exercise his civic responsibility. While he is waiting for selection he happens to be reading an Advocate story on his BlackBerry. It is about a bill to legalize gay marriage in Maryland that is withdrawn for lack of support. It's a predictable story, but on this day it strikes a nerve with Lovitz. He has just sat through a jingoistic video in which Diane Sawyer, no less, sings the praises of our justice system, heavy on American virtues like equality and freedom. So, when the judge asks if he can be an impartial juror he finds himself, unexpectedly, saying, 'I can't possibly be an impartial judge of a citizen when I am considered a second class one in thie eyes of this justice system.' The judge dismisses him, and a few minutes later Lovitz does what people do every day: He updates his Facebook status, alerting his friends to his random act of civil disobedience. There it would have ended but for a blogger-friend who ran a small item the next day. Others quickly followed, and before long websites around the country were carrying the story of the accidental activist. Old media caught up. Lovitz was interviewed on MSNBC, his parents were quoted in The Florida Tribune. When Beth Fertig, a reporter for New York's public radio station WNYC, was called to jury duty, she filed a story in which she recounted seeing two other men emulating Lovitz's action. What began as an isolated event had become a fledgling movement -- all because of a random comment on Facebook.

It's a busy weekday morning, and Jonathan Lovitz is sitting at New York's City Bakery checking his BlackBerry. There's an audition for The Rocky Horror Picture Show later that day (no, he won't share a chocolate croissant), and his imminent Logo series, Setup Squad, to worry about. The show, a fresh spin on the exhausted makeover concept, features the 26-year-old Lovitz as one of five matchmakers on a mission to improve America's dating habits. 'We are your wing men,' he says. 'We go on a date with you, and when you're starting to say the wrong thing, we'll nudge you back in the right direction.' He emulates observing a date, coughing and rolling his eyes as his inept charge puts her foot in her mouth. This sounds fun, but a total buzz kill.

Lovitz, who has 1,590 friends and a Carol Burnett quote on his Facebook page, may seem an unlikely activist, but he's emblematic of a new consciousness among young gay men and women who see full equality as a basic entitlement, not a utopian ideal. He acknowledges that some people might consider his actions irresponsible. 'I've never once suggested that people should do this to avoid jury duty,' he says. 'It's just the opposite: By making a scene in the system they're going to lose 10% of the juror pool until they realize we need to be included fully under the law.' He adds that he was trembling when he made his speech to the judge, but that the reaction from other jurors was largely positive.

Richard Socarides, president of Media Matters, which monitors conservative misinformation in the U.S. media, believes small actions like Lovitz's have outsize power to accelerate the pace of political change. 'These acts of uncommon courage, dignity really, can be very powerful, especially when they are quickly amplified by bloggers,' he says. 'The issues they draw attention to very often get noticed.'

Back in the touchy-feely premillennial '90s a little book called Random Acts of Kindness became a runaway bestseller in America. The book's premise was simple: Through small acts if kindness -- say by paying a tollbooth fare for the car behind you'you could alter the world. It was a sappy but empowering idea that captured the public imagination. You might say that people like Lovitz are applying a similar philosophy to gay equality. Call it Random Acts of Defiance, whether it's Dan Choi chained to the White House fence or young, courageous Constance McMillen taking her girlfriend to the prom. In the digital age these actions get noticed almost instantly -- they make people think. The digital revolution may be roiling the Middle East, but here, too, it is abetting dissent. Much of this has its roots in Proposition 8, which mobilized hundreds of thousands in national protests, summoned in large part by web campaigns like Join the Impact. It's no coincidence that the most recent poll now shows a majority of Americans support gay marriage. To a greater extent than their predecessors, the Millennial Generation considers full equality their due. Increasingly, so do their straight friends.

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