If I were the Grinch, I have no doubt that my heart would have grown three sizes tonight. What I experienced at the NOH8 in Las Vegas hate crimes event tonight was nothing short of the heartbeat of Las Vegas. And it is alive and well! We did what we do so well! We came together and we created a safe space to be free to speak our truth out loud. And that truth has moved us forward. Indeed, I could feel a consciousness shifting. I could feel spirits stirring! I could feel the life-breath of change. What a night!
Before I go on, I want to express my deep gratitude for all of the many, many volunteers who made tonight a huge success! Without your tireless work and enthusiasm, this event would not have become a reality. There was so much generosity of time, resources, and sweat-equity — I am humbled by you. And I thank you.
In particular, I want to thank the membership and leadership of Northwest Community Church. You enthusiastically embraced this event from the word go. And I especially want to thank Rev. Greg Davis for being, for all intents and purposes, my partner in crime. Many times your joy for this event buoyed me when I was tired. And you imparted your creativity and imagination, turning this event not just into an activist moment but a poetic one as well. (Shout-out to Bruce Ewing who closed the night with a moving performance!)
I also want to thank each and every member of the panel: Jane Heenan, Christina Hernandez, Howard Watts. Each of you brought amazing insights and perspectives that pushed the conversation forward and added to our collective evolution. You could feel the electricity from so many thought-lightbulbs going off over people’s heads. So often the conversations I have with you enlighten me and it was no different tonight. Thank you for your leadership and courage.
Thanks also goes to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. It took me a while to find the right people to talk to, but they came through tonight. We had an officer posted at the door for our event and a black-and-white car parked outside all night. In a week when some were feeling increased concern about safety issues — Rabbi Shai Specht stayed home tonight because of threats to the Jewish community — it was a comfort to know that Metro supported our efforts to make our town a stronger, less hateful place.
Of course, I want to thank Erin Davies. As I shared yesterday, Erin and her fag bug have meant a lot to me. Reading her story in 2007 stirred something in me. It wouldn’t let me go until I contacted her. After we had a three-hour conversation it was clear to me that we were kindred spirits with a kind of twin-mission to motivate change. Something in my soul would not let me go until I organized an event for her in Las Vegas that year. Organizing that event changed me. It awakened the activist in me. It led me to my church (who were big-time volunteers with the 2007 events). And it led me to a kind of clarity about my own purpose in the world and who I wanted to be. When she called me this time, I felt the same pull again. The whole time I was working on NOH8 in Las Vegas, I kept having a feeling like I was called to work on it. (Not to get too religious-sounding, for those of you out there who aren’t into that sort of thing.) There was a kind of gravitational pull on my heart and I knew it was not going to go away until I had helped bring Erin back to Las Vegas.
What I saw tonight was so inspiring, healing, cathartic, brave, raw, honest, surprising, funny, beautiful, and mesmerizing. I felt like we were all sort of floating together in a craft built with our dream for a better community.
From what I can tell, we had a couple hundred people pack into Northwest Community Church. People shared some amazing, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories. Erin had us laughing at the so-strange-you-have-to-laugh experiences she’s had driving the fag bug for the past six years. But she also connected us to the heart of the matter.
“I don’t identify as a hero. I’m just a regular person going about my life,” she told the crowd. “But I believe that visibility is the key. Through visibility we have interactions and conversations and connections that change ideas. Visibility is everything.”
It reminds me of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote I put on my facebook this morning: Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.
Tonight was about erasing that which separates us and serves to divide us.
I was very moved by the stories presented by those on the panel as well. Rev. Greg shared a story about finding a lit oil-rag burning in the mailbox attached to his house, a clear and dangerous sign of homophobia in his old neighborhood. Christina Hernandez talked about a recent experience in which her parents were terrorized by the racist antics of a neighbor who took to spray painting hate speech on her own house just to send a hurtful, angry message about hating Latinos. Jane Heenan talked about being blacklisted and escorted out of Strip casinos because security guards “caught” her using the “wrong” bathroom — as if a grown adult does not know which bathroom to use and as if the act of someone using the restroom could actually hurt another person. And I have to give props to Howard Watts for his honesty in sharing his evolution as an LGBT ally in which he grew out of a household where his father openly used anti-gay speech.
But we did not just point a finger outwardly at the nebulous haters of the world. There was a collective experience of reminding ourselves that sometimes the worst acts of hate are those from within our own ranks. Erin shared that 99 percent of the negative comments she’s received about her fag bug have come from those in the LGBT community.
“When I [took the car] to my first pride event, my friends sort of abandoned me. They didn’t get it,” she said. “And I felt hurt and alone. But then when I got to the pride event and all these people were talking to me and hugging me and happy about what I was doing — what I realized was that I found a whole other community of support. I just hadn’t met them yet.”
The confrontational nature of the fag bug was a topic, too. As I’ve discussed here before, Erin’s use of the word is a reclaiming of hate speech that was sprayed on her car. The intention of the vandal who tagged her car was to try and plant a seed of fear and to silence Erin. She reclaimed the experience and uses it to start conversations every day, everywhere she goes. She sees it as a chance to meet hostility with compassion. She believes that each conversation is an opportunity to expand someone’s mind. And this is something that touched many of us.
We must fill our mind with compassion, as the Buddhist saying goes.
“The word is startling,” Rev. Greg said about the use of fag on Erin’s car. “But it brought us all together tonight.”
I was particularly touched by a story Erin shared in which a young woman had just found her own car vandalized with anti-gay hate speech. (Is there just an epidemic of this happening everywhere or what?) The woman was feeling really bad about it and her girlfriend suggested she watch the fag bug documentary. After watching the film, the woman told Erin that it made her realize that acts of hate do not define a person’s humanity. “I am bigger than that act,” Erin recounted the woman saying.
This brings me back to a central mission here on The Sin City Siren. Why do I write all these posts? Why do I tell these stories? Because someone out there needs them. Because I can’t sit by and do nothing when I see injustice. Because I’m still learning all the time and my ability to grow and change reminds me of what is possible for each and every one of us. We all deserve our best life. And we all deserve to live our best lives in the best community possible. But that doesn’t spring out of thin air. And it doesn’t come without work.
I hold a guiding principle that we must be the change that we want to see in the world (even if Gandhi didn’t really say that). We do not change the world by narrowly focusing on our own personal-is-political choices. But we do not live in a vacuum either. We bump into each other and learn from each other. Through our choices, we do communicate a message about who we are, and by implication, the society we want to see. Do we uphold the patriarchy, the institutionalized racism, the corrosive systems of oppression of LGBTQ people and more? Do we force a kind of confrontation with social mores by wearing clothes that provoke a response? Do we refuse to participate in traditions that reinforce strict gender roles or even a gender binary? The words we use, the clothes we wear, even the food we eat speak volumes about our personal values and agenda. And all those little decisions serve as a kind of living example to everyone we come into contact with. When I refuse to participate in the institutionalized patriarchy in which businesses label me as “the wife” of the man who makes the money — by forcing the uncomfortable conversation that requires them to acknowledge that there’s no real reason why my status as a customer is second-class to his — it’s a microlevel revolution. That conversation causes the other person to question the system of oppression that s/he took for granted as fact. We all have those opportunities. We just have to be bold enough to actualize them.
Every time someone sees the fag bug drive by or pull in to get gas, Erin Davies is causing a ripple effect of change. She forces conversations, with a smile. The next time I feel like chickening out or feel too tired to confront some sexist, racist, homophobic shit, I’m going to think of Erin.
I’m looking forward to what is next, Las Vegas. My sincere hope is that tonight is just the beginning.