WASHINGTON — Thanks to the White House Easter egg roll, gay activist Jennifer Chrisler and I had a very good media week.
Chrisler’s “Family Pride Coalition” was mobilizing “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender” families to appear at the annual White House event, which is a 130-year-old tradition. Though insisting it was not political, the gay rights groups asked their supporters to wear rainbow leis on the White House lawn to get publicity.
Insisting it was indeed political, I was the designated media critic of the Family Pride mobilization. A piece I wrote in January exposed the Family Pride Coalition’s plans, which were to have remained secret until Easter. The Drudge Report linked to the article, which led to a question for Scott McClellan at a White House press conference, which led to Associated Press coverage.
The egg role story had the perfect storm conflation of issues: religion-children-sex-White House.
In the week prior to the April 17 egg roll, stories quoting Chrisler and me about the egg roll appeared in the International Herald Tribune (“White House Letter: At the Easter Egg Roll Focus on a Family Issue”), Newsday (“Egg roll draws gay parents”), New York Times (“The Egg Roll (Again!) Becomes a Stage for Controversy”), San Francisco Chronicle (“Lesbian and gay families camp out for egg roll tickets”), Los Angeles Times (“Gay Families Seek Role in White House Tradition”), and Washington Post (“Gay, Lesbian Families to Join American Tradition En Masse”), among others. The Associated Press, Scripps Howard, Cox and United Press International, along with Religion News Service, also chimed in with their own reporting.
Nearly every article about the egg roll dutifully quoted both Chrisler and myself. She repeated her talking point that no politics were involved: “Showing up, participating fully in an American tradition, showing Americans that we do exist, that in our minds isn’t a protest.” I repeated my mantra that politicizing a children’s event was wrong, especially in the case of the venerated the egg roll, which has remained remarkably politics-free for over a century, despite its White House location.
The gay families were scheduled to start lining up Friday night at the White House gate so as to be sure to get the first round of tickets passed out Saturday morning. Family Pride organized volunteers to stand in line for supporters who could not be there themselves.
My television interviews began 24 hours before Friday evening, with film crews dropping by my office from the local Fox and ABC affiliates. The next day, crews from the local CBS affiliate and the local ABC affiliate all news channel came by. The poor young female reporter from the latter had to lug around and set up her own camera. “Well, our staff is more limited at News Channel 8,” she explained with exasperation and a smile. One cameraman whispered that he supported my perspective but did not dare say so openly in his work environment.
Naturally, the crews also sought out Chrisler, some of them filming her with her female companion and their young children. But I did not meet my co-beneficiary of all the media attention until we both appeared outside the make-up room at Fox News.
“Hi, I’m Jennifer Chrisler!” she offered, after a brief moment of hesitation by both of us. She was as charming and attractive as her broadcast interviews had suggested. We exchanged brief biographic information. She is from Boston, Massachusetts, and I am from Arlington, Virginia. We discussed Easter plans but avoided chatting about the issue that brought us together. She was whisked away to the studio, and I was installed in a separate booth.
Fox’s Dayside hosts Juliet Huddy and Mike Jerrick, beamed in from New York along with a live studio audience, shot questions at Chrisler and me.
“Emails are pouring in!” enthused Huddy, who is Kathie Lee to Jerrick’s Regis. The e-mailers must have literally had their laptops in their laps, because Chrisler and I had then only exchanged a brief salvo. “Why are you politicizing the egg roll?!” exclaimed one audience member, to applause. Across the bottom of the screen, Fox helpfully flashed “Gay Egg Roll” and “Crashing the Egg Roll.” I interpreted the audience reaction as supportive of my theme.
Fox News had at least offered a ride to the studio. In the waiting room, I was also approached by a stream of young attractive women offering me drinks, presumably non-alcoholic. CNN and ABC News did not offer to dispatch drivers. So I taxied over to the CNN and ABC studios.
CNN’s Situation Room expressed skepticism to Chrisler that her mobilization for the egg roll was completely non-political. “I believe this administration is wrong about how they think about the policies that affect gay and lesbian people and gay and lesbian families in this country,” she responded.
The Situation Room followed up this way: “So putting that together with what you’re doing and the fact that you didn’t do it for a Democratic administration, this is not a political statement that you’re making?” Chrisler responded: “No, this is about us being visible for the American people, so that they can see that gay and lesbian parents exist in this country.”
ABC’s nightly news titled its story: “Brokeback Bunny? Gays Vie for Easter Egg Roll.” An interviewer at the ABC studio told me that I was the only “controversial one” in the story, Chrisler’s coalition of transgender parents apparently being controversy-free.
“What would President Rutherford B. Hayes say about all of this?” the interviewer asked. “Probably pretty shocked,” I said of the first president to host a public egg roll at the White House. “Wouldn’t he also be shocked by black children on the White House lawn?” he asked. “Actually not,” I responded, pointing out that Hayes, a former abolitionist and Civil War general, had a pretty good civil rights record.
ABC’s nightly report did not use this insightful exchange about President Hayes. Instead, it briefly quoted me saying the Family Pride Coalition’s plans to exploit the egg roll were “tasteless.” After featuring a lesbian couple in New York planning to journey to Washington, D.C., the story concluded with footage of the egg roll being racially integrated by Ike and Mamie.
It rained the Monday morning of the egg roll. And some of Chrisler’s mobilized followers complained that even though they had been among the first in line to get tickets, they were not permitted in until after 11 a.m., well past the 9 a.m. appearance of the First Couple. The White House explained that the first two hours were reserved for the children of White House staff and for children from volunteer groups.
In the end, the Family Pride Coalition had about 200 of its alternative families show up in rainbow leis. After the rainy morning at the White House, they attended a “celebration” at Foundry United Methodist Church, where the Clintons regularly used to attend.
Meanwhile, neither Chrisler nor I are likely to experience such a bevy of media opportunities any time again soon. But I enjoyed the ride, and I think she did too.
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