When a photo of me at a "Republican event," a fundraiser for gay war veterans, was posted online here in The Advocate last month, I was attacked on social media. The photo was copied, my name and that of an event that I previously produced was written beneath it, and then it spread as a smear campaign, casting me as a supporter of and donor to the Republican Party.
A complete misrepresentation, to say the least.
Within hours, I began receiving text messages, Facebook messages, and posts and comments on social media attacking me for attending the event. My motives, values, reputation, and integrity were called into question. The words were of the most disgusting, damaging, vicious, and vile nature that you could imagine. I was called "Nazi," "traitor," and "scum." The photo, which came as a surprise to me, was of me with an attendee, someone I just met at The DeploraBall hosted by Gays for Trump on the night of Donald Trump's inauguration. It's as if this one unexpected photo erased my life's work in the eyes of some friends and allies. My purpose for being there was to escort a gay war veteran and to specifically question the event coordinator over their intent to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.
Over the course of my life, my companies and I have made contributions to the Names Project, AIDS Related Community Services, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Loft in White Plains, N.Y., God's Love We Deliver in New York City, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Trevor Project, Big Bear Arts Council, Rainbow Pride Youth Alliance in California, Gay Men's Softball League, and the Food Bank, Leather Order of the Desert, AIDS Assistance Program, and Desert AIDS Project, all in Palm Springs, Calif. I have also made donations and offered complimentary promotions to more than 25 bear organizations worldwide.
For 25 years, I have been devoted to my community as we went through an AIDS epidemic. I protested for the approval of same-sex marriage and was on the court steps in San Francisco when the first gay couples were wed. I led marches for teens who committed suicide due to being bullied. I was in front of those protest lines, walked with signs, and mourned for those who died too young -- many dear friends.
When I was 24, I suffered the tragic loss of a boyfriend, brutally murdered in a gay bashing. Back then, we were hated because we were gay. Haters do not define me; they disgust me. Some of my family members and friends' families went through the Holocaust, watching their family members burn in ovens or suffocate in gas chambers, so I am sickened by what I read now, posted by cowards behind computer screens and too easily spewed onto the internet. How anyone can call someone else (especially a Jew) a "Nazi" is horrifying.
I completely retired from producing events two years ago. My life is my own. I do not need permission or approval from anyone to do as I please or befriend anyone -- black, white, gay, straight, Muslim, Democrat, and yes, even Republican. We who were discriminated against have no right to discriminate against others, especially not our own.
My great-grandparents left Russia and Romania to live a life of freedom in America. I have always believed that the U.S. was built and thrives due to the people who migrated here from other countries. I have been shocked and disappointed by the way the new immigration policies were handled weeks ago. There are many policies and executive orders from our current administration that I question and disagree with, but I would never hate or cause financial harm to anyone if they disagreed with my opinions. Everyone has a right in America to their own beliefs. That's why we are a country of freedoms.
I received an overwhelming number of positive emails and texts over the last few weeks from those who know me personally. But some in the bear community too easily judge. I worked diligently for 10 years as an advocate for the bear community in the LGBT arena when we were mocked by others because (they thought) we looked different than they did and we were not "the norm." There is never a day I regret what I have done, fighting for our rights, but I will not -- and will never -- let those behind computer keyboards or anyone define me. I am a proud American gay man and will continue defending what I believe in, especially the rights of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
My drive for excellence and perfection, my love and devotion to my community and family, my desire to support charities, help those in need, and my devotion to true friends, defines who I am. Haters will never prevent me from moving forward. They only motivate me to prove them wrong and make a better world. This is a time to come together, not to bully and hate.
STEVE HARRIS is the former editor in chief of A Bear's Life Magazine, former CEO of Diversity Platinum, and former producer of Bear Trek, Big Bear Adventure, and International Bear Convergence. He was a designated representative for the international bear community in Buenos Aires for the GNETWORK 360 Conference on behalf of 6 million bears worldwide.