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Remembering David Mixner, a 'titan' in the fight for gay rights

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A titan in the fight for gay rights has died. David Mixner was an activist and Democratic political strategist working on JFK's campaign as a teenager, voicing his opposition to the Vietnam War, fighting over decades for the rights of LGBTQ+ people. All this work came at personal risk. In 1996, he spoke with NPR's Fresh Air about why he stayed in the closet until the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID MIXNER: Total fear. I mean, I thought that if anyone found out that I was a gay man that my life as I know it would be over. I certainly knew and changed my dreams from the earliest days of my childhood, and started planning my life based on the fact that a good deal of the benefits of citizenship would be denied me.

KELLY: Well, I want to bring in Brian Sims, a former Pennsylvania state representative. He considered David Mixner his mentor and his friend, and he wrote a tribute on social media to his late friend titled "Legacy Of A Titan." Brian Sims, welcome. I am sorry for your loss.

BRIAN SIMS: Hi, Mary Louise. Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for drawing attention to, as you said, the loss of an icon.

KELLY: How did you two meet?

SIMS: In the fall of 2009, I was working at the Philadelphia Bar Association. And I was working largely on politics and LGBTQ rights in the commonwealth. And I got a phone call from David Mixner. It showed up as just New York on my caller ID, and I answered. And David, with this sort of booming voice, said, is this Brian Sims? And he said, I don't know you well, but you probably know me.

KELLY: And was he right? Did you totally know who he was and think, oh, my God, David Mixner's on my phone?

SIMS: You know, I've said to him many times that I didn't. I was quick to Google him while we were speaking.

KELLY: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.

SIMS: And anybody that Googles David Mixner will find out that he's been sort of a part of every major LGBTQ, you know, civil rights advancement of the last 30, 40 years.

KELLY: Yeah, I was having a similar experience going back and looking at just how long, how openly, how fiercely he advocated for gay rights and at a time when very few people did. Did he talk about what made him want to fight so hard to make it better and fight so publicly? He could have, you know, built a wall around a smaller life. He made the opposite choice.

SIMS: The truth is, I think that David had a vision for the future at all points in his life, a vision for a future of equality where all people could sort of bring their full selves to their jobs and their families and their communities. And for LGBTQ+ people, that meant being out and not just being protected but being respected.

KELLY: We heard his voice there, talking about just the total fear that he lived with, particularly earlier in his life. Did he talk about that, about how he balanced speaking out with what he thought he might need to do to stay safe and prevent backlash?

SIMS: I think something that David would tell you is that he sort of constantly weighed that fear against his activism and his advocacy, a decision that he sort of made each day when he woke up and approached new issues and new people and decided every moment that bravery was more important than silence.

KELLY: One thing I was interested to learn as I was going through the many tributes to him is the very close and very complicated relationship he had with Bill Clinton. He pushed President Clinton hard to overturn the ban on gays in the military, which Clinton, of course, didn't do. He landed instead on this compromise that became known as don't ask, don't tell. Did you ever talk to David Mixner about that?

SIMS: Oh, quite a bit. And when you went into David's house, you sort of saw pictures of him with all these great dignitaries. But there was also a picture of him standing alongside President Clinton in what's largely considered to be the first time that a president had stood alongside an LGBTQ person, sort of arms raised in triumph. And here's this person that had the privilege of serving, really, as the first LGBTQ liaison to a White House, and in a very poignant moment, decided that it was more important to be an advocate and to quite literally walk out of the White House and lose some of the influence that he had spent so many years building.

KELLY: He eventually repaired the rift with President Clinton, but it took years before Congress finally lifted the ban on gay service members. It was 2011. Did he talk about that? Do you know if he felt like, OK, this was overdue, but we finally got there?

SIMS: I am certain that he didn't spend much time reveling in that achievement. I know for certain that he didn't proclaim any personal responsibility for that achievement but understood that it was the work of hundreds and thousands of advocates throughout the decade that preceded the fall of the ban. And I think at that time, he probably looked forward to marriage equality. He looked forward to ending discrimination and passing nondiscrimination laws.

KELLY: We've been speaking with former Pennsylvania state representative Brian Sims about his friend David Mixner. Brian, thank you.

SIMS: Mary Louise, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.