My Renewed Commitment to Working for Change

Two events are occurring today that motivate me to write this.

First, I read John Boehner’s announcement that he will not allow a vote in the House of Representatives on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act–legislation that would protect people in the queer community–because “the Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs.” Second, tonight is my volunteer shift at the GLBT National Help Center. I talk with people from across the country who call or chat me anonymously for support as they navigate our societal issues around sexual orientation. For many, it is the first time they have found the courage to tell anyone who they are because it is such a huge risk in the context of their lives.

It is precisely because of the threat countless people face that I am motivated to be there for those who reach out. I am grateful that I am employed at a place where I have never once had to ponder risking my livelihood for being the B in LGBT. And I recommit myself to working for that same right for all of us.

The Heroic Work of Saving an Unpopular Life

My brother in court standing beside the prisoner (photo by a newspaper photographer)

In 1993, a mentally ill man murdered four people. Since his conviction in 1996, he has been on death row.

His legal journey is once again in the news. While many people across the nation are clamoring for his days on this earth to end, 17 years later he is still alive due to the efforts of a group of people committed to commuting his death sentence to life in prison without parole. Two of these people are attorneys on his legal team, my brother and my brother-in-law.

Each day that this prisoner has awakened to take another breath is the direct result of their battling against an entire culture focused on vengeance and sanctioned killing. When I contemplate the world’s heroes, these two are among them. I am honored beyond words to be in their family.

UPDATE:  The prisoner has been given a reprieve by the government.

What I Do for Two Hours Each Week

She is 18, from the South, and a Christian. And she’s a lesbian who has never told anyone that before. By the end of our online chat, she has a contact for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender center at the university that she’ll attend this fall. She tells me she had heard such welcoming places existed, but never had come across anything like that. She thanks me before we disconnect. We have not met and never will—our entire relationship lasts 33 minutes.

For two hours each week, I talk to people who reach out to peer-counseling volunteers like me at the GLBT National Help Center. Some come through online chat, and others call on the phone. I can’t tell who they are, what their phone number is, or where they are chatting from. Their anonymity is the essential component of what makes it safe for them to tell me who they are and how they are navigating their world. Sometimes I just listen. I am often the first person they have ever told about feelings that vary from the dominant heterosexual culture, after painful years of struggling with silence.

In my own life, I am fortunate to be loved and accepted as the B in LGBT, and it’s important to use that privilege to extend an anonymous hand to these people from all over the country. All of them are amazingly courageous people across the spectrum of ages, backgrounds, and gender identities. I am honored that they trust me to bare their most vulnerable selves, and my commitment to them is to hear their truth, listen with an open heart, and help them feel empowered to begin to let go of shame and fear—to take that first step toward being proud and embracing themselves as they really are.

The GLBT National Help Center operates the GLBT National Hotline and the GLBT National Youth Talkline:

First Blog Post: Part 1 of My Travels – A Visit to Manzanar

In September, I took my first extended vacation in three years. My only firm plans were to spend my first night in Bishop, California and eventually head up to fulfill a long-time dream of seeing the world’s oldest beings, the bristlecone pines in the White Mountains during my two-week journey. I threw all my camping gear in a rental car and headed up and over the Sierra Nevada and then south.

My first full day, I visited Manzanar National Historic Site. For those who don’t know about Manzanar, here is the description from the website of the National Park Service: “In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.”

This might seem like a strange place to launch a vacation, since it is definitely not an experience I would describe as fun. But as someone who is committed to social justice work, it felt important for me to see where Japanese Americans and immigrants were forced to live from 1942-1945 for no reason other than their ethnicity.

It was a strange experience to visit this place in the Great Basin desert with stunning views of the mountains, and see it as picturesque when those unfortunate to be imprisoned there had such a different experience. I spent the whole day there, absorbing the former prisoners’ stories through listening to recordings, watching videos, standing alone in a reconstructed replica of the typical open room that housed 8 people with no walls and no privacy.

I had tears in my eyes most of the day. My heart ached for the suffering that accompanied this sad part of our country’s history. And yet I was touched by the beauty the people who lived there created despite their painful lives: stonework, gardens, landscaping at a desert spring, orchards. On the driving tour, I stopped at a site that was once a garden and another that was a cemetery for a few people unfortunate to die there. I paid my respects at both places.

I had my camera with me this trip but it was clear that it seemed inappropriate at Manzanar. Documenting the suffering that occurred here did not feel right. I took only a single photo outside the gate, of an old guard tower that stands against the backdrop of the stunning Sierra Nevada landscape. I wanted this image as a reminder for myself to be part of preventing such a tragedy from happening again.

A couple days later, I hiked up Little Rock Creek and found an oak sapling, less than two inches tall, growing out of the tiniest bit of fertile earth, a small patch of lichen on a boulder. I snapped a photo. Looking at the image now, taken soon after I visited Manzanar, it struck me as a reminder of the tenacity of the people so unjustly imprisoned in their own country.

I can offer these people who suffered nothing. I cannot undo what happened. But in my mind, I associate this tiny tree with their spirit, a symbol of life springing from what would appear to be impossible. So here are two photos to pay tribute to all of those at Manzanar and their loved ones and descendents–a guard tower that still stands as a reminder of what Japanese Americans endured, and the little tree that reminds me of the strength of the human spirit.