Roll Up Your Damn Sleeves: An Interview with LGBT Activist and Fox News Commenter Sally Kohn

AE: I would think being able to think on your feet would be a skill you need in both.
SK: Exactly. But more fundamentally than that, more than the actual skills translating, it’s about what you’re achieving in the world. Once I realized that being in media is like community organizing but with a bigger room, then it became instantly apparent why Gerry and others had thought this was such a good idea. At the time, it felt like a really big switch and it kind of a bumpy transition, but now I look back and it makes utter sense to me. And it actually makes me wonder why we don’t have more organizers and community activists, people who are skilled at translating their ideas to their neighbors, in the media. It seems like a perfect fit.

AE: And what kind of training did you get for transitioning into television?
SK: I commend, especially the folks reading AfterEllen, who think, “Hey, I have something that I want to say, and I’d love to be writing more. I’d love to be on television, I’d love to be on radio, helping put ideas out there, helping to frame ideas and be a more public voice for justice and equality.” I couldn’t recommend the Women’s Media Center more.

The Women’s Media Center was founded by Robin Morgan, Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda with the sole purpose of training women and girls to be voices in the media. And that’s everything from the really silly stuff that you think is silly until you do it, and then you’re like, “Oh, my! Look at how I flap my hands like a chicken!” Or whatever. Do chickens flap their hands? You know what I mean? So it’s everything from “Oh, I look silly when I do that,” to learning how to respond to hard questions – when you get asked a question you weren’t expecting to get asked, or a question that tries to pin you into a corner and you want to figure out how to get out of that corner and keep your cool. Those are learnable skills that you add on top of your ideas, your opinions, whatever you want to bring to bear, that help you get them out better. The Women’s Media Center is outstanding at doing this.

AE: There were some awesomely crazy responses to you becoming a presence on Fox News. Do you feel welcome at Fox? How do you feel about that extreme slice of their audience that doesn’t even want to see you on the air as a debating partner?
SK: I wouldn’t characterize it like that. First of all, I’m on the opinion side of Fox News. On the opinion side, Fox has many liberals, Fox has many conservatives, Fox has many centrists. Maybe I’m the only organizer, perhaps, and I may lean more to the left than some of the others, but it’s actually really — I find a lot of people who ask questions like that in general, Ali, are people who don’t watch Fox a lot. And if you were to turn on Fox, you would be surprised to see that there’s rich debate. And one of the things that made people point at me and say, “Oh, you’d be good at this,” is I like to debate and I like to argue. And who wants to just argue with yourself? And I actually find that Fox is a really rich environment where I can not only express my own views, but I can learn more about what folks who disagree with me think and have very thoughtful conversations that I think raise everybody’s game, inform everyone, make everyone think harder. I love that. The pure intellectual geek in me loves that, number one.

Number two, the political pragmatist in me knows that going on Fox for five minutes, I reach more people, period. Frankly, more Democrats. Frankly, more independent voters. And, yes, more conservatives as well, than on any of the other networks combined. That’s pretty powerful. And I have to say, in general, having been on the political left, having been a progressive organizer and activist for so long where we so often were beating our heads against the wall of self-marginalization.

I mean, sometimes we were being marginalized, but sometimes we were accepting our own marginalization and screaming into a small paper cup. Being able to have an actual megaphone is valuable.

And I don’t think you’re really part of the political discourse of you’re only talking to yourself. You think you are. You see yourself, and, “Oh, look, I’m part of a political discourse.” But discourse is really a two-way street. It involves being heard, and that includes being heard by a broad cross-section of the country. And for me, one of the things I hope I can do well, and one of the things I hope I can contribute to the progressive movement more broadly is thinking about how do we talk about what we believe in a way that the largest number of people can hear it without selling out our core values and our core beliefs? I think we need to crack that.

And unfortunately, most of what we’ve seen, certainly from Democrats, but unfortunately from a lot of Washington establishment organizations, is “Oh, well if you want to be heard as broadly as possible, you can’t be honest. You can’t say everything you believe. You can’t speak to your core values and your true vision.” I don’t think that’s true. That’s a false doctrine we’ve been put into. So I feel incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to have truly progressive conversations with such a wide cross-section of America. That’s what our country is. Not all of these people agree with me. Boo-hoo. Get over it and now try and do something about it.

AE: Do you have a favorite show to appear on?
SK: Oh, whose feelings am I going to hurt? [Laughs] You know what? I have to say – and I’m not going to name names on the progressive side – but I will just say that people have these ideas and part of is it that I think the more that we can break down our ideas of each other. Look, I am devastated to see the level of political discourse in general in this country lowered. And the name-calling and the nastiness, and the hate mail, and the vitriol on Twitter, and everybody gets it, left, right, and center. And as a queer woman, you really get it. And it’s disgusting. The more we can see each other as human, it doesn’t erase the political differences, but at least we can be civil. At least we can talk about what we disagree with and learn from each other and understand where the disagreements are, as opposed to just being reduced to the most base elements. I challenge people on all sides. I think we can all do a better job of reaching toward that goal and finding the positives in those we often resort to considering our enemies.

So let me just say that, in that sense, what people are always shocked to hear, Ali, is that Sean Hannity is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Sean Hannity is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. I mean, he has — we don’t agree, but he’s a sweetheart. I think that Bill O’Reilly is one of the smartest people I’ve ever talked to. I have so much fun on Megyn Kelly’s set. I don’t think there’s been a single appearance I’ve done on her show that hasn’t begun before the cameras are rolling with one or both of us singing for some reason. You know, some of my Fox colleagues — I could go on and on and on. They’re thoughtful, kind people. They’re people. You know, just because you don’t agree with every single thing that every single person thinks doesn’t mean you have to… I think we can find that and celebrate that.

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