I’ve always been tenacious. I realized at the tender young age of four while walking past a fairly run-down, dirt field in Spring Valley, California while a pick-up fast pitch softball game unfolded before my eyes; I declaratively stated to my older brother that “I was going to do that”. As I watched the player’s athleticism and grit as their bats sliced against the oncoming ball, and they ran with such determination, I was in.
Cut to me, 14 years later signing my national letter of intent to play Division 1 softball at Fresno State. There was a sense of pride in my father’s eyes, as all the late night practices and trips across the country to play in countless tournaments had led to this moment right here. But with a fleeting light, that life was short lived. There is still a heaviness in my chest remembering the feeling of sitting alone on the floor of my dorm room after I made the gut-wrenching decision to quit playing competitive softball after a couple of seasons. The announcement, compounded shortly thereafter by the call to my father who established that I had just made a horrible, life ending mistake and that I was no longer his daughter; just a shameless, unidentifiable girl, struggling to become a woman.
I got up off the floor that day and piece by piece began to live my life. I came out of the closet. I rock climbed. I traveled a little. In the preceding months and years that followed that experience my tears turned to laughter and the mask that I had worn for so long was cast aside. It was liberating. Now I’ve been introduced to someone that it took me 31 years to find. Myself.
Do you ever get into that space where despite whatever looming fear is hovering over you; you still choose to say yes? That’s exactly where I’ve been lately. Recently I was invited to speak at an LGBT Lavender graduation ceremony at the University of San Francisco, and just a few weeks ago was invited to participate and facilitate the Story of Self, Personal Narrative training with the New Organizing Institute (based in Washington D.C.). It’s been exhilarating. What these experiences (and others like them) have in common is that a mere seven years ago I would have said no and allowed these “golden” opportunities to pass by. That paralyzing fear would’ve left me stagnate. Reflectively, I think back to my defining moment of change.
In the spring of 2006 I traveled with five women from an organization called NieuCommunities on a weeklong trip to Vancouver, Canada. Throughout the week we experienced several service projects to introduce us (most of who had never been to Canada) to our surrounding environment. One of the projects fundamentally changed me.
It was more eloquently explained to me by a resident while we were on a bustling street corner back then but to summarize, in 2006 in a six block by six block area (where many Canadians well below the poverty line lived) the Canadian government shut the doors for one of – if not the largest – mental institution in the area and the patients were set free. Simultaneously, in the same neighborhood the government erected the largest courthouse and police station in an effort to “contain” all of these citizens. Long story short, under archaic, despicable living conditions, a situation arose where those who needed access to help were not receiving it. In order to accommodate these inhabitants a bunch of low income housing units, called Single Room Occupancy’s (SRO’s) were created. Imagine a college dorm style structure with one bathroom at the end of the hall that 40 men shared. The World Health Organization constantly had to come in to assess whether the conditions were livable, and when they weren’t volunteers came in and clean out the space using hands and shovels, depending on the amount of debris that needed to be cleaned up. So, here we were these mid-20s young women immersed in this space. It was surreal. It was there, amidst the rubble; needles littering the floor that we found John; a former cop who derailed (understandably) after the death of his wife and son in a traffic accident just a few years prior.
Looking at his room I remember thinking, “It’s like he’s taken his life on the street and brought it into this small space.” John lived daily with HIV and Hepatitis C; the stench of him and his space was almost unbearable but there was such a sweetness contained within his yes – there was hope. As we spent the day cleaning he told us his life story; he shared memories of his wife and son, and of his life before the accident. As our group gathered later that evening for our daily debriefs session, I – mentally exhausted by the day’s events – raised my hand and said aloud, “I think everyone needs the opportunity to spend a day with John.” I didn’t feel pity for John or his living situation, I felt guilty that society could so easily forget about him. Single-handedly that encounter altered the way that I make decisions. It helped me to see the other side and put myself in an uncomfortable, but rewarding situation.
I share that memory with you so that you can (hopefully) gain a deeper understanding of why I chose the paths that I did and also to remind myself of the experience and the difficult decisions that we all will certainly face one day. The choice to accept a job and move away, the decision to come out and get involved in our communities and so on… Join me, every other week as I draw you deeper into the rabbit hole of my life as I navigate far away from the sidelines and into the frontlines of this equality movement.