26 August 2011

The Most Incredible Journey

Last week, I took a trip down to Memphis, Tennessee, right in the heart of what we northerners might call the "Bible Belt."

Why would I, an out gay man, take such a trip? Well, for starters, I wasn't alone. Over 90 individuals representing 26 different states in the USA, as well as the District of Columbia, ventured to Memphis for a life-changing journey in order to undergo training in nonviolent civil disobedience so that would would be enabled and empowered to take direct action and raise both the stakes and the spectrum of the fight for equality for all but especially of us LGBTQ folk. The trip and training were sponsored by GetEQUAL, a queer-rights activist group.

To be completely honest, I went on the trip for some pretty selfish reasons: I wanted to get away for a few days; I hadn't gone on any sort of trip other than for family matters in nearly a decade; I wanted to see the National Civil Rights Museum and determine how much import they'd given to Bayard Rustin, who has mostly been ignored by the Black civil rights movement because he was gay; and last but not least, I did think I could learn a few things and catch a glimpse of some eye candy.

I also had some pretty certain expectations as to what would happen while I was down there: I would be quite a bit bored; I wouldn't be able to wake up in time to attend all the workshops; I would be chastised and castigated for being a Republican in a mostly Democrat-leaning LGBTQ population; I would make a couple of new contacts; and perhaps I would make a new friend or two.

Looking back on what took place last week and finally being able to process a large amount of the past week, as well as having some conversations online with some of the folks I'd met down in Memphis, I'm left both ashamed and blown away by what took place.

With each new step I’ve been taking over the past few years, I’ve managed to meet and become engaged with some truly wonderful, loving, caring, and astounding individuals. This past week was no exception; in fact, if anything, I’ve connected with more such individuals than I ever had done before.

Perhaps I’m just getting older, perhaps my medications are working better, or perhaps I was just excited and knew that everyone attending this insanely information-packed training was there for one purpose: coming together to fight for equality but I found it much easier to speak with individuals in-person at this event that ever before in my life. Ideas were flowing, synergies were colliding, and information was spouting across every sphere of influence.

Yes, there was some eye candy there. But my interest in forming relationships with most of the individuals with whom I met in Memphis go far beyond having someone nice to look at and speak with. There were deep, deep bonds that were made, sometimes across chasms of pain, and it wasn't with just a few individuals. Rather, an amazing, astounding, and perhaps overwhelming number of friendships were forged out of this coalescence, which was the brainchild of a very remarkable woman and her team of cohorts.

Perhaps it was because I saw this as a business trip of sorts that I experienced such little social anxiety in such a large group but I was able to get to know and form a deep friendship with maybe half of the queer-rights activists attending the training. Of that half, there are a few men I'd like to get to know better and explore, over a very long period of time of course, whether or not there's any potential to be more than great friends. But that's secondary to what really happened down there.

The trip to Memphis exceeded my expectations at every level. I was not castigated and shunned for being a Republican; in fact, I was almost embraced. Instead of not being able to wake up in time for the workshops, I actually had difficulty going to sleep. I would estimate I managed to get in a total of 7.5 hours of sleep over the course of five days, and I believe that it was due to the tremendous amount of positive energy that everyone brought to the training. The divisiveness that usually is present when large groups of LGBTQ folk get together wasn't there; we were a coalition united around a certain truth: Equality For All is a fundamental right whose time is long overdue and we demand its immediate implementation.

I didn't make just a few connections and one or two new friendships. I connected with almost every single one of the other individuals present at the training, and formed deep bonds of friendship (or the beginnings thereof) with nearly half of them.

I was already familiar with a good deal of the information presented in many of the workshops held over the course of the 4-day training session; however, I did learn and much of the information that was presented, while I might have known it, had sunken to the deep recesses of my memory, so it was good that they were brought to the fore of my mind. It truly was a staggering amount of information that was presented; think of it as an intensive course -- you know, the type you take in college where you sit for a class six Saturdays out in a row and get a full semester's worth of classes in such a short time-span. So I wasn't bored out of my mind, either.

I am still in awe of what took place last week, and owe a great deal of debt and gratitude to Robin McGeHee, GetEQUAL's director, and her cohorts Heather Cronk (GetEQUAL's Managing Director), Dan Fotou, Jase Watson, and countless others whose dedication and hard work helped make the training the raving success it turned out to be.

I didn’t realize the true intent of Robin’s organizational symphony until very late Friday night (around 11pm). Earlier in the evening, Robin spoke about how she wasn’t bringing us all together to form a new organization. She said some other things, and all of a sudden, New York’s recent triomphe of marriage equality popped into my head. I couldn’t get it out of my head so I started playing with it a bit, poking and prodding here and there. I soon discovered some similarities between how marriage equality was actualized in New York and what Robin was doing, and it came down to one sentiment: coalition-building.

Instead of telling folks that she was attempting or wanted to build a coalition, she built it. Instead of asking folks to come together to fight for a common cause, she brought them together. Instead of worrying about “process” and “procedure,” she worried about “content” and “logistics.”

In short, Robin got an idea in her head and set out to effectuate its realization. And in doing so, she gathered together a truly wondrous group of 90 or so individuals into a coalescence of ideas, information, thoughts, energies, synergies, and actions. I would feel the love, the togetherness, and the oneness in the room as we progressed throughout each day, each presentation, and each training exercise and it renewed me. It energized me, and it filled me with impetus to take action.

So much so was the strength of this impetus to take action that I began planning a direction action event--a flashmob--to occur in the midst of our training: GetEQUAL activists planned to protest Urban Outfitter’s discriminatory and unequal treatment of its LGBTQ employees, such as not giving or even offering health benefits to LGBTQ employees’ partners or spouses. And that’s something that was not included on the agenda; it’s something that was organized and put into effect in less than 24 hours. It’s something that spoke directly to the training we were receiving this weekend. In essence, it was our “final exam” for the class. (The protest didn't take place due to logistical difficulties; many of the participants had to leave early to return to their homes and thus we were left with an insufficient number of participants to make the prosecution of the planned flash mob worth it.)

My life will forever be changed as a result of attending this training. And, I have a better idea of why I was made to go through all that I have endured in life, especially during the past ten years or so. For that, I owe Robin a universe of gratitude, admiration, and love.

To give you an idea as to the caliber of individual I've bonded with, in response to some of the blog posts that many of you have read right here, chronicling the my life over the past decade, as well as my own story as to why It Gets Better, I received this comment:

What impresses me so much about what you have shared is that through all the ugliness you are so sweet and giving of yourself. You have a basic kindness about you that I find so beautiful. 
A lot of people in your circumstance could be bitter or paralyzed with devastation. But instead, every interaction I have had with you has been with a brilliant, kind, caring person. 
And that is pretty effing remarkable.

That an individual could not only recognize this about me in the short period of time we've known each other but feel a need to vocalize their feelings about it to me, well, it leaves me speechless, humbled, and with a renewed determination and passion to fight on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves, so that we may some day look back on this and scratch our heads and wonder just what the heck all the fuss was about.

And so it is with profound and great love, gratitude, and the deepest respect for my new friends that I write and dedicate this post to them, the Memphis 90+, for I believe we will be seeing great things coming from this historic gathering of individuals who created, and will continue to make, history.