Last weekend my wife and I went to Hillcrest Orchards in Ellijay, Georgia for our annual pig races and apple picking with the Normans. In the 2012 presidential election the city voted over 4 to 1 against President Obama. As we were about 5 miles away from the orchards we saw a house for sale. Out front there were no fewer than 7 Confederate flags planted by the roadside and a “No Trespassing” sign. (Kind of limits their Open House opportunities I imagine.) Megan never stifles my fashion transgressions even when they may prove more risky based on audience. She just remains more vigilant and protective of me in those environments. Because I receive that unconditional support I feel more emboldened to maintain my sense of style, apropo only to the activities in which we would be partaking.
People watching is a favorite sport of mine. I not only enjoy observing how people present themselves in different environments but also how they interact with others. In my periphery I try to be mindful of how people receive me in my fashion experiment of the moment without letting it effect me — too much. The orchard was filled with locals as well as families from all over the state. The children I saw were decked in their finest tutus, glitter, and non-Halloween costumery. Fashion transgressors in the making?
Knowing I was not ‘in my element’ I found myself uplifted in ways I couldn’t have expected. It wasn’t by the man in the electric mobility scooter who refused to greet my open smile and ‘hello’ with anything more than a snear and a whisper to the lady sitting beside him. That was well within the realm of expected. I bought a fresh apple cider upon arriving. The young lady at the register smiled ear to ear and told me “Your outfit… your style… your you… brings me life!” I couldn’t imagine a more profound gift than what I had just received.
Visual activism requires a certain amount of risk. When I don a suit and wear it to an HRC Gala or a Diversity and Inclusion outing I am just another voice in a harmonious choir. That doesn’t make it unnecessary in those environments. I always seek to inspire and celebrate others to trust themselves more and live an authentic life. But, when visiting a town where the LGBTIA community don’t see a lot of outward representation out of genuine fear — just being comfortable in my own skin and outfit can change a life. It reinforces that it does get better. We are visible. They are not alone. Harvey Milk’s ‘The Hope Speech’ always uplifts me and resonates even to this day.
And you and you and you– you have to give people hope.
It’s not just about the disenfranchised who are privileged enough to live in more progressive cities — though they, too, suffer and struggle. In my own city of Atlanta, Scout Schultz, a transgender student at Georgia Tech, was recently shot and killed by a campus police officer. It was not a hate crime. It was a tragedy and a travesty. Scout made the 911 call to Georgia Tech Police alerting them to a suspicious person on campus and left three suicide notes in their dorm room. LGBQTIA people around the world suffer higher suicide rates than their heterosexual counterparts. According to the Trevor Project, in a national study — 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25. Whether you are in San Francisco, Atlanta, Alatoona, or even Ellijay — you have to give people hope. While hope isn’t always enough it is a critical first step in a lifetime journey.
Each day as I get dressed in the morning I am mindful of the statements I am making in my attire. While many of my friends and family appreciate the boldness in patterns, colors, and bow tie choice — I do not leave the house without my USA/rainbow flag lapel pin. In fact, I bought a dozen shortly after the election to share with others because I believe that now more than ever visibility is life-giving.
I am a patriot. As George Orwell once wrote, “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism.” Patriotism demands questioning, challenging, and rising up for what’s right in the face of fear and hate mongering. It demands that we all look out for each other and stand together even when it’s hard — because the consequences should be unimaginable.
We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.
So I wear my lapel pin, bow tie, creative combinations of clothing, and a smile each and every day. The cashier at the Chik-Fil-A asks to get a closer look at my pin only to tell me her sister is a lesbian asking me where she can find one. The man at the bar notices it and simply bows his head and mouths, “Thank you.” The number of people I count as friends these days is ever-growing as strangers reach out and receive my message only to share their own. And while the man in the mobility scooter might not have had the same sentiment as countless others, I remain vigilant and undeterred. I hold onto hope not just for the freedom and safety of all disenfranchised Americans — but also for that man in the scooter.
Chant it. Slap it on the bumper of your car. Hold it in your heart. Just never forget that it is love, and not hate, that makes America great.