Monday, October 24, 2011

On Hate and Progress

The state of Michigan has many things to offer (lakes that are great, cider mills, Bell's, etc.), but progressive politics is not one of them. There are currently FOUR bills that have been taken up by the Michigan House or Senate aimed at taking away rights and protections for LGBTQ people. A quick overview:

1) A bill to ban public/state employers from offering health care benefits to domestic/same-sex partners of their employees has passed the House and will move to the Senate soon. It will likely pass, and Governor Snyder has already pledged to sign it.

2) A Rep from my hometown introduced House Bill 5039, which would void local ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

3) Both the House and Senate have introduced their own bills to allow counseling students to deny assistance to clients if they feel that treating them would violate their religious freedom--meaning, of course, they can leave the gays out in the cold with no repurcussions, despite their obligations under the ethical codes of every counseling profession.

4) A bullying bill is on the Senate floor--which is better than nothing, but includes no protected categories (including sexual orientation and gender identity) or reporting requirements.

Needless to say, it's a scary time to be gay in Michigan. These bills are based on and justified by hate and bias--our families are not families, and our rights are liabilities. In an attempt to fight this onslaught, my friend Laura and I decided to go beyond the usual letters and phone calls and set up meetings with two legislators (or rather, their staffers) in Lansing on Friday. I was super pumped to make it rain rainbows all over that town, but once we were actually at the table, I offered nothing but word vomit. I stupidly underestimated how emotional I would be. There was no organization to my thoughts--only desperation and personal anecdotes. Luckily, Laura was much more able to lock it up and present a reasoned argument, and we both left feeling like the trip was worthwhile.

The lesson in all of this for me is one that I've heard many times and will need to hear again and again: It is difficult to set aside anger for the sake of a constructive conversation, but it is the only path to progress. My younger sister Steph seems to have taken this to heart far earlier in life than I've been able to. She recently spoke at the Day of Reflection, an event on the U of M diag with the purpose of showcasing and networking students working for social change. We can all learn from her words, which I've shared below. I have found renewed inspiration for this work through my experiences on Friday and through her example.

I’m gay. Like, really gay. But I’m not here to tell you my coming out story because quite frankly, I’m privileged in that it’s boring and uninspiring. I told my dad and he gave me a warped version of a sex talk to ensure that I understood that even though I couldn’t get pregnant, I was still too young to be having sex at 18 years old. Noted.

And as passionate as I am about rainbows, Necto, toolbelts and coming up with witty signs at marriage equality rallies, my heart belongs to Kenya. I’ve made the trek to Kenya two times and seen my fair share of mudhut shacks, bloated bellies, ethnic violence, drought-ridden farms and positive HIV tests. But the pictures hanging on my wall have no evidence of that – come into my room and you’ll see Katana, my 9 year-old host brother climbing a tree at dusk. You’ll see his sister Pendo rockin’ my lime green shades while she carries around the family’s baby goat. You’ll see Ruth and Yvonne, two students in the writing workshop I facilitated, doing the chicken dance with me. And you’ll see me hugging Anthony, my host father, during our tearful goodbye.

This is the same Anthony that told me he couldn’t vote for Kenya’s constitutional referendum because it had a clause in it allowing homosexual marriage. The same Anthony that responded to my challenging his statement with “Well, it’s just unnatural and God made man and woman for a reason, it’s gross”.  Up until this point, I’d done a great job avoiding the subject. I had begrudgingly removed my rainbow PRIDE wristbands and left my plaid shorts in the comfort of Ann Arbor’s acceptance. I regrettably refrained from disclosing my identity out of a legitimate fear for my life.

How could I even begin to reconcile the fact that I’d flown across the world, depleted my savings and sacrificed a summer to work for people that would want me dead if they found out who I loved? How did I expect to be a voice for the voiceless when I found myself silenced by the very people I hoped to help?

Ubuntu. A simple word to describe an exhaustingly complex answer. I am because we are. A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for she has a self assurance that comes from knowing that she belongs to a greater whole and is diminished when others are diminished, when others are oppressed.

When I’m on this Diag working for the ONE Campaign, asking for signatures to pressure US administration to give smarter, more efficient and effective aid to Africa, I hear “there are enough problems here in the US, why should we waste our time helping people across the world?” I used to get frustrated by this perspective and resort to spewing off a list of talking points about our national security, global economy and human morality. But many years and frequent flier miles later I understand what this all boils down to. Why Anthony thinks homosexuality is disgusting and why Americans think Africans are helpless – a lack of connectedness. If I’ve learned one thing through my efforts it’s that we are all connected on more levels than we could ever imagine.

I spent the majority of my time in Kenya facilitating writing workshops in secondary schools. We asked the students to write about themselves – love, loss, friendship and dreams. Once they got over the shock that someone actually cared about what they had to say, let me just say shit got real. One girl wrote about the death of her mother. As I sat there trying to capture the moment on my flipcam, I lost it. My mother passed away when I was 12 and after the session, I sat with the girl and we talked about our cycles of grief. In ten years, I hadn’t had such a valuable conversation about loss as I did that day with Patra. I came to Kenya and learned more about my identity as a gay woman and as a motherless daughter than I did in three years in IGR dialogues at Michigan.

The students poured their hearts out to a point that my partner and I decided their stories could not fall on deaf ears. This was big. Skipping ahead to the ending, a publisher in Florida just finished printing hundreds of copies of Till Human Voices Wake Us, named after a T.S. Elliot poem, an anthology of all these students’ stories. The philosophy and passion we put into editing and compiling the book is the same that allowed me to sleep under the same roof as Anthony after he spewed such blatant hatred towards my community. We are all human, we all have a story and we cannot expect others to understand unless we share. Just as Americans cannot be expected to understand the potential and the hope spread all over the African continent, Africans cannot be expected to understand the LGBT community if none of us are brave enough to tell them our story.

There are literally oceans between us, but if none of us take a risk and do SOMETHING, ANYTHING, those oceans lay dormant. The water may seem calm and peaceful, and who can blame us for wanting to keep it that way. But calm and peaceful doesn’t lead to progress. We face this great divide – between the East and West, developed and developing, gay and straight. Only when we stir things up by talking about identity, challenging hate speech and making sure we don’t go to sleep at the end of the day without having learned something, those oceans start to move. Sure, there will be conflict and it will be uncomfortable. But as we open ourselves to others, those waters rise and we begin to conquer the divide between us. It may sound silly, but I learned a lot from Hanson, yes the mm bop band, when I met them two years ago. One of their lyrics says “I find hope in your hate for me.”

Seems crazy, but it is real. If we can work a little harder to find hope in hate, to see it as an opportunity for growth and progress, then we will move forward. Hate exists all around us but it doesn’t exist alone. For those that choose to challenge it, it’s coupled with hope.

I found hope in someone’s hate for me. My being silenced by my Kenyan family allowed me to better understand the value of giving a voice to the voiceless. Empowering students in Kenya to share their stories will create a ripple effect of understanding, of dialogue and of massive change. I know that. And how could I let someone’s hate stand in the way of such a hopeful possibility? So, members of the Generation Found, I promise you that progress will come when we stand up to hate with compassion and courage. When we believe in the power of stories and when we see the impact to be made by simply sharing our own. Thank you and GO BLUE!


  1. Gaaaah! Just went I think you can't post anything more heartfelt and profound- YOU DO! Your sister rocks and so do you. xoxo.

  2. Those are some powerful words!