I have struggled with writing this blog for some time. I didn’t know when the right time was going to be to do it. There have been many factors influencing my decision. My partner, family, friends, work, theatre, etc. It’s been a bumpy ride and very challenging spiritually, emotionally, socially and physically. As I sit here in the middle of a snow storm next to my roaring fire in the comfort of my own home, I am mostly content. It feels safe here. The dogs are relaxing, the birds are quiet and I have the house to myself. I can almost feel like I am strong and nothing is changed. Nothing is different. Everything is going to be okay. But, four innocuous words, put together, could change that in an instant. You see, I have a secret. But I don’t like secrets. They cause way too much stress. No, it’s not that I’m gay. That’s no secret to anyone. I mean, HELLO!!! Do you know me? The secret is even larger than that. It is earth-shattering, in some aspects. It is a heavy burden to bear. And I’m finally at the point where I don’t know if I can, or should, keep it in the closet any longer. This is my secret. And, it is very scary for me to share it with you. I don’t know what it will do to my social standing or my friendships. There are select people in my life that already know. My partner, first and foremost, my family and some of my very close friends. And they have all been overwhelmingly supportive. I am hoping that there are more people like that out there. I’m sure that others already know because of the way that gossip spreads through the “grapevine,” but I want to be sure that people are hearing it from the horse’s mouth.
You see, the reason I am giving away my secret is because I am an activist (if you hadn’t already noticed. . .tee hee). I want to educate people and I want to make people aware that this still happens. Let me give you just a little bit of background and we will kind of take it from there. I sit here and think of vipers like Dave Agema, the Michigan National Committeeman. “Folks, they (gay people) want free medical because they’re dying (when they’re) between 30 and 44 years old,” the paper quotes Agema saying last week. Funny. . .I’m almost 40 and I’m not dead. And, Dear Mr. Agema, I pay for my own health insurance. I pay all of my co-pays and even the costs that my insurance doesn’t cover. One of the things that the Affordable Care Act has done for me is to ensure that I don’t have to shell out 5 figures per year (yes, that much) because an insurance company might not want to cover my “pre-existing condition.” Perhaps Davey-boy thinks that I got what I deserved because I’m gay. Perhaps, he secretly rejoices with each new diagnosis of HIV because that means there will be one less queer in the world. Think again, Dave. I did not become HIV positive because I was promiscuous or because I was an IV drug user. As a matter of fact, I found out completely by mistake. That story will be told later. But, what I CAN tell you is that I got this disease because I loved and trusted someone. I was in a long term relationship. However, that person did not have the same respect for me and completely and totally betrayed my trust. The person lied to me about his status and there was ample opportunity to tell the truth. It would not have changed the way I felt about him, but it might have changed some of my behavior. That is the thing that I have struggled with the most out of all of this. I loved someone. I became HIV positive. The sense of betrayal is overwhelming at times. A friend of mine said it to me the best: The measure of a man and his heart is not the love he gives simply to feel validated and “loved” in return. Your heart is unconditional. . . But a human being that loves, that really understands being a living breathing man, doesn’t take advantage of that – he protects it and cares for it and nurtures is like the precious thing it is. He stole that and abused it and bent that into something twisted just to steal what he could, out of fear, of other’s love and affection. He put you all in harm’s way to protect himself, and he used love as his weapon to do it. It is the most awful sin a person who claims to be human can commit. (Thank you, Amber Meyer) I found out the results on February 13th, 2012. How’s that for an early Valentine’s Day present? When I talked with my partner (who is negative, thankfully), I asked him how this was going to affect our relationship. He said, “I don’t understand what you mean. This is “For Better or For Worse, In Sickness and In Health.” Isn’t that what we decided? I love you for who you are, not what you have or don’t have.” I cried. But don’t you dare EVER tell anyone that! I will deny it with my last breath! I have an image to maintain, here. . . But, for the record, I am healthy. I have been seeing a doctor since I found out. I am on one pill a day that keeps my viral load undetectable and my T cells have been steadily climbing since I started. I am back to a normal level. I am sick less often and my energy has started to come back. And now, I am ready to fight. I am ready to educate. I am ready for whatever the world has to throw at me. I am here. I am LIVING!! And I am not going to die anytime soon. My doctor told me to expect to live to a ripe old age (80+), that is, if I quit smoking. My thoughts are along the same lines, but that is unless I push an old woman out from in front of a bus and I bite the dust saving her life. Although, it would be my luck that she would sue my estate because she broke a hip. . . If you feel that this blog would help someone, please share it. If it moved you, please share it. And remember, as I have said before, we all know someone who is HIV positive. And now, you know me. And this is what living with HIV looks like:
Once upon a time, there was a boy who grew up in a small town- in a time when things were said to be simple- but they were not.
He was unlike the other kids in ways that weren’t always noticeable to the people around him. He felt things a bit more keenly. He noticed things that other kids didn’t. He wasn’t great at sports, he wasn’t big and strong.
But he was smart.
And sometimes that meant he got picked on even more than other kids.
So he used that.
It made him tough. His parents were good, loving people. His church provided comfort. His books helped him escape.
Maybe it was God, maybe it was chance- it doesn’t really matter what made him different. He just was.
The fact remained that this boy- indistinguishable from a million other little boys- just wanted to be loved, even though he was different.
And when he grew up, he still wanted to be loved – sometimes desperately. Sometimes he trusted people who weren’t trustworthy- simply because the promise of love is often enough to make us overlook danger and potential tragedy.
The promise of love.
That’s what brings us here today.
That’s why I got infected. That’s how I got infected.
The promise of love. Not what you think about when you think of AIDS.
But I want you to think about it.
When I moved back to Montana almost seven years ago, I made a promise: that no gay kid would ever be so starved for love and support- would not be so handicapped by shame- that they couldn’t stay here and have a happy, successful, healthy and safe life if they wanted to. I would do everything in my power to make it happen.
So I came out as gay- and HIV positive- just to show that there is no shame in having a disease. It’s a virus, it’s not a judgment.
A microscopic being that happens to live in my body. And I want to keep it from living in any one else’s.
And so do you, I hope.
This disease has been around for over three decades. And yet the state of Montana has never allocated state funds for its prevention. Not a penny.
Which begs the question- why?
Is it because of the shame at how the disease is transmitted?
Is it because we might have to talk about sex, needles, addiction and shame and fear?
Isn’t thirty two years long enough to avoid having this hard conversation?
In the Montana that little boy grew up in- that I grew up in- we prided ourselves on helping out where it was needed. We filled sandbags, we stopped when it looked like people were in trouble on the road, we ran to the fire house when the siren rang.
But not for HIV. Not for AIDS. Well, let me correct that.
A few very brave people did stand up. They braved ridicule and stigma to hold candlelight vigils and to hold the hands of people whose parents were too afraid to touch them. I know. I was there. I held some of those hands. And so did Laurie Kops and probably a few others in this room.
I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but it’s important that we get back to something very basic here in the state of Montana.
Caring for our people.
It’s time to recognize that all people deserve the promise of love in their lives. Deserve the dignity and respect that I believe God gives everyone simply by being born. Deserves the respect of having information and materials at their disposal provided by the state that is charged with enabling public health and well-being. It’s what I want out of my taxes- I hope it’s what you want from yours.
There are a few legislators here you can tackle on the way out….
My life is good. I have family that love me, a partner who is always there for me and more friends than any man ever deserves.
But it could be better.
Somewhere in the state of Montana there is a kid who doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of love.
And he’s part of our responsibility. Because he does deserve love. And he deserves help to be healthy about it.
Shame is keeping us from health.
Kinda crazy, isn’t it?
It’s time to have those hard conversations.
It’s time to stop shame in its tracks.
It’s time to return the promise of love to all Montanans.
Thank you for listening- and for this awesome award.
- Capitol rotunda ceremony honors AIDS Day award recipients (billingsgazette.com)
- 5 honored at Montana Capitol for AIDS work (missoulian.com)
- 5 honored at Montana Capitol for AIDS work (ravallirepublic.com)
- 5 Montanans to be honored on World AIDS Day (missoulian.com)
You may have noticed that I’m a big fan of the Pride Foundation.
I’d like to explain why.
When I was growing up in Montana in the 70’s, there were no resources for kids like me- no gay role models, no resources, no way for me to combat the prevalent message that I was deformed, debilitated or disordered. I just assumed that I was. It’s a painful way to live. In fact, it was so painful I attempted suicide.
Some of our kids haven’t.
When I moved back to Montana as a reasonably well-adjusted gay man, I made myself a promise: I would do everything in my power to make sure that kids growing up here would have role models and support and resources to stand against the messages of hate and bigotry that still find a place in our culture.
Pride Foundation is a big part of that for me.
When I worked at Seattle Counseling Service, Pride Foundation was a major supporter of our mental health and substance abuse work with LGBTIQ and HIV-infected people. They are proud partners in creating community health. That makes Pride Foundation a natural partner for my life goals as a gay man in Montana. Pride Foundation has made it a point to create a culture of giving and support for organizations and individuals to create safe and sustaining places for LGBTIQ people- and our allies- in Montana, Idaho, Alaska, Oregon and Washington. Creating better and more inclusive communities for all.
Since 1985, Pride Foundation has given more than $39 million dollars to thousands of organizations and scholars across the Pacific Northwest.
If you’ve been looking for a way to be involved, here’s your chance. Volunteers serve on grant and scholarship review teams, work at local events and provide important input for our mission in every state across the region.
And, if you’re looking to get an amazing return on your philanthropic dollar, I hope you’ll consider a gift that will keep on giving for decades to come.
I currently serve- with Shelley Hayes from Billings- as one of Montana’s Pride Foundation Board Members. I’m also the Pride Foundation Montana Leadership Action Team Chair, and I’m doing everything in my power to ensure that Pride Foundation’s generous culture of philanthropy and stewardship continues to benefit Montanans and LGBTIQ persons in the Pacific Northwest for years to come.
I’d like you to join me.
Here’s the Pride Foundation donor link. It’s very easy. Ken and I give $50 every month- and it’s simply taken from our debit card. Plus, for every dollar you give to Pride Foundation over $3.00 comes back to Montana! That’s unheard of in this day and age.
- All donations from Montanans stay in Montana supporting grants and scholarships here.
- For every $1 raised in MT last year, $3.80 came back to the state.
- Caitlin has driven over 10,000 miles since being hired as the first staff on the ground two years ago.
- We’ve given away nearly $500,000 in Montana total, including nearly $50,000 this past year.
We plan to award even more this next year thanks to our supporters- people just like you.
Whatever you can offer is deeply appreciated. We appreciate your time as well as your resources. Seriously. We treat all of our donors and volunteers as part of our family.
Thanks in advance for helping make the future brighter for LGBTIQ people under the Big Sky!
- Pride Foundation Scholar Helps Draft Montana Civil Unions Bill (dgsmith.org)
- Having an LGBTQ Community Event? There’s Money Available! (dgsmith.org)
- Tim Sweeney, Kris Hermanns to Attend Billings Pride Foundation Benefit (dgsmith.org)
- Pride Foundation Executive Director On SCOTUS Rulings (dgsmith.org)
- Alaska Scholarship Recipients Honored (alaskapride.wordpress.com)
- Welcome, Kim! (dgsmith.org)
Recently, I have been turning toward the Beatitudes. I have looked at them from every direction and wondered why more “Christians” haven’t taken to them as a way of life. The one that really struck me today was Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
All my life, I have been a peacemaker. (Well, okay, there was one period of about 5 years where I tried to stir up as much drama with my family as I could. . .but let’s not dwell on the past) I don’t like it when people fight and I just want to see people get along.
I seem to have been born with a highly developed sense of compassion and empathy. I used to (and still do) befriend what my mom lovingly termed, “The Unlovables.” These were the kids that got picked on in school because they were different. The kids that had no friends. I was constantly asking questions as to why people were being treated so badly and my heart regularly broke for them. I also have to admit (much to my chagrin) that I got a little teary at the end of Dangerous Liaisons when I watched it in high school. My heart broke for Glenn Close’s character. Yes, she brought most of it on herself, but did she really deserve to be treated so harshly by the very society that created her? Where was the compassion? I know, I know. . .it’s silly.
There have been many inspirations for me over the years: Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King, Jr. And more recently, there have been some inspirations from closer to home: Liz Welch of the ACLU Montana, Gregory Smith of the Pride Foundation, Caitlin Copple, Jamie Greer, Edie Windsor just to name a few. These are the “Children of God.”
I have seen some very negative posts lately. I have even created one. And if you saw my last post, you will also know that I have issued an apology in the interest of being a peacemaker. I do not presume to know the mind of God. I would be leery of anyone who says they do. However, I listen to the “Still, small Voice” inside and I know what God says to me. And it may not be the same thing that God says to you. Does it mean you are wrong? No. Does it mean I am wrong? No. Just different.
Christians are not bad people. They are people, just like the rest of us. They make mistakes. They fall from the path. We have to remember to hold ourselves to the very standards that we are comparing them against, like “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I would also refer to Luke 6:42 “Either how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou beholdest not the beam in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.”
A moment of clarity came to me this morning in a Biblical argument with a misinformed person. The Bible is a tool to show YOU how to live. It is NOT a tool for YOU to show ME how to live. It is for me to use the tool myself. But, I digress.
Psalm 34:14 says, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” Pursuing peace and negotiating it is a tricky business. But even the ACT of pursing peace is the act of departing from evil and doing good. We need to be mindful of that.
The Old Testament was tribal law, meant to hold the Israelites together during the time when they had no home. The Old Testament is included in the Bible to show Christians where they came from and what their history was. Jesus brought the New Testament to show a better way to live. It is a new covenant, replacing the old. Jesus was/is the Son of God. A child of God. A peacemaker.
I will continue to be a peacemaker. I will continue to support people that are peacemakers. I will continue to fight for people’s rights and to fight injustice where I see it. That is part of what being a peacemaker is.
Perhaps I am not on the forefront, helping to change and write policies and laws, but that doesn’t mean I am ineffective. I am on the sidelines, changing people’s minds and hearts. I write because I can, because it is a talent given to me by God and I have been charged with using that talent. And I will continue to wield it as a peacemaker. I am a child of God.
As I stood on the Higgins Avenue Bridge Monday afternoon with friends and allies in the social justice movement in support of Trayvon Martin, I was horrified at the blatantly racist reactions from the passersby. My hope was that in participating in this demonstration on Monday, I would find some outlet for all the feelings the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict evoked in me as a young black man in America. I was heartened by the turnout for the event, and was moved that as a person of color I was not again forced to represent the whole of my race, but instead was supported by some wonderful allies who organized the event due to their own deeply felt feelings of injustice. During my participation in in the demonstration we received what in my activism in Missoula was a record number of negative responses to our presence and signs on the Higgins Bridge. We had people giving us the thumbs down, the middle finger, folks yelling racist tirades out their windows, etc. I had stood on that bridge for Choice, Healthcare, Marriage Equality, Peace, and many other issues, and never had I been so negatively received.
I had started my day on Monday lying in bed reading various news outlets and blogs discuss the emotional and moral responses to the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. Several of the “facts” surrounding the case I felt were totally irrelevant to this case. So I purposefully avoided any discussions of Trayvon’s past actions, Zimmerman’s level of security, whether or not people were going to riot in response to the ruling, and instead focused on the things I felt were important. How were black people being portrayed in the media? Was the victim of the crime being blamed for his murder? What did society see as an acceptable reason for killing a 17 year old child? I am an organizer for social justice, and have worked my entire career focusing on LGBT rights, racial justice, and women’s rights. This made my focus in this case not surprising…
After hours of anger, frustration, and fear in response to a constant slew of blatant racism disguised as social commentary, I found the outlet for my feelings. Some friends had decided to hold the demonstration in Missoula on the Higgins Bridge. As I prepared for this action, I found that I was having trouble expressing in a sound bite my complex thoughts. More disturbing was my trouble in finding a connection that I felt would resonate with people isolated from the case, thousands of miles away. I felt little distance from this case, as I was profiled, harassed, and threatened as a young black man living all over the country. I had spent several years of my life in FL, and had experienced much of the racism that exists there. But how was I to truncate these feelings and experiences that had created the late twenties black man that I was today? How was I to communicate the urgency and overwhelming despair that had caused me to cry in my kitchen only hours before? Was I allowed to reference explicitly my blackness? Would the mostly white population of Missoula resonate with me if I did?
In organizing we teach that when things get complicated, break them down to the most simple and identifiable elements. You can’t write a dissertation on a piece of foamcore board, even if your message is really important. So I landed on one of the familiar images of a black hoodie, “Justice 4 Trayvon,” and Black Skin + Black Hoodie Does not Equal Criminal. I did not want to attack Zimmerman, hash out the details of the case, or blame any of the players in the trial for a miscarriage of justice. I just wanted to express that I did not feel that the case ultimately ended in placing any responsibility with someone who had for whatever reason ended the life of a child, and that the constant attacks on the clothes that he was wearing, the language that he used, his alleged past indiscretions should all be irrelevant to the ending of his short life by a man who used bad judgment when he willfully exited his car with a firearm after following a child ultimately shooting him.
Many people around the country did not understand why so many of us saw race as an issue in this case. They didn’t understand why in this post-racial America, we need concern ourselves with the race of the perpetrator or the victim. The “unbiased facts” of the events of the evening should reveal the truth without any messy discussion of race relations. The only problem was that for many people of color, the case screamed racial motivation. Even before allegations of Zimmerman’s statements that night, or his passed activity on social networking sites; the narrative was familiar to us. Why? Because we live it all the time.
When I was young, a neighborhood friend of mine asked me to go to a Walgreens with him. He was an overweight white kid from a middle class background, and I a mixed skinny kid from a somewhat lower socioeconomic status. We had lived only a few blocks from each other for years in Rockford,IL. At the time the city’s population was around a quarter of a million people, and there was a definite race problem. I said sure, and we entered the Walgreens. As soon as we entered he said he had to go to the bathroom, and asked me to meet him in the toy aisle. As I walked toward the toy aisle I was immediately followed by the store clerk. I perused the toys, and then went to the candy aisle to grab a few packs of my favorite grape double bubble. My friend was already in the candy aisle, so once I had gathered my purchases, we went to the checkout line, the clerk eyeballing me the whole way. I paid for my gum, after turning out my pockets at the clerk’s request. My friend, who was standing next to me, said he had decided not to get anything, so after my purchase we left. When we got back home, my friend emptied his pockets to reveal his five finger discount purchases. He had liberated toys, cigarettes, and various kinds of his favorite candy. I was horrified, and asked him why he thought it was ok to steal. He replied that he had seen a dateline news episode on racial profiling, and wanted to see if it worked. Obviously it had. This is only one of my experiences with profiling. Since that day early on in my childhood in IL, I would be profiled by many more store clerks, I would be dismissed as stupid by teachers who were entrusted with my education, I would be assumed the assailant and not the victim when I called the police to ensure my safety, accused of stealing property by white friends when things went missing in their homes, ad nauseam.
I was a mouthy skinny black kid, fearless, and “entirely too smart for my britches” as my grandmother used to say. I really could have been Trayvon walking in a community, of mostly white people, with some “creepy ass cracker” following me. If I had been confronted by him, I would likely have responded with indignation at the attack on my basic human dignity, and the continued entitlement of those white people who assume that because I am black I somehow do not belong in the same places they do. And had I felt that my person was in danger, I likely would have fought back.
What saved me in my youth was that I was taught to expect racism, to trust the police but to always have witnesses, and to speak as eloquently as possible when interfacing with white people in authority so that they could identify with me. Growing up with mostly white relatives, I had watched them have positive experiences with the police, and get what they needed from government institutions. My uncles were all firefighters, and I learned early on to trust uniforms. When I was little my grandmother made me memorize the family telephone numbers, and she even sewed an old film canister into my coat to make sure that I would always have them with me. Had I been walking on a FL street I likely would have hung up with my friend, and dialed the police. Told them that there was a creepy dude following me. I might have even asked the dude what he was doing, and if I could help him find anything before I called the police.
What was different for me is that I grew up straddling two worlds. I know that for many black children, the narrative taught to them is not that the police are your friend. For many of them this is bolstered by profiling, harassment, and other barriers to justice. I remember the differences in narratives when I would visit my father’s family who is black, and hear all of the injustice and harassment they had experienced as a part of their daily lives. We did not want to see racism in this case, we couldn’t help but see it.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book some years ago called Blink, and as a student of Political Science, I was subject to pieces of it for years of my college education. In the book, much is made of Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, and for some it is quite the lightning rod. Some point to it to prove that Institutionalized Racism exists, and is alive and well. For this discussion, the important part of this test is that those that hold these associations like black = bad are not consciously aware of this. It is important to note that this test does not claim to measure a person’s beliefs, only the associations they make about certain groups of people. Any class in the social sciences will likely have some reference to sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. And without fail there will be students in the class who will deny the current existence of the bias, and state that in this day and age that we are beyond all that, and that “X” special interest group is just hypersensitive to their particular issue. For many, these biases are invisible. They are unaware of why having a jury of primarily white females who have been socialized in this country to fear black males might return a not guilty verdict when the defendant is a white male seen as the legitimate authority figure. And they are obliviously unconcerned as to why.
For many black Americans this case represented a great deal. It represented an opportunity to validate the existence of black people in society. It served as an indictment of profiling and harassment of black bodies. It served as a catalyst for discussion and change in our society about black people’s access to justice.
And when we heard the verdict, many of us felt disappointment, rage, frustration, all centered in our collective memories of oppression.
I found myself deeply saddened by the responses of my fellow Missoulians who I have lived alongside for close to seven years. I felt compelled to write something to express all the emotions and experiences that informed my participation in that demonstration. My dissertation that would not fit on foamcore board.
Many of us hope that the result of this case, and all the media attention it garnered will lead to momentum in our continued struggle to battle erasure, oppression, and lack of access to agency and justice for people of color. I hope that my fellow Missoulians and the greater Montana community will join me in engaging with empathy to ensure that we all can share this great state that we love.
Sincerely, John Blake
Student and Community Activist
John is a biracial, Montana transplant, twenty something, social change activist, agitator, and student.