Op-ed: Sleeping, Praying, and Walking Across America for Equality
I was approaching nine days without eating, sitting next to a candle and the photograph of a 13-year-old boy who had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, just weeks before. His name was Asher Brown. He was a victim of homophobia, and I knew the pain all too well. I was extremely angry and decided to fast. Then came Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, and too many others.
Finally, I went home and slept. I woke up, prayed, and ate for two months. I came upon the American Equality Bill, a proposed addendum to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I looked around to the pictures of holy people in my house. I meditated, prayed, volunteered, and kept receiving news about more LGBT youth suicides, murders of transgender women, and hate crimes against young gay men. I read emails about bills around the globe that would give LGBT people the death sentence, about our own federal representatives' misunderstanding of Christianity, and about people campaigning against us due to their own ignorance. The injuries visited upon us LGBT people, currently and historically, were overwhelming.
I simply asked God for help. At first I wasn't sure the answer was clear: "Walk the rainbow flag across America." When the answer wouldn't go away I found myself in a heap of conflict. How would I pay for it? Will people come with me? How will I do it? Where do I begin?
I was shushed and criticized by other activists when I announced my plan to walk across America with a rainbow flag. The lame-duck session in Congress had presented the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," and I watched in tears as the president signed it. I was so affected by it all that I felt as though I were experiencing "post-traumatic discrimination disorder." But every morning I woke up and sent emails trying to organize something, to no avail.
After reading the American Equality Bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I decided to call my friend Todd, a human rights lawyer in New York. I wanted to test the waters in West Hollywood and get the AEB on the agenda for a City Council vote.
To be clear, assuring LGBT equality is a responsibility of the federal government. Addressing our grievances is a task for all of us. We must demand full and equal representation in light of the gross injustices and violation of international human rights that LGBT people suffer everywhere. But still, America at large and the LGBT community had never heard of the AEB. That was OK. We were going to take the lead by taking the AEB to as many towns, cities, and states as possible. Todd wrote a draft that we submitted to the office of West Hollywood's then-mayor John Heilman. It was scheduled to appear on the calendar March 7, 2011, which I determined to be the beginning of my trip.
I packed up my home in Palm Springs, Calif., and canvassed local businesses for sponsorship deals. In a few weeks I was able to recruit Facebook friends to help along my route. I created a gift registry on REI, and a few businesses in Palm Springs donated thousands of dollars in equipment. It was getting more real every day.
I drove into West Hollywood and made it to the council meeting, where a comprehensive AEB item was on the agenda. I held my breath with Todd on the phone in New York. Fortunately, the bill was approved unanimously, without objection. I was running around frantically making calls out of pure excitement. The first local passage of the AEB was in a city where 40% of the population is LGBT. We weren't voting on a gender identity nondiscrimination policy at a local college. We were voting to tell our federal representatives it was time that sexual orientation and gender identity be added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The stage was set.
I headed of to San Francisco. All the email and Facebook friends I made backed out of helping me there, so I wandered the Castro all day and at night rolled out my sleeping bag at the entrance of the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch Library and went to sleep.
The next morning was beautiful. I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, with an unfurled pride flag flapping in the high bay winds. There were lots of invites sent out, postings on the San Francisco Facebook page, and all the media alerted to meet me in the park at 10 a.m. for a send-off. Nobody came but one photographer for a local gay newspaper. I was saddened by that, but over time I have become accustomed to being lonely.
The walk across California took 36 days, often in the rain. Backpack on, I just strutted along, sleeping anywhere and everywhere I could, making freeze-dried meals, and taking lots of pictures. I called ahead to Sacramento and Tahoe, Carson City, Nev., and Reno, Nev., as well as the Paiute Indian Reservation, where I was invited as a guest of the chairman. It was the most important reservation in LGBT history. The Paiute elder Wovoka, the tribe's spiritual leader, was responsible for blessing a little kid in the late 1920s named Harry Hay. Harry didn't know it at the time, but he would grow up to establish one of our first gay liberation groups, the Mattachine Society, in 1950. I was grateful to the Paiute and left an offering of thanks at Wovoka's resting site. They in turn named me Poo'e'ta'gwena (Rainbow).
After recovering from walking pneumonia in Sacramento I headed to Nevada, where I met with state senator David Parks who endorsed the idea of the AEB. He acknowledged that Harry Hay and the Paiute had faded into obscurity. I knew Harry Hay and wanted to say thank you to him as well. Senator Parks seemed to agree.
Through my journey, I made it a habit to address City Council meetings to talk about the need for federal equality and civil rights. Since speaking to the Reno City Council and the mayor, it's been a series of successes all the way to the mayors of Salt Lake City and Boulder, Colo., and the president of the Lakota Sioux of Pine Ridge, S.D., where I sat in a sweat lodge with their spiritual elders.
While in Nevada there were some positive laws passed for gender identity. I was happy about this but still thought about those discriminated against in Montana or Tennessee.
While in Boulder, Congressman Jared Polis came to my luncheon, where he thanked me for the walk and we discussed the writing of a federal equality omnibus bill that would package together all proposed nondiscrimination laws. Never in the history of the United States have we ever had a bill that would comprehensively cover all the rights involving sexual orientation and gender identity at the federal level. He told me that my trek has brought such attention to the subject that it may push the bill to be written much sooner than planned. It shocks me that no one in our Congressional LGBT Caucus has done it already.
It was lonely then, and it still is, though I do have the companionship of my dog, Trinity. Together, we are halfway through the Walk Across America. I've compiled numerous newspaper articles, resolutions, and proclamations from legislatures representing about 6 million people so far, supporting my journey for full federal equality. Sure, I could fly to Washington, D.C., and knock on doors and express one voice. But the walk has made me a federal lobbyist, as I represent millions of people supporting federal equality and comprehensive civil rights.
The journey has been long, difficult, and beautiful. It took me 49 days to cross the deserts of Nevada. I had the wonderful opportunity to join young people in Salt Lake City on a civil rights walk. I've rafted the Colorado River with the rainbow flag. With a backcountry permit, I've walked the rainbow flag through and over the Rocky Mountains into Estes Park. I've made friends with coyotes and had Christians pray in groups at their request for my safe journey and the passage of our civil rights. Some have come out of the closet after meeting me and learned about the courage and integrity that lives within them. I tell young people we have a hate-crimes law in effect and not to be intimidated by any bully or any form of homophobia or transphobia.
So far I have so journeyed 1,800 miles and have officially 1,080 to go to the Atlantic coast of Florida. Once there I will have crossed the United States. I now look forward to meeting Mayor Annise Parker in Houston. The civil rights case is being made. Those who oppress us and deny us civil rights are quickly becoming transparent with every little step. There are so many successes and wins here, and I'm just amazed at the blessings I've received and the challenges I've had to overcome to move forward.
I want to thank all my Facebook friends for sponsoring me along the way when everyone else said, "No way." Nobody believed me. I was unsure myself. I had no idea the walk would have become what it has. On the other side there's a lot to celebrate. Marriage equality in New York, Hillary Clinton's address to the United Nations on LGBT human rights, and so on. I'm very grateful, but we're not done yet. Join me as I continue to sleep, pray, and eat during my Walk Across America for Equality.
When Trinity, the rainbow flag, and the American Equality Bill have reached the Atlantic coast, it is my hope to add a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Trinity and I will bus up to West Virginia and walk the several hundred miles into Washington and meet up with members of Congress and deliver your voice. Federal equality and comprehensive federal civil rights: It will be the icing on our cake.