If I’m going to make you understand, I guess I have to take you all the way back to the red high heeled shoe. It seems like a strange way to start this piece, but I think it’s the most appropriate.
You see, we just wanted to do something. And so, in front of our rural town’s grocery store, we had rented an eight-foot tall high heel, stepping on an oversized pack of cigarettes. These were the Delaware County Ash Kickers, a group I had helped to found, and we were sending a message! We were going to stomp out Big Tobacco! The fact that we had ordered a sneaker, but were delivered a high heel, remained unaddressed. And so there we stood, for hour after hour, handing out pens with our logo emblazoned proudly on them by The Clothing People. The day was long to keep it short. 🙂
We were young, middle schoolers. My voice hadn’t yet settled, and through the occasional pops and squeaks, I rattled on about the deception of the tobacco industry, the manipulation of teens by corporate suits, and the targeting of my peers for financial gain. Poor Judy just wanted to get her milk and eggs, and she had made the mistake of coming in through my entrance.
The Ash Kickers helped develop in us a capacity to care, and to feel. But more than that, it created the feeling that we were able to affect change, to help.
In high school, those Ash Kickers gave way to a statewide program, called Reality Check. I was named the youth voice at then-Governor George Pataki’s tobacco advisory council, representing teens across the state. I was doing big things, and it felt great.
Tobacco was a great place to get my feet wet, so that when I got to college, I was ready to keep doing something. I was the victim of a hate crime at Seton Hall University in October of my freshman year. I chose to call for a town hall meeting, with the mandated attendance of all resident students, and I asked to speak. There, in front of almost a thousand students, I talked about my experience, about the place where I had grown up. I was unfamiliar with locking my doors at night, or taking the keys out of the car at the store, and had been blindsided by what had happened.
And it was there that I chose to come out to my fellow classmates. Because what had happened to me was bigger than me, it had happened before to students. And if one of us was being targeted, then all of us were being targeted. This hate crime hadn’t happened because I was a Devils fan, it had happened specifically because I was gay.
Life went on, the Devils won the Stanley Cup that year, more students suffered what I had gone through. I thought I had done something brave that would help others, but it was clear that talking wasn’t enough. We needed to stand up together. I created an organization called T.R.U.T.H. (Trust, Respect, Unity at The Hall), a group where students could be safe, engage in dialogue about these kinds of issues.
Seton Hall, a private Catholic academic institution, rejected our proposal for club status. They wouldn’t give us recognition. And then I sued them. We took Romeo v. Seton Hall University all the way to the State Supreme Court, and we lost. But, at least I had done something. My experience is taught as case law around the country, and although I had lost, I had refused to be quiet. I left Seton Hall to pursue an education without the distractions of the press, students pointing fingers during lunch, and the like.
Oh, and I got this letter from Harvey Fierstein.
And so now, we can finally flash forward to present day. I’m happy, I’m married, I’m still playing hockey. The Devils aren’t winning quite as much as they used to, but they’re still better than the Rangers, so you take the small victories just as happily as the big ones.
This year has shown momentous and irreversible progress for people like me. Federal marriage benefits, however limited in scope, are a huge validation. States winning marriage at the ballot box, defeating real-life villains like Maggie Gallagher. It’s a terribly exciting time.
And then, as a hockey fan, an even bigger reason to be excited! A full hockey season, and the Winter Olympics! Even Gary Bettman can’t put a damper on this! I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it, and couldn’t find it on the map, but suddenly I couldn’t get enough of Sochi. Sochi this, Sochi that, could we name a pet Sochi, can I order Sochi on a menu, is Sochi a good name for a child?
Well, leave it to Russia to take all the fun out of the equation.
With the passage of Russia’s anti-gay laws (and calling them anything else is inaccurate, truly), a dark cloud now sits over the Olympic Games. I don’t need to go into what the laws say, enough has been written about the flagrant violation of civil rights, marginalization of human dignity, and degradation of spirit that these laws represent and enact.
And I feel, rising again within me, that need to do something. I have seen countless online petitions to move the Games out of Sochi. I haven’t signed them, because I recognize that Putin isn’t logging onto the internet to be swayed by petitions. (Perhaps his AOL CD is out of minutes?)
But I recognize that everyone has their own high heel. People are upset, they’re angry about Sochi, and if they need to stand outside their grocery stores for hours and hand out pens, then I respect and appreciate that. Mocking passion only discourages people from using those voices they’ve earned.
Where does that leave the rest of us? I want to help because I’m an athlete. I want to help because I’m gay. I’m an activist, I want to help. Hell, I want to help because I’m a human with two eyes and a heart. I just don’t know how.
Flights to Sochi aren’t cheap, and the thought of being locked up in a Russian jail is more terrifying than anything I can imagine. (Except Insidious 2, that looks scary!)
It breaks my heart that I want to help and just don’t know what I can do to affect change. And so I’m plucking out words on my Mac, keyboard activism at its finest. Because it makes me feel like I’m at least doing something, even if I’m not doing something.
Hey Mr. Fierstein, want to go cause a scene with me in Russia? I’ve got some extra Romeo goalie jerseys you could wear. Or maybe you’d prefer a heel?