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Gavin Creel and NYCLU Executive Director discuss voting rights, democracy, and the election

October 30, 2020 by Suzy Evans
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Gavin Creel and Donna Lieberman

Gavin Creel isn’t sure if he’s the right person for this interview. He’s the first one to admit that he’s not as active or as informed as he feels he should be, but he does know that there’s one thing he can do to help: he can tune in to the Sing Out for Freedom concert on Nov. 2.

“It’s the power of music. It’s the power of community,” Creel says. “This event makes me go back in the crowd now, ‘cause I’m not at the front of this one. I’m just like: What do I do? I’m in my house, I’m lonely. I’m grieving for our industry and the world. And I feel neutered. And I just think, what can I do for that night? I can tune in. I can donate. I can get to see this woman and listen to her talk.”

Creel is speaking about New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. The free one-night virtual event benefits the New York Civil Liberties Union, for which Creel is a Broadway ambassador.

“One of the reasons people like me just yell at people is because we can’t sing to people. We can’t woo them,” Lieberman says. “It means so much to me, and now, for anybody to show up to do a benefit for anybody else is huge, especially when Broadway is in deep trouble. As a Broadway star, people want to see you and value what you have to say, and you’re saying it.”

TodayTix sat down with NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman and Tony winner Gavin Creel to discuss the importance of this year’s election, voting rights, and protecting democracy.

Get free tickets to Sing Out for Freedom on TodayTix.

Gavin Creel: Has it always this charged? In 20 years [that you’ve worked at the NYCLU], have you felt because you’re always fighting the biggest fight at the front of the line?

Donna Lieberman: It’s never been like this before, not in my conscious lifetime. I mean, this may be a little bit as scary as it was in the World War II era, or in the McCarthy era, and my family was really hurt by that. So, it might be comparable to that, but I can’t imagine that this isn’t worse. 

Gavin: Do you think they were saying that we’re going to wipe ourselves off the planet?

Donna: No, no. I mean, these guys have somehow decided that they are going to destroy the planet, and it’s worth it. We’ve never been through something like that. And they’re out to give away the country to the Russians spooks or China or whatever. It’s certainly pretty fucking bad right now. 

Gavin: Yeah, and what for? I don’t understand what the upside is. I’m a little allergic to the empty noise of social media in a lot of ways. I know the benefit of it and getting the message out is great. But I was raised by parents who were like, “It’s the sweat you put into something that really matters.” That’s when I look at the NYCLU. I know if I can’t do the work, I can help in any small way to someone who is sweating and working and doing the work.

TodayTix: Gavin, you started getting politically active around the time you starred in Hair on Broadway with the March on Washington for LGBTQ+ rights. How does your activism feel different now?

Gavin: Well, frankly, and with a loving amount of shame towards myself, the reason why I was engaged is because it was directly affecting me. Of course, it directly affected cisgendered heterosexual people too and human rights are human rights and love is love, but it was so directly affecting me in a way that it just was there was no question. It was just like: What can we do?

So now with the Black Lives Matter movement and the Latinx community and the brown and Black community, I am now humbled again. I’m now back behind the starting line and I’m in the crowd going, how can I be effective?

There’s a lot of noise and virtue signaling and Saviorism and stuff that just makes me nauseous. But if we’re having conversations, I’m into it. But when people are just screaming and proselytizing, then there’s no common ground and there’s no conversation. And I’m excited about the arts, especially in this event, being able to cut through all of that.

Donna: This election is the most significant election of my lifetime. And our concert, which is free to everybody, is about voting rights. It’s about the struggle. It’s about what we’ve done. We’re going to honor RBG and John Lewis. Tuesday is a turning point. I just hope it’s turning for progress. But that’s not nearly the end of the line for any of us.

The question will be: Are we going to be continuing to have to fight to preserve the essence of our democracy? Or will we be in a position to fight to restore the essence and the pillars of democracy that have been so horribly undermined? There’s a lot of work to do.

Gavin: What’s the biggest pillar of democracy that we’re fighting for?

Donna: It’s not just one. Of course, the right to vote and ending the regime of voter suppression that is antithetical to the notion of one person, one vote is huge…Another pillar of democracy is our system of public education, which has been severely eroded. It’s been challenged because of the Covid epidemic and remote learning is every parent’s and teacher’s nightmare.

The NYCLU hasn’t been in the frontline of the fight to protect against climate change, but we talk about and we work on environmental justice because somehow coincidentally, it’s all always Black communities that are right next to the toxic dumps.

I could go on. I could talk about women’s rights. I could talk about LGBTQ rights. I’m glad that the Pope approved of civil union, Mazel Tov. Do you like to say Mazel Tov to the Pope?

Gavin: Absolutely.

Donna: But yeah, I mean, women’s rights are in jeopardy like never before. The so called pro-life super majority, they’re going to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Gavin: That galls me. You ever see Wanda Sykes “New Normal” comedy special? I cannot recommend it enough. It is so funny. She makes the point saying, “Black people need a better publicist.” That idea has legitimately stuck with me about Democrats. No, I actually it’s bipartisan.

We need to rebrand pro-life. They stand in the streets with the pictures of the babies and the various stages of end of term, and they call us murderers who are pro-choice. And I’m like, cool, I’m gonna borrow that word. And I’m going to start standing out on the street, with pictures of poor people next to toxic dumps, who are dead and have necrotic tumors coming out of the face. I’m going to call you murderers. I want pictures of the children who are rotting in jail and call you murderers. Because you didn’t want to give a woman who was in a situation — I don’t give a shit what the reason is, it is her choice. But you don’t want to participate once the baby’s here.

You’re murdering that life. You’re not supporting its educational system. You’re not feeding it. You’re not helping it if it’s in an impoverished place. You’re not a part of its life. So therefore, who’s the murderer now?

The other thing that drives me crazy is taxes. We have got to rebrand what taxes are. We have to brand it to be something I’m proud of. Oh my god, tax me, let’s go! Because that exempts me from having to show up and march if I just I’m too tired, but I pay my percentage in taxes.

But I’m like, we have to rebrand the pride in what it means to be. I’m going to I’m going to start making t-shirts that say, “I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper.”

It just doesn’t make sense to me how you would not want your neighbor to have the right just to breathe and to not worry about having to not be able to go to the doctor?

If we could educate people about this, then they’d be like, “Okay yeah, I’m a Democrat.” And then we would be Democrats, we would all just take care of each other. And it doesn’t mean you have to go to their house and cook the meals every day. But maybe you give two pennies on your dollar more than you did before. And everybody’s got health insurance and nobody has to be starving.

Like, they’re so good at. Liberal. Socialist. Socialist? Yeah, baby! To take care of one another? 

Donna: Well, we do have socialism, but it’s for rich people. You know, we have a whole huge government funding apparatus for rich people, and it’s been working really, really well. The wealth divide is bigger than it’s ever been. Covid, while it has wrought havoc on poor communities of color in an outsized and horrific way, it has also driven home the point that rich people are not safe if poor people are not safe.

Gavin: It’s a rebranding of some kind. No president gets the headline as much as this one does. Like, never, in my lifetime. It’s relentless. And it’s worn us down.

Donna: If folks who think of themselves as progressive and on the left have learned anything over the last four years, it’s that you can’t be afraid of your own values. That means that Wall Street should not be able to buy our programs and policies. Principles should be what buys — and science and moral values and respect for humanity. That’s what should drive our politics. I’m not naive, it probably won’t, but it has to have a bigger role.

But lawmakers have to be driven by what’s right for their constituents. We’re talking all about voting and ending voter suppression, but voting and electing people is only as valuable as we pay attention to what the people we elect do.

Gavin: And I’m going to raise my hand and say, that’s where I fail. It’s what makes me a not great union member. There’s a lot of stuff I’m not aware of. I raised my hand not to be a martyr, but to say that there is learning that I have to do. What drives me nuts is people acting like they have all the answers. And that’s why I always raise my hand and go I don’t know.

Sing Out for Freedom taught me once — it was the year that we wrote songs and Susan Blackwell wrote a song called “Addicted.” And the whole song was “I’m addicted to the conversation, but I’m overwhelmed. So, I don’t do anything.” And her whole thing was a four-step plan and pick one thing. You don’t have to be Donna. Because Donna is Donna and that is her life’s work.

That’s where people get overwhelmed. Like, I can’t be an activist. You don’t have to be an activist. But you do need to you do need to find a way that is authentic to you…There’s so much to do right now in our lives, especially with Covid. It’s so overwhelming. The one non-negotiable is voting. You have to vote. You have to have a plan. And you have to discuss with people.

Donna: Right. Folks can go to aclu.org or nyclu.org — and there’s an affiliate in every state — and we have a jam-packed legislative agenda. And we make it possible for people to find out about issues and take action. Whether it’s women’s rights, workers rights, fighting racism, fighting police brutality, we try to make it user-friendly for folks. It’s hard because it’s overwhelming.

Gavin: Donna, can I ask your opinion? Let’s say I’m in the ensemble of a show and I don’t have a lot of money, but I want to I want to feel good about putting $5 a month towards something. Would you say $2.50 to ACLU and $2.50 to the NYCLU?

Donna: There are so many fabulous places to donate. The good news about donating to the ACLU or the NYCLU is that it’s the same pocketbook. We’re separate entities but all the ACLU affiliates share whatever money comes in with the National Office and the national office shares with the affiliates. So, you don’t have to choose — how do you like them bananas?

In honor of Sing Out for Freedom, we’re asking everyone on social media to share what they sing out for, as in what makes you vote? What would you say?

Donna: Children and family. I would sing out about my children, but it’s the grandchildren who bring tears to my eyes because it’s all about the future.

Gavin: Truth. I don’t mean it in the general sense at all. I mean it in the imperative sense. Truth. I am overwhelmed. The thing that that scares me is that somehow, in the midst of it, the truth is confused. It feels like it’s been manipulated in a way that we can have objective truths about things. And we’re not actually talking with each other about what is true and what isn’t. We’re just going, “Well, I don’t believe that.” It’s like trying to negotiate with a child about a very serious situation. I sing out for truth. I’m scared. If we can’t agree on some basic fundamental truths, that’s where I worry that the democracy experiment is dead. But I have faith that it will not die.

Get free tickets to Sing Out for Freedom on TodayTix.