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September 22, 2017

Equinox for Equality Celebration, Sandpoint, Idaho

Ironically, I woke up this morning to a text from a very good friend of mine that said “Surround yourself with a tribe of people who get as excited as you do about your strange passions and wild dreams.  Positive energy is infectious!”  What a perfect way to wake up and how fitting it happened today!   I am so privileged to be here with you, this community, to share our infectious energy and passion for embracing diversity and inclusion while showing tremendous compassion for one another.


TONIGHT IS ABOUT CELEBRATION and I love a good party!


I am proud to be standing here tonight with this amazing diverse community. You may not see obvious diversity on the outside - but each one of us has a rich and beautiful story that is different from the other. And those stories need to be heard.  We also have things in common that we value and hold dear and true to our hearts.    


I’ll admit that when Carol asked me to speak I was really nervous about what I would talk about.  Then I remembered what I always tell young people I work with.  That if you are honest, authentic and true to your story no one can dispute who you are!  So, with that in my mind I am here to share with you a little of my journey in north Idaho. 


I am an accidental activist, when I moved here 9 years ago with my wife, I never would have dreamt that I would be standing here tonight talking about diversity, inclusion and compassion.  When we moved here I really struggled.  I struggled to see other people like me where I could build a community of people I would connect with, play with, build friendships with, and care for.  All I could see was how different I was from the others around me. 


I got to the point of either leaving my wife or figuring out how to be happy living in a place where I felt like a big gay fish out of water.   I love my wife very much so….  I set out to build a community for myself and I knew I had to change my perspective on how I did that.  So I started to be more of true myself, let others get to know me and my passions, my skills, my interests and my quirkiness.  I asked people to share with me who they were, asked question about their lives and their experiences.  From listening to their stories and seeing beyond any visual differences, I got to know them and what I found was that we had many more similarities than differences.  And I found that there are a lot of really awesome people in north Idaho.  I am really happy that this big gay fish choose to find a pond of water here instead of somewhere else!   


By living my truth I didn’t know I was becoming a change agent -but I was.  In creating a sense of community for myself as well as for others in the area who were also looking for a place to belong, I worked to re-start a chapter of PFLAG in Coeur d’Alene.   The response was overwhelming and quickly I heard a need from our community that we needed to have a father reach and larger scope of the work we could do and who we could engage.  So I left PFLAG and went on to create the North Idaho Pride Alliance.  The Pride Alliance focuses on developing intentional relationships in our community, developing opportunities for people to participate in fully inclusive events and educating people about the LGBT lived experience, ally relationships and about community building.   


Being a change agent is exhausting work.  It takes courage, support, time, energy and resilience….just to name a few qualities.  And as you have felt recently in this community, you take a lot of hits when you stand up for justice and diversity and when you stand up for what you believe is right, moral and just.  


But, each time we stand up, we are drops in a pond. We are the drops that ripple and create a change in the condition of the rest of the pond.  I want to be a drop in the water that creates a ripple effect of positive change that inspires others to also become drops.   By being here tonight, we are all drops and we are all creating a change in the condition of our pond.  We create the culture we want!  And we need to create that now.


Over the past few years, I have learned a lot about true community. That to be in community is to experience a sense of belonging.  To belong is to be related to and to be a part of something greater than ourselves.  It is membership - the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase.   We are in community each time we find a place where we belong; it is the opposite of thinking that wherever I am, I would be better off somewhere else. 


I have also, come to know that there are things we ALL need in our lives for us to thrive. We need…

  1. To know that we are valued and that our lives are significant.

  2. To know that we are not alone and we do not have to figure everything our entirely by ourselves. 

  3. To know that there is something to live for, to thrive on, and to connect to. 

  4. To know we have a sustaining sense of purpose in our lives.

  5. To know that peace runs deeper than an absence of conflict - rather it is a sense of belonging that lifts us out of our own pain and struggle.


We create this sense of community when we get to know each other and radically welcome each other.  We create this sense belonging by seeing our similarities and not focusing on our differences.  When we share our stories and our hearts shine through it allows other people to share their story and allows their truth be know.


Last January, I was in Philadelphia for a LGBT activist conference.  I met the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a powerful community organizer who led the marriage equality movement and the campaign against anti-transgender bills in North Carolina.  He is straight black cisgender, southern Baptist preacher…pretty much everything I am not.   He said so many profound things during his address to over 3,500 human rights activists from across the country.  But there was one statement that really landed on me and has stuck. He said:  “We didn’t come together when we had to, we were already together.   So when we had to, we could stand together”.


We are in scary times. Especially for people who are already living on the margins of society and who being pushed out even further. We need to do the work of knowing each other and our diverse culturess so we can stand strongly together.  The only way we can thrive as an inclusive community is to stand together as one body of humanity.  So when the least of us is affraid and suffering we can stand together in love, strength and compassion.  We can stand together to combat hatred and bigotry.


Oftentimes some of us are accused of thinking we are “special snowflakes”.  But when you think about it – alone snowflakes are fragile but if enough of them stick together, they can shut down a city.  I would  gladly stand with you and be a snowflake anyday!


Early this year I revisited an old story that I really needed at a time in my life when I was being filled with anger and resentment.  It is the Story of the Two Wolves.  Some of you may know this well, and I would ask that you listen with new ears:


An old Cherokee Indian chief was teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he told the young boy, “a fight between two wolves.

One is evil, full of anger, sorrow, regret, greed, self-pity and false pride.

The other is good, full of joy, peace, love, humility, kindness and faith.”

“This same fight is going on inside of you, grandson…and inside of every other person on the face of this earth.”

The grandson ponders this for a moment and then asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”

The old man smiled and simply said, “The one you feed.”


I love this story. I need the power of this message in my life.  It reminds me that I have a choice and I have power. 


For me the “good” wolf represents spirituality.  A centering and intentionality in how I interact with the world.  This centering brings me wisdom, connectedness, compassion and inner peace… a calmness I, otherwise, rarely feel.  The “destructive” wolf represents my fear and my ego in which all other destructive behaviors come from.   I have the power to choose good or destructive. I have the power to contribute to suffering, anger, resentment and destruction of relationships.  I also have the power to bring about social justice through kindness, compassion, and respect.   I pay attention to my wolves – how hungry they are and which one is being dominant.   My job is to calm them and feed the right one.


This story reminds me to continue to take responsibility for cultivating and nurturing my spirit and the actions I CHOOSE in living a compassionate life.  And I do have a choice.


While we embrace diversity and strive for full inclusion, we cannot fully know what it’s like to be someone else.    So it is imperative that we get to know each other’s stories, each others lived experiences through their eyes. That we sit with each other and listen to our different experiences, sort them out and find our similarities in our values so we can create vision for a better community.  We also have to take a serious look at privilege and cultural norms that we have created and then we have to work to interrupt them by speaking our truths.


At recent meeting someone asked me if I would be willing to put aside my “gay agenda” to be a part of a group where others may not fully accept me because of my sexual orientation or my gender identity.   At first, I was taken back for a minute at the choice of his words “gay agenda”.  I had to set that aside and look at his intent.   Then my response was yes I would, as long as I feel safe.


I think we can all agree we want to live in a safe community, correct? 


I asked the straight white man in his 70’s (same one that asked me to set aside my “gay agenda”), if he felt safe in his community   and he said yes.   I asked the other straight white man in his 60’s if he felt safe, and he said yes. Then, I asked a straight white woman in her 60s if she felt safe and she said yes.   I answered that I don’t feel safe in my community.  


When I asked the woman if she ever felt afraid because she was a aging woman and if she ever questioned or second-guessed the places she went or things she did because she was an aging woman - she said yes. I asked the aging man in his 70’s if he ever felt unsafe because he was an older person and his reactions and responses weren’t as sharp as they used to be and it would be easier to be taken advantage of now – he said yes. I asked the third person if he ever felt unsafe because he was an open thinking progressive person who believes in social justice and equal rights for all - and he said yes at times that's not a safe thing to be in north Idaho.  


In this discussion never once did I mention the word gay or transgender, so we found common ground and values around wanting to feel safe where we live.    


My point is that we see the world through our own lenses of our race, gender identity, culture, religion, sexuality, age, etc.   My lenses are shaped from my life experiences and my identities.  I can't NOT see the world through the lens of being a lesbian and a gender nonconforming person - just as someone else can't see the world in any other way than what their experience and their identity has shaped their lenses. It is important to recognize this fact but also it is important to know that despite our different lenses we can still find common ground and we can shift our beliefs and change our behaviors and give others an opportunity to do the same.    I can try on other lenses in empathy to help me achieve this.


WE ALL HAVE VALUES and we also have judgments that we need to be honest about.  Part of embracing diversity is looking at what values we have in common…where can we build a bridge from our differences to our similarities.     

We have personal and faith values.  Values around work and providing for our families.  Values about what is means to what it means to be an American.  About family, hard work, responsibility, commitment, service, duty and sacrifice.  

Where we become divided is how our life experiences shape how we express those values.  So what being safe means to me may mean something totally different for someone else.  And what providing a safe community means to me may be different form someone else.  What being free means to me may mean something very different with someone who is far more oppressed then me. 


Our task is to find in each other those common values and find where we can agree…even if is just one obvious thing…It is a place to start having a conversation.  And honestly, there are some people I will never have this kind of conversation with, some people that will never see my humanity and worth, some people that I will never affect their perception.  I am ok with that.  Because there are many more people out there that just need an opportunity to tell their story, to be heard and to have an opportunity to try on a different set of lenses.

To me: “Equality is about everyday Americans who want the same chance as everyone else to pursue health and happiness, earn a living, be safe in their communities, serve their country, and take care of the ones they love.”

I applaud the courage of this community to come together to celebrate our diversity, to find our common ground, to connect around our common values and to make our community a place for fishes like me!

I want to thank the sponsors of this event.  And say a special thank you to the Carol Holmes and the organizing committee for inviting me and welcoming me to to be a part of this thriving, inclusive, beautiful and courgaeous community.



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