MT World AIDS Day Award Acceptance Speech

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.

For him.

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.

ALL 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.

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2013 World AIDS Day honorees Stephanie Cole, Chris Gehring, Chantz Thilmony, Greg Smith Lisa Fairman with Gov Bullock and DPHHS Director Opper

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Me and a really cool Governor

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Pride Foundation: An Investment In Montana’s Future

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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.

I survived.

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.

https://www.pridefoundation.org/giving/give-online/

  •  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!

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Tonight! Eden Atwood, Huey Lewis And Friends Present: Soulsville!

I hope to see you there!

Click below for link to tickets….

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Blessed Are the Peacemakers

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.

 

Justice For Trayvon

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. 

Helloooo!!! Here I am!

I’m back!!

So, I know it’s been a while since I have written a blog post. Things have been very crazy in my world and they are just starting to settle down. I have been, somewhat, politically and socially active, but I haven’t really had the chance to write.

Fortunately, with most of this behind me, my time has opened up and you are going to be able to enjoy my snarky sense of humor!! My goodness, how I’ve missed all of you!

I have recently been involved in a court case. I’m not going to go into the details just now. That is for a later couple of blogs. I am also writing a book about that. Suffice to say, it wasn’t me that was in trouble. However, there are some things that have really opened my eyes as to the issue of equality for LGBTQI people here in the State of Montana.

I was told to shy away from the relationship aspect as the courts tend to be somewhat paternalistic in regard to LGBT relationships. It is better not to mention them. Why is that, I wonder? Just doesn’t seem really fair. And, that means that trials and hearings tend to move down a different path. Yuck. It’s glaringly obvious that we need marriage equality.

There are things that are taken for granted and things that are just naturally assumed for straight marriages, but those things are not just assumed for LGBT relationships. This is a problem. It’s just another area where we are left outside and we are somehow “different” and our relationships are somehow “different” than other people.

There are many reasons to promote marriage equality and this is just one of them. But, having it so close to home reminds me of how far we have yet to go.

My partner and I have tossed around the idea of heading down to Colorado, or possibly Washington to marry, but then we decided that we are probably going to hold on and fight for our home state. It may take a while. We want the legal recognition, but we also want to do this where our home is.

Montana has taken a step in the right direction by striking down language that would make us felons, but at the same time, there’s a long way to go. In the meantime, we will probably go through the proper legal channels in order to secure some of our rights. Although, with what we’ve seen in the news lately, that may not  necessarily help. But here’s hoping.

Anyhow, since I’m back, I’m prepping a few other blog posts to go up. Hopefully, you all will enjoy!

 

Why the Missoula Registry Matters

by Caitlin Copple

Tonight, Missoula’s City Council will vote to establish a domestic partnership registry open to same-sex couples across the Treasure State. But let’s be honest, domestic partnership registry doesn’t sound very sexy.  It doesn’t carry as much weight as full marriage equality, or even civil unions at the state level. So why even do it?

Let me be clear: No one should settle for mere city-level domestic partnership recognition. I’m certainly not going to. That’s why I hope you will join me in continuing to support these great organizations working on non-discrimination ordinances in Montana cities (www.mhrn.org, www.forwardmontana.org, http://www.fairisfairmontana.org) as well as statewide relationship recognition through the newly refiled Donaldson v. Montana case (www.aclumontana.org).

So if full marriage equality and non-discrimination is what LGBT Montanans and our allies really want, why bother with this little domestic partnership registry in Missoula? Does it even matter? Yep, and here’s why:

  1.  It’s called an LGBT movement for a reason. We can and should be moving forward at every level of our democracy until LGBT Montanans are treated equally under the law and our families are valued and respected in our culture – From Missoula to Miles City.  Incremental and inadequate as a registry may seem, it is an important step on the path to full equality.
  2. It sends a message to the State of Montana that cities will do everything they can for LGBT residents despite discriminatory laws. Municipal domestic partnership registries are proven to pave the way for more meaningful statewide change. We’ve seen this in the 58 other cities across 23 states, many which lacked any relationship recognition prior to the establishment of a local registry. You know how Minnesota defeated a ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage last fall, and how their legislature just passed marriage equality this session? Well, before any of that happened, Rochester and Minneapolis were leading the way by recognizing all families at the city level. This is not a coincidence.
  3.  Municipal domestic partnership registries help same-sex partners get health insurance coverage, as well as better treatment from first responders and hospitals. It’s not a replacement for statewide mandates or getting an advanced medical directive (Click here to make sure you have all your bases covered: http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/protecting-your-visitation-decision-making-rights). However,  Cathryn Oakley, director of the Municipal Equality Index project at HRC (her aunt lives in Billings – love that!) has provided me with countless examples of how this is happening in cities with registries across the country.  The wallet card offers proof for employers that want to do the right thing despite bad state law, and something that emergency and hospital personnel can point to in your time of need.

Here’s a link to the text of the Missoula resolution that will govern how the registry operates: http://missoula.siretechnologies.com/sirepub/cache/2/najfwbk13nw4n5achjhsqw54/7845907152013011316448.PDF. It’s open to all Montana couples.  Let the council know you support this effort by emailing us at council@ci.missoula.mt.us.

Remember, this registry is completely voluntary, and it is public information under state law, so if it’s not for you, don’t sign up. Coming out is always a risk, and as LGBT people, we make the decision every day about how out we want to be at work, at school, to our families and our faith communities. This is one more way that couples who want to can come out as domestic partners, and get at least some of the recognition and dignity they deserve, at least at the city level. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Together, by advocating at every level of our democracy, we can bring equality to all Montanans and our families.