Editors' Note: Guest blogger Alan L. Bounville is a full time graduate student studying theatre for social change at New York University and is one of the founding members of Queer Rising New York City, a direct action group fighting for queer equality.
I made decisions in my life these past couple of years that cost me a great deal. When I risked arrest multiple times this year, five of those times landing me in jail or held a vigil for full civil rights on the street that led to sleeping on the street that led to a water-only fast over 47 days straight combined, I've thought very little of these sacrifices. It's part of what I feel needs to be done now to bring awareness to the cause for LGBTQ equality. When I stayed up all night so many times (just like tonight) thinking about what action or series of direct actions I want to do next, I've thought, that's just part of what needs to be done too. And the close to $200,000 I've loaned from our government to complete two of the three degree programs I need to help put to better use my theatre art and political organizing skills for queer equality, that too is just what I have felt is part of what must happen now.
Since November, 2008, the month some in my family politically turned their back on me and voted against queer rights in Florida (Amendment 2 – you know, Florida’s version of Prop 8), or said they supported equality yet stood silent while that vote took place, I have been conflicted. I have been bewildered. I have learned over the past two years that such a simple act as my loved ones walking into a voting booth and checking a box to curtail civil rights CAN and DID have a massive impact on me and on our fight. I realized many in my family were not who I thought them to be. And the more time that passes that they don’t make steps to be better people, the bigger deal their vote or silence becomes.
So now, I don’t speak to many in my family. We don’t have a foundation on which to base a relationship.
Those who voted against my rights are the same as those bigoted leaders throughout history we all demonize. The Anita Bryant’s or the Maggie Gallagher’s or the Brian Brown’s of the past and present – that’s how I must view my family who voted against me if I am to fight oppression the same wherever I see it. And for those who stood by silent – well, as Desmond Tutu said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
The Loss of Family – That’s the Cost
Oppression against queer people is unique in that our families will often go to great lengths to keep the oppression we face away from their homes – they will ignore the pleas of their daughters and sons, their nieces and nephews, their grandchildren, and so forth – they will downplay the severity of the situation – they will remove themselves from any culpability, any connection between their simple vote against our rights, or silence and the inevitable fall out – more hate inflicted on our community. And for what? To maintain their status quo at the detriment to those they have known since birth.
And so, our families who shut us out pretend to live in a world where their action is not tied into the worst that is inflicted upon us, the ‘lesser’ in society they helped to shape from birth. This is always the case, yet we, the queer people who don’t have families where the whole unit also experiences the pangs of growing up queer in this land, have to move towards what can often be an isolated and lonely form of self-reliance. And we are forced to do what I am doing now, build our own families. As a matter of survival, we must.
It was within months of Amendment 2 passing in Florida that a more rapid public display of hate crimes against queer people started showing up in Orlando, the area where much of my family lives. Tires slashed on more than two dozen cars in the parking lot of Revolution, one of the queer bars I went to often during the latter part of the 20 years I lived in Florida. Anti-LGBT rhetoric wrote on an employee white board by TSA employees at an Orlando Airport. A transgender woman denied a job at McDonalds nonetheless! And for me, the most impacting, anti-LGBT hate speech spray pained on the outside of the LGBT center - a place that I found to be a home away from home long before Amendment 2 and still, figuratively to this day.
I remember going into The LGBT Center in Orlando (The Center for short) when I was going through a coming-out depression and talking to a counselor there for free - because I didn't have insurance at the time and didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone who wasn’t queer. I remember getting my HIV tests there at times when I didn't have health insurance as well. I remember going there for events and meeting new friends. I remember going there for their codependents anonymous meetings - a group that helped me stiffen my backbone and finally give myself the courage I needed to sell almost everything I owned, give away most of the rest, drain my miniscule 4013b savings and move away from Orlando to New York City so I could go back to school to study theatre for social change and learn first hand about direct action and civil disobedience from many engaged queer and allied activists who also make New York City home.
And – I remember what it felt like to use my first theatre for social change play, CHAINED TO FREEDOM, earlier this year (that I co-wrote with a dear friend, Russell Taylor) to do my small part to raise a few dollars for The Center. I remember what it felt like to sit and talk with the audience for over an hour after that performance - share with each other through tear filled eyes conversation about the energy that is unleashed when we permit ourselves to say: "I AM. SOMEBODY. AND I DESERVE. FULL EQUALITY. RIGHT HERE. RIGHT NOW. I DESERVE. FULL EQUALITY!"
My Holiday Wish
And though, this holiday season I hold to my pledge I took two years ago: to build family-style relationships with people who are willing to move through our differences, I have to say, it's tough. Half of my family is not ready to either come to terms with how, as time goes on their unwillingness to move from bigot to ally becomes a bigger issue - not a smaller one. And those who are silent in my family, don’t get it that their silence is the worst of all.
So, if there is a holiday wish I would ask for from a mythical creature this year, it would be for those I've known since birth, or have acquired through marriage along the way to begin to turn the corner and at very least agree never - ever again to vote against LGBTQ rights or if they already support us, to speak up when they see injustice against our people. Then, maybe we can start to build a relationship on equal ground. I may never get this holiday wish. But a boy can dream.
Why Else Does this Matter Now?
Because it is possible in Florida another discriminatory amendment may be added to the ballot in 2012 - a public referendum that, if passed, would reinstate the state’s nauseating 'gay adoption ban' – a law that, after 33 years in effect, was recently struck down as unconstitutional.
Unlike 2008, where I waited until a week before the election to reach out to family and urge them to vote against Amendment 2, this time, as soon as I learned of this news, I sent a bold warning sign to all in my family. I threatened them in an open email that if they so much as sign the petition to get this gay adoption ban reversal on the ballot - or worse, vote to reinstitute the ban, or if they, who say they are in support of LGBTQ rights are not a vocal ally taking their own action against this proposed discrimination -
- if they don't do as I ask and steer clear of this potential amendment vote - I will make their lives a living hell.
I threatened them in the only way I know has the potential to work at this point - with direct action and civil disobedience. And I know that makes me look crazy to them. But since they won't talk with me, I have no choice.
I threatened to chain myself to my parent's church alter. I threatened to break into my cousin, a schoolteacher's school and chain myself to her desk in her third grade classroom. I threatened to bring a bullhorn to my family's neighborhoods in the middle of the night and make sure all their neighbors know that 'bigots live here.' I threatened to break into my step-father's office and chain myself to his desk (which would actually accomplish two things - it would pressure him to not fuck with our equality anymore, sure, but it would also be his coming-out to all his co-workers that he has a gay step-son, something I have reason to believe he's never made public).
And I have threatened to keep taking non-violent direct action towards my family, knowing I could end up in jail for more than a night at a time this time. I have threatened to not fast - but engage in an all out hunger strike once incarcerated.
And as sensational as all that sounds - I don't want to do any of it. I would much rather those in my family see the potential for another anti-LGBT laws on the books in Florida in the same horrific light that I see it.
Tumbling Towards a Proactive Fight
So, fighting this way - reacting to more potential harm to our people - instead of acting on the offense - can be exhausting. But, to prevent more queer people from being hurt in my former home state, I'll do what it takes.
However, this fall I turned a very important corner as a fighter for queer rights. I started partaking in action that is part of a proactive fight - the fight for full civil rights for our people. When a group of us in New York City and across the nation started taking action to pressure our elected officials to introduce a bill that adds "sexual orientation and gender identity" to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, our community laughed at us. 'We're fighting Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal and for ENDA right now.' Many of them ignored us. Many of them told us it's not the right time. And some were heinous enough as to try and dissuade people from working with us, saying vile things on blogs and in public activist meetings, discrediting our sacrifice.
What is wrong with fighting for full civil rights? I've gone to jail for DADT repeal in Washington DC and for ENDA in The Castro. When is the right time for a full civil rights fight?
And since starting the sustained action efforts for getting us in the Civil Rights Act, I've been challenged by activists like Audrey Smith to dream bigger - why can't we fight for a Federal Constitutional Amendment?
What Is Impossible? And Now - How Do We Make the Impossible POSSIBLE?
Right now, I've decided to give my time and efforts to a group of visionaries who are asking those very questions - and not just asking - but finding answers through their action. Connecting Rainbows: Civil Rights Walks for America is to me, the only opportunity where people can gather virtually in our community and start sharing without any organizational curtailing of speech or action - where people can set up profiles, much like Facebook, upload action plans on event pages that relate to a full civil rights agenda and connect with others across the nation who are of like mind.
To conclude, here I am, just one out of work grad student, vacillating between a reactive strategy against my own family and a new, proactive approach to a full civil rights fight. The former drains me while the latter makes me feel like I’m not only in control of the movement, but gaining so much more spiritually by dreaming big. It’s exciting! It’s electric! It’s something no one can take from me.
And so, as much as my family would show they love me by stoping their crusade against my equality, duly helping curtail hate against us, and also allowing me to spend more of my time in the euphoric proactive movement state, I now am fully aware of what it means to sing, 'We shall overcome - someday.' To me, it means my fight is not on anyone else's timetable. It's not before the end of the year like we recently felt with DADT repeal. It's an endless wave of action that I start - well, the day I decide it's time to start. So, I’ll keep tumbling towards playing offense more often. It’s time everyone else plays defense to us!
Will you join me and fight for full civil rights now? Will you help create the people's movement and over time force the lobbying groups and all others to fall in line with what the people want? We don't want one piece of legislation at a time. We don't want to burn out on reactive fights. We what to launch sustained direct action efforts that are founded on a full civil rights platform and don't end until massive systems of oppression are cracked open and reshaped with us then written into such systems as equals.
And one step further as we move from here – what would it look like if we found a target - let's say, a small business that is anti-LGBTQ in a small town or a town/city full of haters – maybe the most oppressed place for queer people in the USA, and raise funds to launch a team into that community (of course being invited in first by local LGBTQ people) to start taking action against the leaders of that business, their human resources office, the government in that city that condones such discrimination, whatever, until that business crumbles to our demands? What if while we are doing this - and who knows how long it would take - it could be a week, a month a year or longer - what if we use that as one of our lunch counter moments to dramatize not just a small business' discriminatory practices, but the bigger picture - the problem with us not being full and equal citizens in our own land.
What if we started raising funds for this purpose? Basic food and shelter costs - that's all, for a group to take the risks we know are required to create the glacial shifts in both social thought and legislative action we need. If it is not a business we target with sustained action, maybe it’s a small-town or city government municipality that denies us equal access.
Because – I don't know about you, but I don't want to continue the incremental approach that will take decades more before my family will 'get it.' I want to speed this baby up! Let's launch sustained, proactive actions now so that in a short time we can shift society to a place where not only are the masses and the laws on our side - but if someone were so much as to utter, 'That's so gay' in a school - everyone would turn their head in shock, just like they would do now if people were to say, 'That's so black' or 'That's so woman' or 'That's so Asian' in a way that would paint those groups as lesser-than.
Join me – see the dream – FEEL the dream – fight for the dream!