On Activism

Following is the text, edited slightly, of my contribution to a keynote address to hundreds of attendees at a conference in October of 2000. The occasion was the Fourth Annual Breaking Walls, Building Bridges (BWBB), an annual conference by, for and about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.

From 1999 to 2002, I was a member of the steering committee of a recovery (chemical dependence and other) advocacy group called SpeakOUT. Among the opportunities that offered me was participation in the planning committee for BWBB. The 2000 conference theme was Activism. Rather than bring in an outside, expert "activist" speaker, the planning committee chose to hold a group keynote of the conference planners themselves.

With my increasing involvement in advocating for and organizing around issues of greenspace, sustainability, and community through gardening, I think this is on-topic for this blog. For me, it's a timely reflection on where I've been and what I've done to guide me in my current and future efforts.

I am not an activist. This is not modesty. I just don’t think of myself that way. I don’t think of what I do as activism. Activists do things I won’t do, or can’t do, or would never think of doing. Activists are heroic, even mythic, beings. What they do is beyond my reach.

When I was a boy I would fantasize about being a hero. I could be walking along a bridge, and hear someone calling for help from the water below, and jump in and save their life. I could know I’d done something good and important. I could know that I mattered, that I could make a difference.

In elementary school the best I could do was read to younger kids at the public library, and organize a fund-raising drive for the local animal shelter. When I was 14 the best I could do was tell my parents one Easter morning that I wasn’t going to church with them because I was an atheist. In high school the best I could do was refuse to recite or stand for the “pledge of allegiance” during morning home room because I didn’t believe in “one nation under God” or that there really was “liberty and justice for all.” In college the best I could do was organize a gay student rap group so I wouldn’t be the only gay person I knew at school.

In each case I never felt that I was doing anything special. I did what I felt I must do. It never felt like a choice to me. I never felt courageous doing any of these things.

These examples predate “gay cancer,” GRID (Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease), AIDS. I’ve lost countless scores, probably hundreds, of lovers, friends, neighbors – and heroes – to meaningless deaths from AIDS, as well as suicide and drug overdose. I have to ask: Why am I still alive? Since there’s no life after this one, and no divine purpose, how can my life have any meaning?

I’ve concluded that the only meaning to be found in life is that which we give it. The best I can do is try to leave the world a better place than I found it, through my words, my actions, my spirit. I have no choice. It’s what I must do.

Some say “The end justifies the means.” Don’t believe it. Those who say so would only take credit, and none of the responsibility, for changing the world. So much unjustifiable violence is done in the name of Family, Nation and God. The end is nothing. The means is everything. How we do things is more important than whether we succeed or fail. How we live our lives is heroic.

Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, wrote “What is to give light must endure burning.” Light doesn’t justify burning. Light transcends burning. How we celebrate ourselves transcends what we must endure and survive. It serves only our enemies – and serves us least of all – to be polite, nice, and “normal,” to be unassuming and inoffensive, to be silent and invisible. Every one of you, by being here today, whatever it took, is a hero to me. Shine on.

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