Just a few weeks into this walk and I've already realized that people's questions about what I'm doing can mean different things. In places like during Olympia Pride, I felt proud of what I am doing. Each person who came up to me after the parade was so happy to see me there. The support was overwhelming. In remote places like coastal Washington, where I am alone, it isn't clear who is an ally and who could be a foe. So when someone asks me about the signs on Equality Cart in a place where I may well be the only queer or allied person around, my guard definitely goes up. Yet at the same time, I'm thrilled people pause to ask me about this project. At my core I know talking with people on an average day is one of the best ways to humanize the subject of equality based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
Attempting to cover my discomfort with an air of confidence, I answered the customer in the general store. "I'm walking for gender and sexual orientation equality. You know, like equality for transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay people." This response would become the standard one-liner I would use from here forward. It was succinct, straightforward, and opened the conversation with gender and transgender folks first (something I believe we in the TBLG movement need to do as a standard practice). I explained how queer or perceived queer folks are targeted with violence most often because of a visible characteristic - dressing in a way that the majority of society would type as outside their expectation of how people 'should' dress - boys wearing dresses, girls having short hair, etc. I kept it simple like that, still not sure where this conversation would take us.
The customer and the grocer respectfully listened to me and without delay, the customer said, "Well, you came to the right place."
"Why's that?" I said.
He pointed to the local 8-page newspaper stacked at the front of the store saying, "Pick up a copy of our paper over there. In it you'll see a letter to the editor. It's about a young man who grew up here. He recently killed himself."
The grocer shared that the victim, Joey Harris, had moved to Portland a while back. "The article talks about how he was bullied here at his school, and even after he graduated when he came back to the area to visit."
While the grocer was finishing ringing me up, I grabbed a copy of the paper, thumbed through it and found the story.
"Does his family still live in the area?"
"Yeah. Actually just a few miles down the road. His dad, Mike, works at the gym on the reservation," said the customer.
"Great. Thanks. I'm headed that way. Maybe I'll walk in and see if he's there."
"$7.27," said the grocer. I paid and thanked the two men for talking with me. And off I went.
The Harris family lives on the Shoalwater Bay Tribal lands. It is a picturesque tract of land sculpted on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Heading inland, verdant grasslands and pine forests abound.
I walked with Equality Cart into the Recreation & Fitness Center and saw a couple of young men playing a game of half court basketball. I waited for a break in their game before asking them, "Excuse me. Is Mike Harris here?" One of the men answered. "He stepped out for a while. But he should be back soon. Can I help you with something?" "Do you know how long he'll be gone?"
I was thinking through the logistics of the rest of the evening.
1. Meet Joey's parents.
2. Ask if there is a place I can do a vigil.
3. Leave the Harris family and like most every night at this point in the journey, find a place to sleep before it gets too late.
"He should be back in about thirty minutes."
I explained in brief why I was there and sat patiently off to the side waiting for Mike to return. During my wait, the man speaking with me invited me to use their shower and freshen up, an invitation I gladly accepted. About a half hour later Mike walked into the gym. "Here's Mike now," the man said.
I approached Mike introducing myself. "Hello. Mr. Harris?
"How can I help you?"
"My name is Alan Bounville. I know this is going to probably sound odd, but I'm walking across the country for people like Joey. I'm walking for transgender, bisexual, lesbian, and gay equality. I was down the street just north of here at a grocery store and folks there shared a bit of Joey's story with me. While I walk I hold vigils for people who have died because of other's hate of them - hate based on the victim's perceived or actual gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. I'd like to know if there is a place of significance around here where I might hold a vigil today for Joey."
"Well, you walked right by the cemetery where Joey is buried."
"Oh. I didn't realize. That would work just fine. I know this may seem sudden, but since I'm walking and just hearing about your loss now, um, I'm not sure if you and any of your family or anyone else would want to join me. If not I totally understand."
"Here, give me a minute. I'm going to call my wife, Joey's mom. I want you to meet her."
Mike called Sabina on his cell and asked her to come down to the gym to meet me. He finished the call and turned back to me. "She'll be right down from the house. You probably walked right by our house too on the way over here."
A few minutes later Sabina walked into the gym. This isn't the first time I've looked a mother in the eyes who has lost her child due to suicide. It was my junior of college when it happened the first time.
I was sound asleep when the ridiculously loud phone on my dorm room wall began to ring. I immediately sat up, looking at my alarm clock. 'Who the hell would call my room at 3 AM?' As I stumbled across the room, over all of my roommates crap, I thought maybe the call is for the constantly eructating, sloth of a human being sound asleep on the other side of the room. I fucking hated dorm life!
"Hello." I couldn't have been prepared for what greeted me on the other end of the phone. My mother was in hysterics. I could hear my sister crying in the background. They both mumbled something about my cousin Michael. ?"It's Michael," my mom said through their collective gasps for breath.
"What's wrong Mom?"
"He's dead. He shot himself."
Through sobs my sister added, "Not too long ago he asked for a picture of the kids. I never sent it. I feel so-"
I tried consoling her from my growing state of shock, "I know. It's not your fault."
Within two days the whole family convened on a frigid February weekday in central Massachusetts to lay one of our own to rest. After the funeral, my aunt who just lost her only child, came up to me and hugged me saying, "You've always reminded me of Michael." Sorrow surged through my 20-year-old body. The incalculable pain my aunt was experiencing was beyond my understanding. All I could do was hug her tighter. Nothing could bring back her son, my cousin.
The same goes for Sabina and Mike Harris. Nothing could bring back their child. All that's left is grieving Joey's loss and celebrating Joey's life. Shortly after Sabina arrived, the three of us were walking away from the gymnasium. Within just a few minutes we arrived at bouquets of wilting flowers surrounding Joey's freshly packed grave. Joey's life ended on May 30, 2011. I started walking on May 31, 2011.
I did in fact walk right by the small cemetery as I made my way to meet Mike at the gymnasium. As we sat by the grave, I set up my video camera to document the vigil and placed my vigil candle right by the gravesite. At this point, my nerves were wracked. Typically I say whatever flies out of my mouth, sometimes to my own detriment. But here, in this hallowed place, I wanted to be nothing but respectful. The very last thing I wanted to do was to cause any additional harm to these loving parents who just lost their 23-year-old child.
I lit the candle as we sat silently in remembrance of Joey. After our silence, I tried to assure Mike and Sabina that people like Joey are heroes. Joey expressed Joey's gender in the way that best suited Joey, not in the way that would please hegemonic forces. In the native language of the Shoalwater people, Yíl?n ? ?n, pronounced yee-lah uhn, means help someone or give help. Joey lived according to Yíl?n ? ?n by simply being authentically Joey. Through this authentic expression of self, Joey surely helped others live more honest lives themselves.
Towards the end of the vigil we kept hearing sporadic pops of fireworks going off in the background. Right down the street was a fireworks stand where folks were apparently testing the merchandise. At the conclusion of our intimate gathering, as if on cue, a flurry of fireworks burst all at once. At the height of the cacophony, Sabina shared, "That could not be more appropriate. Fourth of July is Joey's favorite season." Through welling tears, the three of us laughed. Joey's fabulous spirit was most certainly there with us.
I thanked Sabina and Mike for their time and shared that I would be uploading the video of the vigil soon, "So more people will become aware of Joey's story."
As we left the cemetery Sabina asked, "Have you eaten dinner?"
"I was going to eat some food I bought before I met up with you all."
"We live right down the road. Why don't you come over and we'll make you something to eat."
"Thank you. That would be great."
"And you'll get to meet Joey's sister, Daynah. She'll be at the house."
I parked Equality Cart outside of their house as we walked in to meet Daynah and her boyfriend, now husband, Wes, who was holding an adorable newborn kitten. I love animals! Sabina made the introductions. "This is Alan. He's walking across the country for gay and gender rights."
"Oh yeah," said Daynah. "You were at the Olympia Pride parade, right?"
"Yeah. They had me lead off the parade. It was intense."
"I know. I was there. That was right after Joey passed. I remember when they announced why you are walking I started to cry and thought, 'Joey, if you could have just held on a bit longer. People are doing things to help. Things are changing.'"
An essence unlike anything I've ever experienced came over me in this moment. It was a feeling - actually more like an energy - that I can only describe as spiritual. This walk is so much bigger than me.
We sat in the living room as we ate and got to know each other. And at Mike's urging we watched the documentary, Two Spirits. "Joey was two spirited. That's what he was. Male and female. Have you seen this film?" I had not.
The film explores various indigenous North America nation's definitions of gender and the modern-day creation of the term 'two spirit' by these nations. To many, gender, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are seen as more fluid than the colonial definitions of these terms. Two spirit can also refer to people who are transgender or transsexual. And a two spirit identity has an honored place in many indigenous nations. Still, different indigenous nations define gender concepts somewhat differently. So, two spirit is the agreed upon term to encompass the whole of the meaning to those inside and outside of these cultures.
I sat on the couch next to Sabina during the film. After everything that had transpired in the past few hours, it was difficult to watch the more tragic parts of the film, especially the story of Fred Martinez, a Navajo youth who was murdered because of a two spirit nature. In the film, Fred's mother shares Fred's story in painful detail. Fred's murderer, a young man, was so proud of his crime, that he told people after the murder that he "bug-smashed a fag." What the murderer actually did was repeatedly smash Fred's head with a large rock under the cover of night.
While we watched Fred's mother on the TV share these horrific details, Sabina looked to me. "Joey used to get cans thrown at him when he walked down the street. He was constantly harassed at school. But then he went to the Folsom Festival in San Francisco. Have you heard of that?"
"Oh yes. I have."
"He went. He loved it. I have a photo of Joey from there. He absolutely loved it. All the men in leather. He was so happy. He studied theatre in New York. He moved to Portland. He realized there were places where he could be accepted. But it wasn't enough."
The film ended and we talked some more about Joey, the Shoalwater Tribe, and my walk. Suddenly, Sabina starting walking out of the living room.
"There's a couple of things I think you should have."
A minute later she returned with a sandwich bag filled with change and a necklace with black, silver, and pearl-colored dangles on it.
"I've been carrying this bag of change around for some time. I've thought, 'I should do something with this.' So here, I'm sure it will come in useful."
The bag had probably $20 in it. "Thank you! It will go to good use. I assure you."
As it turns out, the bag went to great use. I used it as my change bag all the way until I got through most of Texas. When I was walking through the Houston area, I took a bus up to Dallas to perform When People Lead, my interview theatre play that shares the stories of queer rights activists.
While I was waiting for my host in the parking lot across from the Dallas bus station, a man approached me and asked for some help. He said he needed to buy a bus ticket to go visit his ailing mother who lived out of state. Ever since 2008 when the economy crashed and I lost the two properties my boyfriend-at-the-time and I bought, I decided I would rather invest my money with the person asking for it on the street than with Bank of America or all of the other assholes who fucked up our economy with debilitating deregulation that only benefited the elite class.
"I'm not lying to you. I need to get to my mother-"
"I could care less if you are lying. You say you need money. Here, wait a second." I rummaged through my tubs and found the bag of change, which at this point had maybe $5 or $10 dollars in it. "This bag of change is very special. It comes from a mother in Washington State who lost her child due to hate. I've walked with it almost three thousand miles. Money has gone in it. Money has come out of it. And now it's yours." I tried explaining further what I meant, but he didn't seem to get it. I handed him the bag, for which he thanked me as he began to walk away.
After handing me the bag of change, Sabina placed in my hands the necklace. "You should have this too. This was one of Joey's necklaces."
"Oh, I don't know-"
"Really. You can carry it with you. Or send it back home if it becomes too much weight."
The weight of the necklace was not at all my concern. Such an offering meant I now had a huge responsibility. What if I lost it? What if it broke? I couldn't stand the thought. And I know me - I lose things - things that matter. Once, I lost my grandmother's ring that was given to me after she died. Seriously, I can't be trusted with mementos. But this walk is about confronting fears of all kinds. And with that thought, I accepted the necklace and immediately put it in my pocket.
I glanced out the window and saw that the long, late-spring day was coming to an end. "I hate to cut this visit short, but I need to walk a few more miles today before setting up camp."
"You can set your tent up down at the gym if you want," Mike offered. Under normal conditions I would have jumped at the offer. What I wasn't sharing with the Harris family was that this evening had impacted me beyond my own understanding at the time. I literally needed to walk through what I was experiencing.
"Thanks. I have a long haul before the next town I get to - Raymond. If I get more walking in tonight I'll get there by the end of tomorrow." That part was true. Raymond was a bit over 20 miles from here. I then asked them for directions back to State Route 105.
"We'll walk with you over there," Mike said.
As we headed out I realized, "Today is the first time on this journey anyone has walked with me."
As we made our way towards 105, I felt blessed by the gift this day had given me - a profound connection with these folks, people who unconditionally loved their child. And then I felt anger. It was our society that took Joey from them. Our society that hates what it doesn't understand. Our society that stays quiet when it should be shouting for justice!
Before I knew it, we were at 105. I turned and looked at Sabina and Mike. "I hate that I met you all, truly wonderful people, because of your loss. But I'm so glad I did. Thank you, for everything." I took Joey's necklace from my pocket and put it around my neck. I'll carry Joey's spirit with me every step from here forward. We'll be like two spirits walking side by side."
We said our goodbyes and down 105 I went. Mike and Sabina stood for a while watching me walk east towards Raymond. I looked back before rounding the corner that would remove the Harris' from my sight for good, waved to them, and watched them begin their walk back home.
The sun was setting high on the horizon behind me. Darkness was soon going to consume the landscape. And the moon had not yet risen. 'Oh shit,' I thought. Walking after dark is never a good idea. Fortunately, the road seemed abandoned at this hour. About twenty minutes after the sun officially set I was walking not 'into the light' - but into the night! My eyes strained to see the now faint painted lines on the road. Around my neck, Joey's necklace swayed back and forth like a pendulum reminding me of the constant passage of time.
Time was no longer for Joey. But time was all I had out here as I walked these seemingly endless days. A couple of miles into walking away from the Harris home, the moon, just past full, began its accent over the eastern horizon. Finally, some light! But the steady flow of clouds wafting in off of the Pacific Ocean diffused the moon's guiding light. I walked only a mile or so longer before giving up. I pushed Equality Cart into some tall grass just off of the road to my right and, aided by my battery-powered lantern, set up my tent. 'I really need to get a headlamp. Screw that - I really need to stop walking when the sun sets!'
I completed my now rote nightly ritual by loading my gear and Equality Cart into the four-person tent, evacuating my bladder, and brushing my teeth. I completed the ritual by crawling into the tent to set up my sleeping bag, undress, and stretch out my aching body, all the while being concerned about my proximity to the road. I hoped I was far enough away from it. If a vehicle veers off of the road towards me or if the serial killer finds me, that's it. I'm gone. "Stop." I knew thinking such dramatic thoughts only made this situation worse.
I slid into my sleeping bag and zipped it up as I rolled back and forth to try and tamp down the grass beneath my tent. I eventually just gave up. Exhaustion began to take over my body. Succumbing to my reality, I reached out and held on to Joey's necklace, still hanging around my neck. The enormity of the day's events washed over me. I thought about Joey, a beautiful person I've learned so much about tonight, but whom I'll never be able to meet. I thought about Joey's loving family. I wondered who was being impacted more by me peregrinating across the continent - others or myself? I held tighter to the necklace. And with tear-filled eyes, I slowly fell asleep.
Note: I did in fact temporarily misplace Joey's necklace at a hotel a short while after Sabina entrusted it to me. I am eternally grateful to my friend Ben Strothmann and the hotel staff for mailing the necklace to a safe place out of my reach until I am in a permanent home back in New York City. At that time, I plan on displaying the necklace in a place of honor in my home.