(#53 in a series of people who changed the course of my life)
I remember the first time I saw Daniel Scott Cates–this firebrand activist with a bullhorn. Up to that point in my life, I’d never met anyone like him and the activist I am today can be traced directly to him.
At first–I have to be honest–he frightened me a bit. Ok, a lot. He spoke unabashedly–forcefully, passionately, with no apologies. Indirectly, he challenged my sense of privilege, my apathy, my identity as a gay man, and my faith. I had never seen a queer activist up to that point and was at once startled and intrigued.
I would begin showing up at events and meetings–watching him from a distance, unsure if I was welcome, wondering how to gain his approval. I would discover I would only be welcome once I proved myself and my willingness to get outside myself and plunge headfirst into the cause. Well, causes. Daniel would model the ideal that “none of us is free until all are free” … that we could not be singular in our approach to dealing with injustice. Sure, gay people needed rights and equality–but so did lots of other people. And he had a speech that advocated for everyone. He also was suspicious (at best) of people of faith, regarding many as “faith without action” types, so I had that strike against me as well.
Daniel was good for me–as a person of action and as a person of faith. He challenged me to show that my faith and my activism were married–that one was an expression of the other. He made me understand why the identity of queer was so powerful–and necessary. And slowly but surely, I would work to earn his trust and respect by learning, listening, stumbling, and correcting, eventually gaining a seat at the table. We did not–and do not–always agree on everything but the times our work overlapped, extraordinary things happened.
Later on, art would bring us even closer together. Theater and a belief in the medium to effect change provided us opportunities to shed light on injustice and bring people together. Playing opposite him in The Normal Heart–my Ned to his Felix–I imagined what it would have been like had we been alive during the worst of the AIDS crisis.
Then, Daniel would give me the chance of my lifetime–to portray Horst in Martin Sherman’s BENT–directing me in one of the most fulfilling, deeply affecting experiences thusfar in my life. The gifts of his talent as my director and the trust he gave me with such a precious message leave me profoundly grateful to him. I will never–ever–be the same.
Each time I pick up a bullhorn, I think of him and men like Larry Kramer and Harvey Milk, of whom he is a descendant of sorts. As I go forward, I hope the words I speak–or shout–serve as an homage to the important work he did long before I ever arrived, a testament to the power of advocating for others, and above all–hope to all who hear them.
Thank you, Daniel.
54. a great cloud of activists