Progressive community organizer and LGBT activist Sally Kohn is smart, outspoken, and instantly likable. She’s also clearly not afraid of a challenge, having signed on as a commenter with the right-wing Fox News Network early this year. Kohn was kind enough to take some time to talk with us about activism, the future of the LGBT movement, and what progressives may not understand about conservatives.
AfterEllen.com: So you’ve been working as a community organizer since you were 12, is that right?
I was in college, and I was interning – first I actually interned for The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), where I had some fantastic mentors there as well, but literally I was interning at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Urvashi Vaid – her phenomenal book (which, if people haven’t read it, they should) Virtual Equality had just been published. And she had left her luggage in one of my coworker’s cars. And I was dispatched with Urvashi Vaid to go get her luggage.
And I thought I’d just hit the jackpot. I was like, “Really? This is the big time for me.” I was just – I was gushing, I was speechless for the first and only time in my life. I was falling over myself with excitement. And I went and I got her luggage and she made an offhand remark about how this colleague, who I won’t mention lest she be embarrassed, had the messiest office of any human being on the planet. It was abysmal. And Urvashi sort of offhandedly put this challenge to me to organize her office, and, of course you know, Urvashi Vaid told me to do it, so of course I’m going to do it!
So I then make it my life’s mission to organize this woman’s mess of an office over the summer. I think I made a modest dent, but that’s not the point. Somehow Urvashi was impressed. Somehow she translated my “awesome office organizing skills” to political organizing skills, and that was that. She proposed a project for us to work on together, and she has remained my primary mentor and colleague and one of my closest friends since then — who got me into all this.
It goes to show, I think, what a difference it can make when you pass on your inspiration and power and encouragement to someone else.
AE: What did your community organizing work involve?
AE: It seems like your career was always heading in that direction – you have a joint degree in legal studies and public administration and you’ve worked with the Center for Community Change and the Third Wave Foundation – how did you slide into commentary and punditry?
AE: It is.
I was giving a speech at a conference, and, again, another woman who became a very important mentor, Geraldine Laybourne, came up to me after the speech and said “We have to get you on television.” And I was completely taken aback and shocked and blew her off. And to her credit, she was tenacious and had a vision and she pursued me, and said “No, you’re going to get training, you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that. You’re going to be good at this.”
And what she also did was help me understand that there really wasn’t that big a difference. I mean on the face of it, it seemed like organizing and being a pundit were worlds apart, but at the end of the day, you’re fundamentally doing the same thing: You’re bringing information to people. Helping people be informed so that they can take action in their lives.