Sustaining Passion as a Physician Advocate: Seek Solidarity and Community First

By Marc Manseau, MD, MPH, NPA Gun Violence Task Force Member

Last week, I participated in gun violence prevention-related activities on five out of seven days. Where did this sudden burst of motivation come from? I would like to say from within, but no – I am neither hypomanic nor less distracted than other doctors by the myriad demands of work, personal life, and the many other issues about which I am passionate. Rather, this newfound passion and enthusiasm comes from my membership in a specific community – the LGBT community. Since the tragic mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida on the early morning of June 12, 2016 – which, with 49 dead and 53 wounded, was the worst public mass shooting in US history – the LGBT community has sprung into action all across the country. And active we have been. The largest New York City Pride March in history, held on June 26, 2016, was full of groups recognizing the combined threat of hate and gun violence and marching in solidarity with the LGBT community. Many of these groups had to scramble to make last-minute Pride contingent arrangements after the shooting in Orlando. I marched with the Disarm Hate coalition, which represented multiple groups including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, Organizing for Action, Doctors for America, and the National Physicians Alliance. However, one group newly formed in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting captured the day: Gays Against Guns (GAG). GAG – an acronym that purposefully invokes disgust and anger at rampant gun violence in the US – marched towards the front of Pride, and staged a series of “die-ins,” which stopped the entire march and theatrically drew attention to the epidemic of gun violence in the US with chants such as, “How many more have to die?!” and “*$%# the NRA!!” They were followed by an affiliated group known as “49 Humans in All White,” who, dressed in white garments and veils, silently carried large pictures of each victim of the Orlando shooting. The GAG-49-Humans contingent made the front page of the New York Times and won the top NYC Heritage of Pride award, “2016 – Best Marching Contingent.”
More than six weeks since the Orlando shooting, GAG has not shown any signs of slowing down. In fact, they have only intensified their efforts. Each of several general organizational meetings in the largest room of the NYC LGBT Center have been standing room only. Sub-committees have formed, each of which has held their own series of meetings. GAG has defined itself as a “direct action” group, with the following evolving mission/description: “Gays Against Guns NY is a grassroots social/political organization open to all members of the LGBTQAIA community who are committed to stopping the life threatening convergence of homophobia and flawed gun policy, drawing and sustaining public attention and anger on the dangerous, outsize influence of the gun lobby, holding puppet politicians who prioritize the gun lobby over public safety and their constituents’ lives accountable, and whose members will not rest until our LGBTQAIA family and the community at large is safe from gun violence.” There has been an “ACT UP” energy at most meetings, reminiscent of a previous time when LGBT people felt that their lives were being threatened by a combination of terrible public health policy and official negligence, and GAG NY has in fact been closely collaborating with Queer Nation NY. There have already been too many GAG-organized actions for me to keep track of, and as of this writing, new chapters have formed in eight other cities. Given my background as a public health-oriented physician and my knowledge about gun violence prevention, I have been asked to head up the Research Committee, and the email volume has been overwhelming at times.
It is difficult for me to describe what it has been like to be involved in this group. When I am at a standing room only GAG meeting or witnessing dozens upon dozens of LGBT people giving so freely and enthusiastically of their precious time, I am in awe and inspired. When I was laying on the hot pavement last weekend during a die-in as part of a GAG protest against Crossfit’s terrible decision to give away a Glock as a prize, I was overwhelmed with a catharsis that only comes from solidarity. As a physician who has been passionate about gun violence prevention since well before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I am frankly relieved that my LGBT community is finally involved in this issue. As a gay man, I understand that what might make this movement uniquely energetic and sustained is the powerful feeling of interconnection within the LGBT community. Yes, we have our unfortunate divisions amongst lines of race/ethnicity, class, sex, gender identification, and specific sexual orientation. But through this, it remains true that when you attack one member of our community, we all feel attacked; we mourn for each other; we all feel the acute danger of hate. And we respond as a community with anger and resolve. We demand to be seen and recognized as human, just as we did during the AIDS crisis.
I am still processing the whorl-wind of it all. However, I think we as physician advocates can take a few lessons from my experience with GAG thus far. First, effective advocacy takes sustained, focused energy. This is really hard to do, especially as physicians, with so many competing issues that we care about, such busy work lives, and the need to always put our patients first. However, it has occurred to me that a problem with gun violence prevention advocacy historically has been the classic progressives’ dilemma of energy and focus dilution. There has never been a lack of smart, thoughtful policy positions from the gun safety side, and we know from polls that the public largely agrees with many of these positions. The problem has been that the gun lobby has had a laser-like focus on promoting a destructive “guns everywhere” culture and related dangerous policies. They have brought to this fight seemingly unlimited energy from their base and ample funding from the gun industry, while the larger gun safety movement has been more diffusely spread between a relatively diverse array of issues. This has translated into a disturbing pattern: a surge of focused activity on the gun safety side after every mass shooting, only to have the momentum dither away after a few months. The gun lobby recognizes this trend, and has been able to simply block progress when the energy level is high, while waiting for gun safety advocates to become discouraged and lose focus. Maybe the LGBT community can start changing this dynamic, through groups like GAG.
Second, physicians have a unique role to play in promoting issues like gun safety reform, and it may not always be in organizing our own actions. My experience with GAG has reminded me that community is vitally important to sustaining energy, and that “all politics are local.” GAG meetings are standing room only not simply because people care deeply about the issue, but because they care about the LGBT community and want to be physically among other LGBT people working towards a common goal. Being an active member of this community, and working to show what value I can bring to their efforts, has been far more important than any title or professional background I may have. Showing up has literally been more than half of the battle, and NPA resources (eg., the white paper on gun violence) have been quite helpful along the way! So, I urge physicians to continue contributing to professional organizations like the NPA. Pay your dues, contribute to activities, run for leadership positions if you are so inclined, go to conferences, etc., etc.! However, consider finding a local non-physician organization that is passionately working on something you care deeply about, join that community in solidarity, and humbly show them how your training, experience, and knowledge as a physician advocate can contribute to their work in a unique way. The results might exhaust you, but I highly doubt they will disappoint you.