The Scorpion and the Frog: Mandy Carter’s life of activism

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Everybody needs a break now and then, even Mandy Carter. “This is my 45th year working,” she says, “so I’ll be going off the grid for 2014. If you don’t stop now and then, you lose perspective.” 

Hear that? In Mandy Carter’s world, a timely sabbatical every near half-century or so is suggested. Otherwise you might get a little overworked.

That’s typical Carter, friends and colleagues tell 429Magazine. A 65-year-old black lesbian activist in Durham, North Carolina, Carter takes to her work with unusual facility. “She’d organize her own funeral,” says filmmaker John Scagliotti (director of the film “After Stonewall,”) “She’s always the leader. Anytime she has six people in a room she gets us doing something.”

Scagliotti met Carter while working on the landmark PBS gay news magazine “In the Life” 20 years ago. “We were having a fundraiser in North Carolina. No affiliate in the state was running the show thanks to Jesse Helms, so how do you get people there when they’d never even seen the program?” 

They tapped Carter to see if she could help fill seats. Somehow, like the parable of the loaves and the fishes, she made plenty out of nothing. “It was the best fundraiser we ever had,” Scagliotti recalls. “The crowd was huge. I have no idea how she got that many people. We made so much money I felt guilty. It takes someone like Mandy to get things like that done.”

Biographers run out of words before running out of things to write about Carter’s career: She worked on Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign in 1968; then she joined the War Resisters League to protest the Vietnam conflict; she’s one of the founding members of the National Black Justice Coalition; she helped found SONG, a “regional Queer Liberation organization in the South”; she ran voter registration drives in 1990, ’96, and 2000; most recently she organized the Old Lesbians Organizing for Change gathering in St. Louis. There’s virtually no civil rights cause she hasn’t had her fingers in. 

Now 64, Carter was born in Albany, New York and raised in a series of orphanages. “I’m glad I never was adopted by anybody,” Carter says. “It wasn’t a wonderful experience, but I have no regrets.” In hindsight, Carter says she might have spent her life working in foster care. But in 1965, representatives from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) spoke at Carter’s high school. “That one 40 minute class changed my life,” she says. 

The AFSC, an arm of the Quaker church dedicated to humanitarian and social work, impressed on Carter the values of non-violence, human equity, and social justice. Though many branches of the Quaker faith are ambivalent or even hostile toward gays and lesbian, Carter and colleagues credit Quaker values as the bedrock of her activism.

“She has that Quaker background that’s all about rolling up your sleeves and getting work done,” says Donna Payne, associate field outreach director for Human Rights Campaign. Payne and Carter met at a gathering of the now-defunct National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership forum. “She’s not doing polished, TV-friendly, press-statement kind of activism,” Payne says, “she’s working door-to-door. Nobody wants to do that these days.

“She’s very soft-spoken, but very direct,” Payne adds. “And she’s a very carefree, loving individual. Because she’s such a powerful advocate, it can feel like she tramples people, but that’s not so.”

Does anyone ever actually accuse Carter of “trampling” others? 

“Actually, no,” Payne says after a moment. “But if they did, they’d be wrong.”

Quaker values are one spur in Carter’s life, and her background in the grassroots upheaval of the 60s is the other. “Think about it: The Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy, civil rights, bomb shelters, air raids, duck-and-cover,” she says, ticking off the startling memories one by one. “I can tell you exactly where I was November 22nd [during the Kennedy Assassination], and then again when Ruby killed Oswald. People were getting on the radio and reading the Last Rites for the whole world. But we’re all still here.” 

That’s why Carter is, in some ways, a landmark of a bygone era. “That world embodied in MLK has vanished, but that’s where Mandy comes from,” says Matt Foreman, formerly executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. “She’s genuine, she doesn’t posture, and she’s not self-promoting.”

Foreman also says Carter embodies something else that’s too often missing these days: a comprehensive viewpoint. “War, poverty, homophobia, racism, sexism, Mandy doesn’t sort them out one by one. Privileged people manage things that way, but with Mandy it’s all one big kettle.”

If Carter has one big complaint about leftist activism, it’s that lack of comprehensiveness, she says. “I love the gay movement, but it can be selfish and self-centered sometimes. For me, it can’t ever be about just one thing. When I wake up I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m a lesbian, I don’t have a lot of money, and I live in the south. I’ve got to do all of that.”

Though many of the 60s Old Guard became prone to cynicism, Carter says it’s easy to miss change if you forget where to look for it. “I remember Vietnam, when you’d hear the day’s body count on the radio over dinner,” she says. “You notice they don’t do that anymore? Now it’d make them look bad.” 

Now that she’s taking a break to get perspective, is there anything else Carter might have liked to do with her life? “I would have loved to be a doctor. To do pre-med you had to do a foreign language, but I flunked Spanish. Who knows how things might have turned out if I hadn’t failed that class?”

John Scagliotti doesn’t agree. In his opinion, Carter could never be anything but an activist. He illustrates the point with a parable: “It’s like that story where the scorpion stings the frog and then apologizes: I can’t help it,’ it says, ‘it’s just my nature.’ That’s Mandy: All these people are trying to figure her out, but there’s no figuring Mandy out. It’s just her nature. It’s in her blood.”

429Magazine

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