For Newt Gingrich, May 17, 2011 was a day that began like any other. In the midst of a national book tour, the US Republican presidential candidate arrived early in Minneapolis, planted himself in a chair beside his wife, and, with a plastic smile and herky-jerk handshake, began to sign copies.
Then, things took an odd turn.
In a confusing flurry, a young man approached the table, thrusted a Cheeez-It box in the air, and proceeded to disgorge its contents — a few pounds of craft glitter — all over Gingrich’s lactescent head. As polychromatic sparkles descended on the bewildered politician, the assailant hollered his message to onlookers: “Feel the rainbow, Newt! Stop the the hate! Stop anti-gay politics. It’s dividing our country, and it’s not fixing our economy!”
“Nice to live in a free country,” replied a clearly vexed Gingrich, tussling his hair.
With that, 25-year-old equal rights activist Nick Espinosa christened “glitter bombing,” a form of protest (political or otherwise) in which public figures are doused in a shimmering shower of copolymer plastics. In the nine months following the Gingrich incident, a rash of calculated “glitter attacks” — 21, to be precise — would take the political world by storm.
A month after Espinosa’s stunt, then-GOP candidate (and former Minnesota governor) Tim Pawlenty traveled to San Francisco to promote his memoir, “Courage to Stand.” Like Gingrich, the Republican had recently spoken out against gay marriage; he’d also vetoed a bill in favor of equal end-of-life rights for same-sex couples during his time as governor — a decision that didn’t sit well with social justice activists Nancy Mancias and Chelsea Byers.
“Tim Pawlenty, where is your courage to stand?” implored a swiftly approaching Macias. “Stand for reproductive rights! Stand for gay rights!” The startled politician reeled backward, but not quickly enough to elude the impending monsoon of pink glitter, confetti, and feathers.
Just two days later, at a RightOnline conference in Minneapolis, a disgruntled lawyer thrusted a container full of glitter at Michele Bachmann. The effort fell short — not a speck touched the presidential candidate — but the activist’s intent was made clear: “My response to Michele Bachmann’s hateful and anti-gay rhetoric was light-hearted,” she told reporters, “but these issues are very serious.”
On July 21, 2011, Bachmann was targeted again — this time through her husband, Marcus, the operator of a chain of clinics offering gay reparative therapy. “Barbarians need to be educated,” he’d stated, speaking of gay people, in 2010. “They need to be disciplined. Just because someone feels it or thinks it doesn’t mean that we are supposed to go down that road. That’s what is called the sinful nature.”
Storming into the Lake Elmo, Minnesota branch, a group a “glitter-wielding barbarians” proceeded to adorn the plain interior with a barrage of sparkles — all the while chanting “You can’t pray away the gay, baby, I was born this way!”
In the wake of this fourth siege, the media collective dubbed glitter bombers the “gliteratti.” The trend swelled in popularity, and was even referenced in the season three premiere of television show Glee. Nick Espinosa, the activist who’d started the trend by peppering Gingrich, became the revolution’s unofficial spokesman; in a Huff Post editorial, he clarified its intentions:
“I am not willing to sit back and watch the right wing systematically dehumanize and strip group after group of their rights….We are standing up against those who have dehumanized, divided and conquered. We are finding creative and fun ways to expose hatred and bigotry.
The strength of glitter is that humor is an incredibly powerful tool for communicating a message — even a deadly serious one. We use humor to give hope to ourselves and each other, while contrasting our approach with the hateful and cruel attacks on our communities.
As long as politicians continue [this trend], they can expect the sparkly showers to continue.”
And continue, they did:
A Complete Timeline of “Glitter Bombings”
Once an isolated phenomenon, glitter bombing quickly rose as a relatively harmless way for activists to express their anger.
On October 7, Karl Rove (a Republican policy advisor), and Congressman Erik Paulsen were glitter bombed at unrelated events, again, in Minnesota. While Paulsen was properly plastered, Rove’s assailant, Ben Egerman, missed his mark after being thwarted by personnel. “Trust me — I know how to get glitter on someone,” he later wrote, “but when you’re getting accosted by a burly security guard, things are a bit more difficult.” Egerman later elucidated on his motives:
“Because of the hateful rhetoric of people like Erik Paulsen, I was subjected to “reparative” therapy as a teenager. It’s this sort of twisted belief and hateful language that motivates families across the country to push loved ones into harmful treatment, endangering their vitality and emotional stability in the process.”
Activists were just getting started, and media pundit Dan Savage was next on the list. Savage, a gay syndicated columnist and founder of the It Gets Better Project, had been labeled a “transphobe” and “rape apologist” by certain advocate groups. In a string of three incidents — two in November 2011, and one in January 2012 — he was bathed in sparkles. The second instance, which occurred during a speech at the University of California, Irvine, was a spectacle, as one witness recounts:
“Savage was in the middle of answering a question from a student who was wondering if her boyfriend was a freak because he watched porn featuring trans women. Savage suggested that her boyfriend was a freak, while freely using the terms “shemale” and “freaky tranny porn.” That is when two individuals ran up and threw glitter on him yelling ‘Transphobe!’ Someone from the MTV tech crew muttered ‘Oh, not again!’ Savage laughed it off and said that, being gay, he loves glitter.”
Some had it even worse: Rick Santorum, far and away the glitterati’s preferred victim, was glitter bombed five times over the course of two months — all during a nightmarish primary presidential campaign. After likening homosexuality to beastiality, the controversial Republican became a universally detested figure in the LGBT community; revenge, manifested in twinkly particles, was necessary.
The first Santorum strike, in South Carolina on January 21, was swift and direct: As the candidate wrapped up a speech on “building strong family values,” an Occupy Charleston protester shouted, “Except when you’re gay!” and catapulted him with a fistfull of glitter. This was repeated twice more within the week — once in Florida, then again in Missouri.
By the time Santorum was hit with a “blizzard of glitter” during a February 13 speech in Tacoma, Washington, the occurrence had been declared “predictable” by the media; just two days later, before a “packed house” at a Fargo, North Dakota Holiday Inn, he endured his worst glitter barrage yet. With the stoic yet pathetic rejoinder of a man who’d been pelted many times before, Santorum persevered.
Few figureheads were spared: In the first two months of 2012, Joe Lieberman, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney (twice), and, for some inexplicable reason, Lindsay Lohan were all glitter bombed. In all prior cases, the glitter aggressors had either been dismissed charge-free, or charged and then subsequently exonerated; toward the tail end of these “attacks,” authorities began taking things a little more seriously.
Mitt Romney was glittered for the first time on February 1, and laughed it off: “Oh I’ve got glitter in my hair,” he told his supporters, “but that’s not all that’s in my hair, I’ll tell you that — I glue it on every morning, whether I need to or not.” When hit a second time six days later, his reaction was entirely different.
Peter Smith, a 20-year-old student at the University of Colorado, Denver, had grown disillusioned with Romney’s stance on gay marriage. As the politician made his way around the room at the Colorado caucuses, Smith removed a jar of blue glitter (“there’s no color I’d rather see on a Republican,” he’d later joke) and hurled the contents toward the sidestepping Mormon. With “$1.75 of glitter,” Smith made national news for all the wrong reasons: He was bombarded by the Secret Service, arrested, and charged with “firing a missile” — a misdemeanor charge carrying a one-year jail sentence and a $1,000 fine. Though the charge was ultimately reduced to disturbing the peace (cleared through 24 hours of community service), the student lost his internship with the Senate Democrats and faced serious academic repercussions.
Glitter: Assault or Peaceful Protest?
Immediately following the very first glitter bombing in 2011, Newt Gingrich expressed his concerns in an email to The New York Times. “Glitter-bombing is clearly an assault, and it should be treated as such,” he wrote. “When someone reaches into a bag and throws something on you, how do you know if it is acid or something that stains permanently or something that can blind you?”
In a television interview, then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee agreed, emphatically adding that perpetrators “ought to be arrested.” As glitter incidents increased, Gingrich and fellow sufferer Rick Santorum reeled in fear: Both filed for increased Secret Service detail, specifically citing “Glitter bombing” as a premier concern.
Legally, aside from Romney-striker Peter Smith, no glitter bomber has ever been charged with a crime — but they easily could’ve been. A form of physical conduct, glitter bombing is not protected under the First Amendment; as criminal law blogger Zachary Mason writes, “One person throwing an object towards another person might implicate the civil and criminal charges of assault and battery.” Common law defines an assault it as an act with “intent to cause harmful or offensive contact…in which the other person is thereby put in such imminent apprehension.” Mason offers a potential explanation for the lack of charges:
“No aspiring Commander in Chief who might one day have to deal with ballistic missiles from North Korea would want to appear petty or emasculated by testifying at the criminal trial of a glitter-bomber.”
But is glitter bombing truly malicious? Is a product synonymous with fairies, princesses, and Christmas tree ornaments really capable of inflicting serious bodily harm?
Stephen Glasser, an optometrist with 30 years of experience in the business, seems to think so. “If [glitter] gets into the eyes, the best scenario is it can irritate, it can scratch,” he told The Hill. “Worst scenario is it can create a cut; as the person blinks, it moves the glitter across the eye and can actually scratch the cornea.” Glitter, Glasser adds, can also lead to serious respiratory issues if ingested. “If the person’s breathing in, glitter can be drawn up into the nose and into the sinuses and cause one hell of an infection that’s difficult to get rid of,” he speculates. “It’s an object that highly irritates the tissue.”
The “metallic, sharp-edged material,” he concludes, could be considered a weapon of assault. Karen Taurima, an emergency room nurse, agrees: Last holiday season alone, she treated five glitter-related eye injuries in a span of three days. “It’s weird I know,” she admits, “but an innocuous-looking [piece of glitter] can become pretty perilous if it gets in your eye and scratches the surface.”
Nick Espinosa, the “glitterati founder” who also once dumped a bag of pennies in Republican Tom Emmer’s lap, is quick to dismiss these opinions. “The fact that they hyperventilate over something as harmless as glitter tells me three things,” he says. “First, that we are being effective enough to worry them; second, that they are desperate to discredit us by labeling something as harmless as glitter violent; and third, that their views are heading toward extinction as a new generation shows its power.”
Luckily, none of this has been of much relevance: Most members of the glitterati seem to be plagued by inaccuracy. Out of 22 glitter bombings that took place over 2011-2012, only about 30% successfully got glitter on their target — the rest either fell short entirely, or were foiled by lionhearted servicemen. What’s more, aside from Lindsay Lohan, this “fabulous form of protest” hasn’t surfaced since the presidential primaries in 2012. Gingrich should feel safe looking over his shoulder.
Whether glitter bombing is merely a stupid trend or holds some sort of social significance, the protests haven’t seemed to alter the stances of their targets, most of whom continue to stand in solidarity against gay marriage. Though, as any activist should know, change takes time, patience, and, in this case, a lot of glitter.