Telling Three: “Passion Unites”

San Francisco CA 2004 (#1)

San Francisco CA 2004 (#1)

Today is a bright day in the Bay Area and as we emerge, gradually, into the sun my “loss” mood — sort of — disperses. I got a great email this morning from an old colleague that also helped me feel bright, and I wanted to share it.

Knowing of my involvement in the No On Prop 8 campaign, she, like many of my friends, wanted to personally contact me after watching the deeply moving Courgage Campaign video, Fidelity.  In addition to Fidelity, there’s another parallel initiative happening right now that puts a face on the current affairs of marriage equality: Tell3 — the “pledge to Tell3 people what it’s like for you or your loved ones to be LGBT.” The exchange with my colleague made me think of Tell3.

Particularly at work, coming out — as the only “whatever you are in the room” — can be a scary business. In my job, I work day-to-day with people from all around the world, including places where you could be jailed, or worse, for being gay. I remember that day almost exactly five years ago, when Leanne and I were married at City Hall, and how bubbly and yet awkward I felt when I came back to work after the weekend. I was practically tumbling all over the place that Monday, not able to contain anything about my weekend yet finding myself within the curious confines of a conference room with my team, every single one of whom spoke a different native language than I. Many teammates were surprised when I told them I was married over the weekend. Most were, at a minimum, highly confused or even thought I must have been joking. One told me that I was “brave” — which to this day I still wonder about. How was I brave? I could not say that any one of them was less than supportive, but the moments were not easy.

But every once in awhile I’m reminded of why the clumsy business of just being who I am — this “coming out” — continues to be the brightest, most worthwhile endeavor in my life. That’s how I felt this morning when I read Darlene’s mail:

Michael and I both cried (no laughing!) when we saw the slideshow, and then we signed it (of course) and forwarded it to friends and family members. Oddly enough we’d received it from our old Realtor in Dallas that we hadn’t spoken to in years. What’s so inspiring about that is how passion unites people….even from afar…..and even from those that are not directly involved. If only the world functioned like that for everything we do!

Did I mention that I have THE BESTEST Hubby in the whole world? I thought about it a lot. and I truly cannot imagine how it would feel if state could revoke our marriage. Putting all emotion aside, there’s just no logical/legal justification for the state to reverse/dissolve marriages (of any kind). IMHO, it appears that it’s a purely subjective stance that’s been taken and I don’t see how it could be reversed. Taking a step backward is just too risky for California (known to be trailblazers) and I don’t believe it will happen. My $.02.

“If only the world functioned like that” indeed. But when you do this — when you reach out and come out and share about WHATEVER it is — it does. And that makes all the difference under the sun… Thank you, Darlene, and everyone else who makes it your business to reach out with your stories.

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Loss

Oh this rain — the kind so constant that the sky and the ocean seem to become indistinguishable. I crave it; I want to be in it.  Dry under my roof tonight, I read this — Pro-gay-marriage movement looks to ‘Obamify’ (SFGate) — and what I feel? Is loss.

It’s not specifically the loss of the election (which I imagine will retain its special hole in my heart well beyond the time when equality isn’t even an issue anymore). I feel no loss about the purpose of the report, which talks about all the great energy going into galvanizing grassroots and online activism. It’s truly both the seeds and the fruition of the Internet united: Not only can everyone tell their story, but they need to — and it changes everything. The world is our neighbor — now more than ever.

Nor do I just feel loss about the massive support we built online during the campaign going unrecognized in passages like this:

It would involve pairing new media technology with old-fashioned, door-to-door outreach – two tactics that were not used well in the unsuccessful opposition to Proposition 8 in November, according to a report by Marriage Equality USA, an Oakland-based organization that supports gay marriage.

… as similarly played out countless other articles like this and the endless comments threads they have spawned since the election.

In fact it’s not totally clear to me, the source of this loss, but here it is again:

Adina Levin, a Palo Alto software company co-founder and gay marriage supporter who is not gay, recalled a friend telling her that Prop. 8 supporters were holding signs on a corner in his San Carlos neighborhood. When Levin asked the campaign if she could use the micro-blogging service Twitter to quickly gather a counterprotest, No on 8 organizers said no, because it might tip off the opposition to their movements.

I don’t know who Levin talked to in the campaign, but connecting people online about protests is one of the major things we did on Twitter and in other online channels particularly in the days escalating up to the election. We didn’t do it out of a concerted tactic, we didn’t plan it, we didn’t strategize it — we simply listened in to the hundred-plus thousands of regular people, people not unlike you as you read this, who reached out and shared their stories via online channels. We did mobilize, we connected, we supported — not because it gave us a good reputation or a good story — but because there was the need.  And it’s not just no longer serving this essential purpose that I count as a quite personal loss.

The people I knew on the campaign dedicated themselves day and night, but afterwards went back to their originating, excellent organizations — far from the failed campaign — and yet I continue to exist in this crazy post-election nowhereland vacuum.  Articles like this remind me I feel strongly about not betraying the actual No On Prop 8 online community, which did and continues to thrive, because these people were literally unsung heroes.

As I sit here in the dark and try to put it all together, the rain pounds on the roof and my head hurts. My wife says I’m just hurting myself.  A pal from the campaign told me I just needed to let go.  I do — but I struggle with losing hope. And I hope I always do.

Serving the @NoOnProp8 Twitter community

Real-life stories from @NoOnProp8

@NoOnProp8 on Twitter

@NoOnProp8 on Twitter

Last night I tweeted my final tweets as “@NoOnProp8.” I immediately got so much good feedback and appreciation that I nearly regretted giving the account away (note: the account is not going away — Equality California will carry it forward to serve the marriage equality community).

However, I’ve had to accept that there is no longer a “No On Prop 8 campaign,” so to speak, or at least that we need to move on to different campaigns.  I’m also excited to continue to be working with organizations involved towards embracing and better serving online communities.

In contemplating all that great feedback, I decided that the best way I can show my appreciation for having been a part of this community is to share what I learned with you.  So here we go — what follows are my real-life “best practices” for building and engaging a Twitter community — I was originally going to say “creating a Twitter community” — but since a lot of it is just paying attention to the community that exists already, “serving” seemed better.  All of this is thanks to you, the community itself — I only had to tune in and listen.  I cull the main things I heard down into four easy themes: Inform, Engage, Listen, and Measure.

Inform

The  initial mandate of this official campaign channel was to point to all communications from the campaign, from press releases to videos. As the campaign, and the community, evolved, we loosened  the mandate with official blessing to push “non-approved” messaging that served the community. We still were sensitive to stay within the overall messaging parameters — by not spreading attacks of any kind or propagating violence, and by trying to remain compassionate, for example.  Here are the sorts of things we did and learned in the “inform” category:

  • Point to every “official” press release
  • Point to every blog post from “official channels” — such as from Kate Kendell
  • Point to every new video on the campaign’s YouTube channel
  • We’d also occasionally post “un-approved” more casual messaging, reacting to what the community was asking for more of (for example, connecting people at rallies while they were happening)
  • Use http://tr.im or other link-shortener to trim URLs (tr.im was a suggestion from @krabigail in the community!)
  • Don’t be afraid of over-tweeting — tweet multiple times throughout the day if you want — but try not to deliver 5 tweets at the same time. People will let you know if it’s too much (but not if it’s too little).
  • Let people know that we are people and tweet what is happening at campaign headquarters, in the city, personally — and include real names/Twitter names when doing this  (thanks to the blogger community, @QueenofSpain and more, for these tips)

Engage

When I really listened to what people were tweeting, responding, and direct-messaging, the “engage” part was really easy.  It did take a lot of time, however. If I could, it was clear I could have spent nearly the entire day working with Twitter and its community (but I had plenty else to do).

  • Follow back every new follower — also, direct-message at that time (NOT automatically) with thanks and encouragement.  May also use this opportunity to send a pointer to a current story or latest action or other item of interest, to immediately invite the tweeter to engage.
  • Respond to every direct message; respond to @ replies where it makes sense — where it adds a suggestion that serves the whole or encourages somethign everyone can do. (I @ replied people less frequently than I dm’d). Put another way: keep what’s relevant for the public stream in the public stream — direct-message people when it’s a personal conversation.  This is a point that I notice many business Twitter accounts doing differently, so I’m willing to adjust based on feedback.
  • Requests for promotion:  We got a lot of people asking to promote their own blog posts — which I appreciated — but generally I avoided using our Twitter for individual promotion — including self-promotion. I tried to keep that to my own Twitter account. However, I did encourage people to publicly “@” NoOnProp8 when they had a post – that way, it would appear in the public timeline.
  • Again, use our real names or individual Twitter usernames when engaging personally.  I suppose this is a bit like “self-promotion” — but people let us know they wanted to know we were people, so I would occasionally remind people who I was.
  • Ask people specifically to retweet sparingly.  People in general did a LOT of retweeting just on their own, which was GREAT, but I only requested it if something was REALLY important or time-urgent.
  • We also — and this is key to helping your friends and colleagues say the word “Twitter” with a straight face — used Twitter successfully as a donation channel in the campaign.  If you “try this at home,”  make sure you can track which funds are coming in through Twitter by through a parameter identifying the donation link.
  • “Mini-campaigns” for engagement — ask a question, and use tags plus http://search.twitter.com for a great way to surface results to everyone, providing visibility for people as well. Thanks to @Pistachio for setting the example here. It goes like this:
    • During the campaign, we asked “What are you doing today to beat prop 8?” and told people to “tag” responses by adding “#beatprop8”
    • At http://search.twitter.com/, search for “beatprop8” — http://search.twitter.com/search?q=beatprop8
    • After responses start to come in, you can then click “feed for this query” or directly “twitter these results” — which will twitter a trimmed URL to the search results. This caught on really well.

    Provide a place to just BE — if people are venting, let them vent; support; connect

Listen

This one is really key. You can tell from all the other sections that we got a lot of good things to do out of just listening.  Examples:

  • I noticed a lot of replies to @NoOnProp8 about rallies, so I began distributing information about where and how to connect with people. It was well received, so I paid attention to growing it even more.
  • Lots of people wanted to know how to volunteer, so we were able to hook people up to their local field offices this way — and also to get signs, which was a very popular request.
  • We also heard about several new house parties this way, and were able to connect people to their closest event.
  • Conversely, when I initially followed back all new followers with an “@” reply, the community also let me know that they didn’t like it — and I stopped.
  • We also learned about everything from polling place problems to the site being down to donation server problems, etc via this channel.
  • We corrected some messages that had some inaccuracies this way too!  Quick attention to the community’s response saved us from spreading any mistakes further.
  • Twitter knows no geographical boundaries — but voting does.  Nevertheless, we were able to engage globally with online momentum that in the end had an affect beyond just California.

Measure

This is part of listening — actually, part of all phases.

  • Keep track of follower growth. Good to keep a trend. Falling off? Change something. Great growth? Continue doing more of same.
  • Keep track of what people are talking about and note trends, feeding these back to official messengers
  • When you tweet links, running them through a trimmer like http://tr.im first is good for two things — shortening, as well as letting you track hits to that URL.
  • Use, and reuse, http://search.twitter.com — to measure what people are saying about / to / retweeting about your twitter account.
  • Note trending topics on search.twitter.com — the term “Prop 8” was consistently within the top-ten topics towards the end of the campaign.

That’s what comes to my mind and what I was able to track throughout the intense weeks of campaigning before the election, and in the couple of months since.  We had much, much success with Twitter and it was a great experience getting to know all 3,500-plus, but I’m sure I missed opportunities too. Feel free to add to the thread if so — and if you have any additional suggestions or feedback about what else we could have done or done differently.  And thanks, again, to you — the real heroes of @NoOnProp8.

And you, and you, and you: The heroes of No On Prop 8

Much has been written and discussed since November 4, 2008 in the attempt to sort out why our efforts in California against Proposition 8 failed to actually beat the proposition. We should of course study hard and learn from mistakes, and above all move forward with this momentum. But what continues to impress me the most is the collective spirit of giving — of all of your stories — that has taken place as a result of this profound effort. I devoted myself for an all-too-short time to the No On Prop 8 campaign (big thanks to my friend Calla Devlin for that opportunity), and for the record, I am honored to have been a part of it. I believe it has forever changed me in ways I’m not even fully aware of yet. Every one of you who played a part in sharing your stories during the campaign — you have affected me deeply. And you still do.

No On Prop 8 on Facebook

No On Prop 8 on Facebook

Anthony shared how he was a “recovered homophobe” — and how he overcame it. Eric twittered about being alone with a sign down in Los Angeles. A Mormon woman from California reached out, against the formal advice of her community, to say I cannot in mercy vote to destroy the legal protections they now enjoy. Entire families worked on the hard conversations, overcame fear, attended weddings, and wrote about it to others. People sold out the signs and rallied by the thousands. People of any persuasion stepped up for the right thing, to vote no on Prop 8. Steven, a straight man from Utah, stood by us faithfully in support. And every day, Abby sent us a personal dose of encouragement and cheer via Twitter. Those are just a few stories, off the top of my head, and are all YOU. T’was the season of personal giving — and it still is.

No On Prop 8 on Twitter

No On Prop 8 on Twitter

You continue to share your stories in person, on the streets thanks to Join the Impact, and on various social networks: over 172,000 of you on Facebook, 3,200 of you on Twitter, 4,500 on MySpace, and 300 on LinkedIn — which is not to mention the tens of thousands of views on a YouTube channel that rivaled Obama’s in popularity in the days leading up to the election (with — in a first for any political campaign in this country — YOU submitting stories for the official channel) – and the countless blogs and blog comments. I salute YOU.

That’s the real story here: YOU and who you ARE. If you haven’t already noticed, you’re making a big difference, continuing to reinforce that “the lines between what is a blog and what is a mainstream media site become less clear.” (People who work in the courts, by the way — they have the Internet, and they know how to use it.)

No On Prop 8 on LinkedIn

No On Prop 8 on LinkedIn

It is with that spirit that I’m impressed with the organizations involved in the campaign that are striving to bridge the gap between traditional and new media, with the ultimate goal of giving us all a place to be. Check out this page published by the NCLR yesterday:

No longer is it an official press release vs. a blog: it’s just you telling your story. Molly Tafoya recently shared this insight with me: the gift is not to tell people how to feel, but to help people talk about it. To help people share their stories: dare I say that this is the entire point?

Just at this moment @Pistachio comes in, as she is wont to do, with just the right lyric at just the right moment:

“I’m not being radical when I kiss you. I don’t love you to make a point. It’s the hollow of my heart that cries when I miss you.”

“Love is stronger than any words anyway” (Catie Curtis). Find a channel — any channel — but find a channel and, with your words, your pictures, your videos — share about who you are. Because in the end, the most radical thing to do is just to be — who you are.

On the day before the 30th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s death, I can’t say it a better way than this:

“There’s hope for a better tomorrow… And you, and you, and you have got to give them hope.”

PS: I leave you with one more channel:
http://change.gov/page/s/yourstory

Web Meets Politics: Web 2.0 Summit’s a Wrap

You could say that last week’s Web 2.0 Summit lived handily up to its theme “Web Meets World.” You could also say that although I was present in the audience, never more than five rows back from the stage, I was in a major post-election daze throughout and, well, missed some things. Undeniably through this watery filter, as I sit this week and try to wrap up my thoughts on the event, what’s clearly in focus is that what the Web really met last week at the Summit was Politics. I might even try to tell you that’s the only thing — and the most important thing — it met.

Would you blame me? The day after Obama was elected President of the United States, the top-three trending topics on Twitter (say that three-times-fast!) were, in this order: Prop 8, web2summit, and Obama — and they stayed that way throughout nearly the entire conference.

What follows is my wrap, therefore, of the Web 2.0 Summit 2008: Web Meets Politics.

Intro: Web meets world

Fifteen years after television’s birth, the contours of the new medium were just emerging. The idea that this revolutionary new phenomenon — one busily reshaping the very fabric of society — might one day become just another application on a vast web of computers, well that idea wasn’t exactly in vogue …

So begins O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Summit site on the overall conference theme. “Web meets world” to me means that even things you don’t think have anything to do with the Web have to do with the Web. From the “Transforming the Network to an Enterprise for the Warfighter” session delivered by fatigues-clad LTG Jeff Sorenson, to disaster-management tactics from Jesse Robbins — “many kinds of disasters mean many kinds of opportunities” — to disease and global warming and financial catastrophes and other “Really Big Problems” — the resounding question levied by “meeting the world” was an implied “can we fix it?” to which Tim O’Reilly, in the opening conference salvo, invoked Obama with the “Yes we can” as the collective Web 2 response. From the outset, politics set the stage.

Web meets the president

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington

“Were it not for the Internet, Obama would not have been elected President,” said Arianna Huffington in Friday’s great panel, The Web and Politics (with John Heilemann, Arianna Huffington, Gavin Newsom, and Joe Trippi). “It wasn’t the age of the candidate that mattered in this election,” she continued, “It was the age of the ideas.”

Throughout the conference there was a lot of talk about how well Obama used online channels (most specifically Facebook) while campaigning (it was during this week that he also launched change.gov). Earlier in the Summit, Mark Zuckerberg had mentioned the tremendous success of Facebook Causes in particular during the election — growing “hundreds of thousands of people a day.” Gavin Newsom added that he was “proud to say I have more Facebook friends than any other politician outside of presidential candidates.” Clearly a sea-change has washed upon the country.

“Just as in the 60’s,” people compared, “a new medium became the dominant medium in this election.” Whereas TV was the “new” one-way broadcast medium when JFK used it so adeptly during his debate with Nixon, the Internet brings interactivity, dialog, and conversation to the mix, and voila: as Huffington said, “the truth intrudes into people’s living rooms.”

Web meets (dirty) politics

But there’s a flipside to the truth coming into our living rooms.

While acknowledging the sea-change, Newsom pondered, “how does this manifest itself in terms of shaping public policy?” I was glad to hear Newsom mention the need to address the “digital divide, saying that though Web 2.0 is meaningful, it’s “utterly meaningless to those who need this type of influence and engagement the most” – to those who aren’t online.

Then he indirectly referred to California’s Prop 8 when he mentioned he had his own “Howard Dean” moment broadcast all over YouTube (the “whether you like it or not” ad from the Yes campaign). He said, “The YouTube-ification of the world – I’m desperate to get it to go away and I can’t get it to go away.” Regarding the “always-on” internet-effect, tweeters wildly twittered his sound-bite “Authenticity – we’re all for it unless it’s the kind of authenticity we don’t like,” and he wondered “Are we more or less authentic if we’re always on the record?” Trippi replied that “No one can fake it 24 hours a day.”

I liked that Newsom’s bottom-line was that we should embrace it — and become more forgiving of mistakes — but thinks there will be a lot of collateral damage.

Speaking of collateral damage, at 44:10 in the above video, commencing the Q&A period, I got up shakingly and raised following, coming directly from my experience on the No On Prop 8 campaign (and here I quote myself self-consciously):

We’ve just experienced the terrible flipside of “truth into our living rooms,” which is that the Internet can also be used, with devastating effectiveness, to spread attacks and lies into our living rooms. Here are some specific examples from the fight against Proposition 8 — all true:

  • Videos propagated on YouTube in which the official “Yes” campaign equated gays with Hitler
  • No On Prop 8’s Web site attacked by denial-of-service (which we overcame mightily, thanks to our Web techs)
  • Personal attacks from people in the blogosphere throughout open, unmoderated threads (when another side might have had closed threads)
  • Videos propagated by the official “Yes” campaign using children without their parents’ agreement or permission
  • Gay people (and straight alike) getting anti-gay “Yes” ads served on their site because the yes campaign invested heavily in Google AdWords

In this era of Web-meets-Politics, the No On Prop 8 campaign indeed built a strong community — http://www.noonprop8.com/action/engage-online/social-networking — and yes it had power — that’s why we were so attacked — but the discussion of the “truth and democratization” of the Internet needs to be moderated with acknowledgement and protection against and attacks and lies, or else those with money and power (and fear) will continue to wield more influence over those with less.

Newsom acknowledged that the “forces on many sides are still at play,” but said he has “tremendous optimism” for the new era of Web-meets-Politics.

Web meets TV

Consuming new media, Huffington said, means that you are engaged — it’s like galloping on horse, not just watching from the couch in the living room. Further abstracting the television, there was also an engaging panel that amounted to a handbook of sorts for hacking the conventional understanding of it. In the session The Media Business: New Approaches, Ken Auletta talked with Joel Hyatt (Current TV) and Evan Williams (Twitter) about how they set about to unlock our televisions for the debates and for the election.

“TV is the biggest medium in America that hasn’t been democratized yet,” said @ev. “Twitter changes how people connect with people – if you expand that to a very large user base, it can change culture.” Pointing out that it’s not just social, Evan continued, “it has potential to see aggregate real-time information, like during the election.” Add Current TV to the mix and what happens?

“With Twitter and this broadcast model together, what happens is that you can get alternate viewpoints WHILE they’re being broadcast” -@ev

“Opening up these closed systems, empowering people to tell these stories — is very important. Citizen journalism has already proven that,” said Current TV’s Joel Hyatt. Not to worry about the expected monetization question, either: “Toyota’s doubled their money in ads on Current in the last year,” he continued. The goal of Current TV is nothing less than to “take the magic of the Internet and move that magic to TV.”

The political ramifications of this — beyond Palin bingo or Nixon-debates — are riper now than they have ever been before.

Green is the new Web

Al GoreThe Internet’s favorite color, green, also made a strong showing at the Summit. The importance of sustainability covered the gamut in talks about food (Michael Pollan), cars (Shai “cars-as-a-service” Agassi), “microenergy” credits, and of course global warming.

Calling himself a “recovering politician,” Al Gore took stage late at the summit to a standing ovation, saying that the “redeeming quality of the election” was that “all humans are created equal” and that this “would not have been possible without the Internet.”

Heralding “World 2.0” with a powerful, inspiring keynote, he also earned praise for introducing a Unified Smart Grid’ vision for repowering the USA.

Tim O’Reilly had an interesting dialog with Shai Agassi — from A Better Place — talking about the need for cars to be independent from their fuel models — aaaaaaaand, he also invoked Joe the Plumber! Said Shai in closing to Hummer: “Stop making tanks, start making cars!”Shai Agassi

(Read the CNet story on that here: Electric cars of the future at the Web 2.0 Summit).

Web meets the iPhone

My last overarching (political, of course) theme is about the device-driven world. I call it “Web meets the iPhone” because — what, there are other devices? Pandora made a thankful showing on the iPhone early on, the first workshop I attended had to do with iPhone applications, and it just seemed like everything (except Qik and me) was on the iPhone, including @lwaldal (“so tired of the lousy iPhone, safari crashes, stupid autocorrect, no copycutpaste, but at least it has service”).

Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker brought us a little perspective on this, merrily calling us to mind that innovation in wireless products and services is accelerating — and “changes should create + destroy significant wealth.” See her – as always – great presentation (PDF).

What in the world makes devices a politics-driven theme, you ask? Aside from my aforementioned filtering and exhaustion? Witness:

SF Civic Center on November 5 - Courtesty Chris Burwell

SF Civic Center on November 5 - Courtesy Chris Burwell

Yes, many of the lights are candles, but count (on) the devices.

In closing, I conclude (and beseech), for the Web 2.0 Summit 2008:

WEB MEETS POLITICS: Be a device-driven world — Not a divisive world!

—–

Links:

“Recovered homophobe” shares his story

Suffice it to say these are among the busiest two weeks of my life — and in many ways, the best. I’m working hard on the California No On Prop 8 Web Strategy team. These days, I encounter stories of unbelievable courage and strength as an everyday matter of course. People are working in constant overtime to get the stories out. I work with a great diversity of beautiful people crammed together in a noisy space, every one of us working without pause, very hard. And my bride Leanne worked heroically today in the middle of a way-too-busy day to get out a post about the seemingly amazing superhero powers endowed to us, by virtue of our recent wedding, by the proponents of Prop 8. Then I come home to a story of how my parents returned from a trip to see No On Prop 8 signs — in Vacaville! — and are eager to let me know.

And then, from people I don’t even know, amazing stories hit me every day during this campaign — some are shocking and some are intensely saddening, but most inspire me — and some truly warm my heart. I have been privileged to share some deeply personal stories.

Last Saturday, Tweeter @arwilson sent the following in response to a Twitter-based request from @NoOnProp8 to share what people were doing to defeat the proposition:

I’m making it a deal-breaker with my acquaintances

Intrigued, I wrote back and commended this person for a brave stand. He wrote back:

I’m a recovered homophobe (20+ years!) and I know what worked to help me overcome it.

recovered homophobe @arwilson

recovered homophobe @arwilson

What followed was a private conversation by direct message, and soon an in-depth email exchange. He very generously shared his story, and gave me permission to blog about it — so I quote him, Anthony Wilson — below. Tony called it an honor to share his story in case it could help someone somewhere.

We all could be Tony. Honest and brave are the people who challenge themselves beyond prejudice. Far from always successful, in my best days, I aspire to this. Thank you Tony for shedding light on your journey through — and past — this particular fear and prejudice. I ask anyone reading to do an inventory in honor of Tony’s sharing: Is there a bit of his story that resonates with you?

My mentor’s name was Del. When I was about 16, he and his wife took me under their wing. Through them I met lots of interesting people who were so generous to me and encouraged me to be my own person. I was very eccentric and was called a fag more than once. I couldn’t afford trendy clothes, so I “borrowed” old clothes from the drama department. Today I would have been called a cool Rockabilly kid, but at the time I was considered a freak, so I took the easy route and gave it as good as I got it. Shit rolls downhill, and I lashed out at anybody who seemed more vulnerable than me. Del was doing my makeup before a play (the irony was lost on me at the time) and I had mentioned something about “dumb fags.” He didn’t judge or condemn me, but he just asked me why I had such a problem with them. He mentioned that a lot of my friends that I had met through his wife and him were gay and that I liked them. He kept asking “why?” and I didn’t have an explanation. I then realized that my response to people treating me poorly because I insisted on being myself was to harass others who were trying to be themselves. I was helping out the wrong people. It was OK that I knew gay people, and I should be allowed to do so. I guess I thought that people would think I was gay if I had gay friends. I soon realized that I didn’t care what people thought. My parents had never condemned anybody, so I really had no excuse.

Del was a closeted gay man and fell victim to the first wave of “gay cancer” in the 80s. Even after I realized what was going on, his wife was in denial. After suffering massive medical costs and the condemnation of his family, he passed away. This had a profound affect on me, and I realized that homophobia was partly responsible for his death. If he could have lived the way he wanted, things might have worked out differently. Homophobia is responsible for so many of the world’s problems if you think about it. How many wars, how many violent crimes, how many people are denied their right to happiness by people who have some weird agenda. This epiphany taught me the true meaning of homophobia – as we all have seen in the last few years, the more you condemn it, the better the chances that you are doing it.

I can’t tell you how liberating it is to not give a shit what people do with their lives. It’s none of my business. Well, it was none of my business, but I want to do what I can to help anybody who needs it. I have lost friends to AIDS, I have seen friends denied rights because they were not legally recognized as partners; when a friend’s
partner was in a coma dying in the hospital, his partner’s parents would not let him visit. My wife and I have closeted and openly gay members of our family – I have gay friends who have been with their partners longer than I have been with my wife. They’re here and they’re queer and I got used to it! We live in Orange County, so it’s not the most open-minded place, but our daughters have been raised to understand that homosexuality is a non-issue. As a junior high teacher, I see kids who were like me, and I remember how Del approached it. Because of him, I am who I am today, and I want others to have that same choice.