The idea to celebrate National Coming Out Day came from a couple of places: the sense, first of all, that it was long overdue that this city, which is generally welcoming, make that apparent. I’ve been here for a decade and although there are always jerks – everywhere & not just here – the majority of people here have wanted to learn more about LGBTQ lives.
Plus there’s a lot of us here.
I’d just been in NYC in the week leading up to the 50th annviersary of Stonewall when the city, via an innocent interactive “What’s Your Question Wednesday” Facebook post, mentioned “Selfie Day” – a day of civic engagement nationwide, when people come take selfies next to City Hall. My friend Nate Wolff asked, “Why hasn’t Appleton ever done anything for pride?” and the answer we got was dismissive and condescending. I posted in response about the importance of pride as did quite a few others, and what became clear was that the person doing the communicating for the city and the mayor was not up to speed on the city’s policies or the mayor’s emphasis on creating a welcoming, inclusive city. The city had done things; we just hadn’t heard much about them.
So there were meetings with Mayor Hanna and with the city’s diversity coordinator, Karen Nelson, who promised they would do better for the next Pride month. But a lot of LGBTQ people were upset and wanted the communication guy’s job, to be honest, so I suggested that they maybe had to do something sooner. A lot of universities do things in October precisely because most schools are out in June, so I thought that might work. It would be a day, not even a month, and it would be a good trial run for the next Pride month.
I knew that SCOTUS would be hearing arguments about LGBTQ employment discrimination the same week and I figured we would either all be very, very worried or maybe feeling relieved, so it might be a good day for LGBTQ people to feel the support of local businesses and to celebrate ourselves.
It feels like we’ve reach Mach 1, broken the sound barrier. As I said, the city has long been affirming of LGBTQ rights: we have a great NDO that includes gender identity & expression, big employers like KC and Goodwill who employ LGBTQ people, and a few colleges and nearby cities that are affirming. What we didn’t have was visibility.
Do you have a flag? Eddie Izzard once asked, and it turns out, most businesses didn’t. So I told the city I’d fundraise the money to buy them; I’d fundraise to pay people to canvas businesses; I’d fundraise to pay someone to design a logo, and the rest is history.
It’s hard to explain how big a deal it was and how big a deal it really wasn’t. The impact was tremendous. The excitement and enthusiasm of local businesses and business owners was tangible. It took an unusual alignment of bad communication, timing, anger, and impatience. It took a diversity coordinator – an office of one – who very much wanted to do something, and a mayor who backed her.
It was a lot of work, a lot of administration, a lot of emails, a lot of willpower. I was lucky to have a co organizer who owns a car because I don’t.
It took, to no small degree, the loss of a former student who both me and Nate loved and respected tremendously. Zac Presberg’s memory is what kept our fire lit. We did it with him in mind every minute, and made sure we added voter registration to the work, in his honor. We both miss him, very much.
Walking from Lawrence to City Center on Friday afternoon was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced here. I’ve been here 10 years and I’d never seen a pride flag up anywhere other than the local gay bar; in Brooklyn, nearly every bar has a rainbow decal or flag up somewhere. And I’ve known so many students at LU who needed to see them, so many adults who needed to, so many young people. Too many. This area has lost far too many young people to suicide due to bullying; one of the first times I was called on to do some education for local leaders was because a young person had taken their own life.
Some days there is way too much pain and way too much loss and way too much worry about the future. I have been worrying about gay people since I was very very young and people only assumed I was queer because of my gender. I have been married to a trans woman for nearly two decades and in that time things have gotten better but lately they are getting worse – a lot worse, and too fast.
Activism can be lonely work. We’re not normal people. But I have had so many people in Appleton and elsewhere who have said the right thing at the right time or posted the right meme at the right minute. So walking down College Ave, the main drag in Appleton, to see shop after shop after shop with a flag up felt like a homecoming for this activist. Appleton has never quite felt like home to me, and New York always will be, but for those few minutes, walking down that avenue, remembering all the people who were excited to receive their flag and who asked if they could put it up early and if they could keep it so they could put it up in June made me realize that I am more of this place than I ever thought.
I’m guessing that other LGBTQ people felt the same way. In fact I know they did. Even some who aren’t here, the Appleton queer people who grew up here but left told me they were moved that their hometown had done this, finally. The person who watched a friend get gay bashed posted that her same friend would have been happy to see it. Former students told me. Older lesbians told me. It’s difficult to put into words how a simple gesture like a flag can suddenly make you realize that there are people who care, there are people who know how hard it is, there are people who don’t know but want to help however they can.
It’s not legislation. It’s not a cure. It’s not an end to the violence. But it is meaningful, and it is comforting. While I was walking that avenue with tears in my eyes it was perfect.
Thank you so much to so many people who helped, encouraged, volunteered, celebrated. Thank you to Tim Hanna and Karen Nelson, of course. But Nate Wolff (Team HellWolf is now a thing), Kathy Flores, Nick Ross, Vered Meltzer, Reiko Ramos, Nik Shier, Cory Chisel & Ade Denae, the good folks at Rainbow Over Wisconsin and their board, & everyone who donated time or money or just sheer fucking enthusiasm: it was so easy to ask and so hard to imagine but here we are, through the sound barrier, and now we figure out what next.
Love to you, Appleton, and your shitty cold weather and warmer hearts: you did good.