Eric Wilks has been one of my best friends since we met in 7th grade. One of the most politically astute individuals that I know, Eric worked for several years in GLAAD, anr organization that works to advance LGBT rights in the local community and acts as a watchdog against homophobia in the news, entertainment and social media. I always enjoy our many discussion of politics over the years, and even when we disagree, he’s pointed out weaknesses in my own arguments and has offered different perspectives on the political issues. A longtime political activist, Eric has participated in several protests and has used his facebook page as a forum for political discussion.
You’ve always been interested in politics, at least since I first met you. How would you describe your politics when you were younger? And how has it evolved over the years?
My political views were initially shaped by those of my father. I don’t recall politics being part of dinner conversation, but my father encouraged my sister and I to read the newspaper when we were young. I generally didn’t do much more than read the headlines and the first few paragraphs of news stories that interested me, but that was enough to spur my curiosity in current events and politics. My father didn’t align with either the Democratic or Republican party. He held moderate-to-liberal views on many social issues but also was a strong believer of a citizen’s right to bear arms. He was uncomfortable with government intruding in our lives, including registering his weapons. That said, he owned only a couple of firearms intended for protection. He mostly owned shotguns and rifles for duck and deer hunting. So, he identified his politics as those closest to Libertarian. He appreciated the fiscal conservatism of the Republican Party of the mid- to late-70s, but less so its stand on social issues.
As a child and young adult, my political views were more black-and-white. Though I could understand how neither the Republicans nor Democrats satisfied every voter, I felt a vote for a third party was essentially a “throw away” vote, given the way our political system functions.
The first presidential contest that I paid attention to was in 1980, when we first met in junior high. We were coming off of a painful recession. Gasoline had been rationed. Iran held Americans for hostage. President Jimmy Carter rightly or wrongly was perceived as impotent. Then came Gov. Ronald Reagan who projected confidence and charm. I didn’t really care about his politics, when it came right down to it. I, like many Americans, responded to the optimism and strength he represented. I became a Republican at 13. It’s ironic that though Reagan was an idol at the time, I never had the opportunity to vote for him. I turned 18 two weeks after his reelection victory in 1984.
Though I considered myself a Republican, my views were pretty moderate. I would have considered myself fiscally conservative but socially liberal. I didn’t always vote along
party lines, but probably did so more often than not.
It took going off to college, UCLA, at 23 and looking more deeply into the impact of social and fiscal policy as practiced by the Republicans. Though I’d come from an ethnically diverse community, I didn’t appreciate the impact of income disparities and racial discrimination in our society. At the same time I also came to terms with being gay. Coming out made me even more sensitive to oppression by one’s government. I had trouble reconciling Republican ideas of what our country was versus what real-world experience showed me.
Though my political views migrated more to the left, I initially still considered myself a moderate Republican though it became harder and harder given the sway the Religious Right had on the party.
During our many discussions on politics over the years, you’ve often focused on political issues, but I don’t remember you mentioning any individual that you look up to as a hero. What individuals or books have influenced your political thinking? Who are your heroes?
I guess my interest in politics has always been rooted in the current day. I can’t say I really have political heroes from the past. Of course history can provide perspective, but I have the most fun watching how players on both sides of the aisle navigate the here and now.
It seems so much has changed even in the thirty plus years since you and I first started talking politics. The Republicans have moved even further to the Right. They call themselves the Party of Reagan, but by today’s standards he’s more moderate and more willing to compromise. I doubt that a candidate who ran on Reagan’s record of accomplishments today would get very far with the party’s conservative base. And look at how the Democratic Party has moved more to the Right in many ways. It’s these political machinations that I take the most interest in.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been the kind of guy to have political heroes. I suppose if I had to pick one it would be Bill Clinton. He is such brilliant man and savvy political tactician. When it came to charm and connecting to people, in many ways I think he surpassed Reagan’s talents. Needless to say, Clinton also had his weaknesses.
Of course, I respect politicians like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson who managed to get truly important and landmark legislation despite opposition from Congress. And, I have to say Ronald Reagan to an extent. With his communication skills, and the talents of his speechwriters, his administration was masterful at getting the public behind their policies. And I respect that Reagan knew how to play political hardball and yet could have a good relationship with the Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. The Washington of today can learn from how those two conducted themselves.
Eric, you came out of the closet during the midst of the AIDS crisis in the gay community. How did that affect you? Did you have any friends that were affected? What would you say is the difference of that generation of the LGBT community as opposed to the generation of today?
Wow. Well, as you can imagine, HIV/AIDS had a profound impact. I realized I was gay when I was about 13 as AIDS first started making headlines. Again, we’re talking about 1980/81, around the same time we first met in school. There wasn’t even a name for it initially, and scientists had yet to discover its cause. All we knew was that gay men here in the U.S. were among its heaviest casualties. It was a scary time to come out. There was nowhere to turn for information other than the library. There was no Internet, no gays on TV to speak of, and hardly any mention of lesbian, gay, or bisexual issues in the newspapers or media in general, and even when there was it was rarely positive. So, I suppressed that part of myself for years and focused on other things. It was a lonely, depressing time. It took years for me to learn I wasn’t the only gay person. It wasn’t until I was 23 and had been at UCLA for a couple of years before the isolation and frustration got so overwhelming that I was forced to deal with who I was. I had to overcome some preconceived ideas of what being gay was and that being a sexually active gay man was a death sentence.
But, those ten years of extreme loneliness probably saved my life from HIV/AIDS. I have friends who came out just a few years earlier than I did and lost scores of friends. In comparison, I could count on one hand the friends or acquaintances I’ve lost. A couple of my friends tested positive after I came out, but given the progress made are living with the disease. I can’t really speak of the differences between the communities then and now first-hand since I didn’t meet other gay men and women until the late ‘80s and early 90s. Both are products of their time. The gay community affected by HIV and AIDS in the 70s and early 80s had, largely, been living as a result of the Free Love era of the Sixties. No restraints. It was difficult in the face of the plague that descended upon them when there were no answers about transmission as to how to react. They didn’t want people dictating to them how to live their lives. The reaction – or lack thereof – by the federal government, the Reagan Administration, didn’t help. Fewer people were affected by an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease at around the same time and the government responded swiftly and thoroughly. Because of how HIV/AIDS was primarily transmitted here in the U.S., the government made decisions based on morality. And yet look how many people died because of government reaction? One can argue whether that was truly a moral choice.
For several years, you worked at GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an organization that works to keep the media accountable on LGBT issues. What was your work like at GLAAD? With shows like GLEE and MODERN FAMILY and movies like MILK, what do you think of Hollywood’s depictions of the LGBT community over the past couple of years? In what areas do they still need to improve?
I first started as a volunteer with GLAAD. Since I was studying film and television at UCLA, GLAAD was a natural fit for my personal activism and professional interests. I became a member of the committee that put forth the nominees for their Annual Media Awards film, television, and documentary categories. Back then there wasn’t much to choose from. Usually there’d be what we jokingly called “the very special episode of Blossom”, where in one episode a one-time character would come out or an issue would be discussed. It took years before shows had recurring lgbt characters. Of course, the show that really changed things was THE ELLEN SHOW. The show had started first as a show like FRIENDS with no single lead character. Eventually the show became about Ellen and the friends were relegated to supporting roles. The writers had no choice but to try to put her in romantic situations with members of the opposite sex, but it didn’t work. I still think it’s amazing that the network agreed to let her come out. That’s not to say it was an easy decision for them. They were understandably squeamish. And they didn’t always give their full support to the show, which could be why it only lasted a couple of more years, as I recall. But it changed the landscape. Shows like the original MELROSE PLACE and DAWSON’S CREEK helped immensely too. And of course, MTV’s THE REAL WORLD, which has included a gay or lesbian roommate in virtually every season since it debuted in 1992. Exposure to lgbt issues has helped normalize lgbt people. These shows have shown straight people we’re just like them. And they’ve shown gay people that they aren’t the only ones.
I took a paid position with GLAAD in late 1999, about a year and a half after Ellen Degeneres came out on THE ELLEN SHOW. It opened the door to shows like WILL & GRACE, obviously, and QUEER AS FOLK on Showtime
But it’s still a bumpy road. There could be more lgbt characters on television. I’d love to see more examples like the show SOUTHLAND. You have a macho, hard ass, morally ambiguous sergeant introduced in the pilot as the lead character’s training officer. He’s not a character you want to like. Yet, at the end of the episode, you see him in a gay bar and he’s not that confident character you saw earlier. He’s struggling with embracing his sexuality. There’s clearly room for more of these kinds of characters on T.V. And with the occasional exception of a movie like MILK, lgbt characters are more rare in movies made by the major studios. Certainly not as leads.
As a participant in many protests, what have been the biggest benefits been for you in participating? What are your thoughts on the recent Occupy Wall Street protests? What have the Occupy protests been like in your area?
I wouldn’t say I’ve participated in “many” protests, but I’ve been in more than a few. Having come from a pretty middle, or lower-middle class background, protesting was foreign territory. Just like coming out in general, challenging authority felt a bit like I was part of a secret society. Doing something a “good boy” might not necessarily do. But, the first march I participated in was when I was still a registered Republican. Then California Governor Pete Wilson, who claimed to be a moderate, had vetoed AB101, a bill that would have protected lgbt people from being fired by private employers due to their sexual orientation. This wasn’t same-sex marriage. It was an issue that should have been cut and dried. But Wilson caved to the social conservatives in the party.
At the time Los Angeles, especially its lgbt population, wasn’t known for its political activity. But marches went on for days, closing major streets like Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvd. It was empowering. It was that veto by Wilson and similar actions by then President George H. W. Bush that made me realize I could no longer identify as a Republican.
When it comes to the Occupy Movement, I understand the frustration it’s born from. The Have Nots are being squeezed and squeezed. The frustration has to vent somehow. That said, I’m not sure the Occupy Movement has made the impact it could have. There were so many diverse interests involved and no coherence to messaging or organization. I think back to ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Queer Nation, groups of people who got together in the ‘80s and 90s to protest inaction on HIV/AIDS and lgbt rights, respectively. They were very in your face, guerrilla theater. ACT-UP protested the headquarters of pharmaceutical companies to force them to bring down the cost of their medications, or staged “die-ins” in intersections in mid-town Manhattan to keep HIV/AIDS on the nightly news and on the front page of newspapers. Queer Nation staged “kiss-ins” at shopping centers or bars that made the news for kicking out gay people. There were plenty of people who responded angrily to their methods or the inconvenience they caused. But these groups were the Malcolm X to the Martin Luther King approach of more mainstream lgbt organizations. Both serve their purposes. I think to an extent the Occupy Movement didn’t go far enough. It shouldn’t have been content to occupy one space. I think the message was undermined by staying in one place. It allowed the other side to paint them as squatters. I believe they could have been more successful had they had occupied various locations. Conducted “sit-ins”. If it were me, I would have modeled an approach like those of Flash Mobs. Choose your location, have members position themselves throughout the space, then stage an action that’s at least somewhat choreographed communicating a clear message.
Though we’re both liberal, you and I have frequently disagreed about different issues and about political tactics. Yet even when we disagree, I appreciate the fact that you take the time to listen and to ponder my arguments. Out of our conversations I’ve learned the weaknesses of my own arguments and gained new perspectives on many issues. In recent years though, the national political discourse hasn’t been very good. With the gridlock in Congress and the venom coming out of the Republican primaries, what do you think of the political discourse of the past decade or so?
We’ve heard the term gridlock as long as we’ve discussed politics, but I don’t think anything compares to where we are now in modern history. There’s always been a lot of one-upmanship in Washington. But, this political strategy by the Republicans becoming the “Party of No,” to reject compromise, to seek to undermine and wait out the current administration is repugnant. People are hurting and the Republican Party turns a deaf ear. It’s no wonder the approval rate of Congress is at historic lows. But I’m not sure what the answer is. We rarely blame our own senators and representatives, we just want to kick out everyone else.
Though I’m clearly a Democrat now, I bemoan the loss of Moderate Republicans. The Republican Party has become so extreme that there’s no room for Moderates and dealmakers. And yet the party loves to call itself the “Big Tent” party. Well, it’s always been good at euphemisms. It’s too early to tell, but I think Republicans need to face the same sort of backlash they received after the failure of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”. He and the Republicans took power and power corrupted. They misread their mandate, didn’t deliver what they promised and voters tossed them out. I think that’s what it’s going to take again.
You were once a Reagan Republican. In the Republican Party there is a group called the Log Cabin Republicans, who are fighting for LGBT rights within the Republican Party. What are your thoughts on the Log Cabin Republicans? With Republicans being key votes in many of the recent legislative victories for gay marriage, do you think more Republicans are coming around on the issue of LGBT rights?
Well, there are two lgbt Republican groups these days. Log Cabin Republicans came first. I think many viewed it as a group that was largely apologetic for whatever the party did. I’m not sure many Republicans, let alone liberal gays, took them seriously. That was until the last Bush Administration when the then new executive director decided to be more vocal and without support of the organization to Bush’s reelection efforts. But, as a result, this spurred some members to split from the organization called GOProud, which again, seemed to be perceived as more apologetic for the Republican establishment. Though, in the last couple of years, both have been helpful in challenging “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.
On one hand, I’m glad they exist and are willing to take on the party from inside. On the other hand, I’m not sure how effective they can be given what drives the party and its base these days. Until moderates once again become a dominant force in the party, I think Log Cabin and GOProud will have a very limited impact in changing things from inside.
As a Southern Californian, you must hear a lot about the illegal immigration issue. What are your thoughts on the immigration issue? Are you a supporter of the Dream Act?
This is another issue where I just shake my head. Just a few years ago President George W. Bush was close to finding middle ground. And now his party is far to the right of his solution.
Border security is important. But, this country cannot function without its immigrant workforce. If it wouldn’t be so devastating, I wish we could give Republicans what they want and deport all undocumented workers. Let’s see what our economy looks like then. I’m certain their solution would be devastating to the economy. There wouldn’t be enough people willing to fill those jobs in the fields, or working as domestic help, etcetera. You’d think given how they’re viewed as the more “business friendly” party that they’d be on the right side of this issue. We have to find a fair resolution to this issue. I see no other way than some form of amnesty.
Many gays and lesbians show a justified wariness about the Christian church. In recent years though, many Christians have begun speaking out for LGBT rights within their church, especially in denominations that have been known to be anti-gay. Affirmations is a Mormon LGBT rights group. Dignity USA and New Ways Ministry are longtime LGBT advocates within the Catholic Church. Right now Soulforce, an Evangelical gay rights group, is preparing their annual Equality Rides campaign to confront homophobia in Christian colleges and universities. What do you think of these groups? How do many of the LGBT community view these Christian groups?
Well, I can’t claim that there’s some monolithic view by the lgbt community of these Christian groups. I believe, in general, people are glad these lgbt groups exist. Just as the lgbt community isn’t a monolithic group, neither are people of faith. And there is plenty of overlap. Of course, there are large numbers of straight people here in the U.S. who pick and choose the religious doctrine that works for them. You need only look as far as divorce, birth control, and abortion to see that plenty of people of faith disagree with the Church on these issues. And just as lgbt rights are finding growing support in the U.S. in general, those numbers are starting to rise among people of faith, too. Polls show religious people are far more accepting of protections of lgbt people in housing and employment. Obviously, support for same-sex marriage is lagging, but support is growing even there.
But most of the organizations you reference, like Dignity and Affirmations, exist to help their lgbt membership reconcile their homosexuality with what their church has taught them and to show that they can be gay and still practice their religious beliefs. Whether you are religious or not, you should be able to practice your faith even if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
You were an Obama supporter in 2008. What do you think of the Obama administration these past four years? How do you think the 2012 elections are going to shape up?
I didn’t support Obama for president until the California Primary forced me to choose between Obama and Hilary Clinton. Obama had impressed me, but I had the same questions about his experience and electability as others had. I also questioned whether Clinton could overcome the negatives that had followed her as First Lady.
Yes, Obama talked a good game, but I knew the optimism that surrounded his election would make way to the reality of politics in Washington. For one, I knew he wouldn’t be able to pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan immediately. I knew the economy wouldn’t turn around quickly. And I wasn’t surprised that lobbyists undercut attempts to hold Wall Street and the banking industry accountable for getting us into the situation we’re in. There have been times I’ve been profoundly disappointed in the president. But also times I’ve been extremely proud that he’s prevailed through persistence. Sure, we love to see some passion and empathy from our leaders, and I’m not sure that comes through enough with Obama. But, he is deliberate and strategic. Given the unwillingness by Republicans to meet him half-way on many issues, it’s amazing he’s gotten accomplished what he has, not the least of which is Health Care Reform and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, among others.
Ultimately, I think his reelection will hinge on the economy and the rate of unemployment. Those have been and will continue to be the issues Americans care about most right now. We were in a deep hole when Obama was elected and we still have so far to go. Indicators are generally moving in the right direction. But housing, student loans, and the European economic crisis all pose real dangers to our fragile recovery. A lot can happen between now and November.
But, the Republicans have yet to offer how their policies will benefit Americans, certainly not when it comes to Romney. Though, I understand he has a major policy speech he’s preparing to make in the next couple of weeks. But, it seems like Republicans, and Conservatives especially, are finding it difficult to get behind him. He might describe his time as governor of Massachusetts as being “severely conservative”, but I think it’ll be difficult for him to back that up. I think he’s done little to distinguish himself in the race so far, and appears like another lackluster John McCain. I heard a comparison the other day that he is “a John Kerry without the medals”. Still, I view him as the only viable candidate the Republicans can run against Obama. Gingrich and Santorum will alienate a lot of Americans, especially independents. One has to wonder what would happen if Bloomberg got in the race, as either a Republican or Independent. That would be VERY interesting.
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen