Laramie

August 7, 2009

Day 90

Today I drove from Salt Lake City, Utah to Laramie, Wyoming. The word “Laramie” is infamous in the minds of LGBTs across the country. This is where Matthew Shepard was killed. Many gay folks have made a pilgrimage to Laramie, to see where the most famous anti-gay hate-crime took place. I had to see for myself.

As I drove closer to Laramie, I became more emotional than I was expecting. Just seeing the name of the city on the green highway signs made a lump form in the throat. This is probably because the play about Matthew Shepard’s murder, “The Laramie Project”, and the film by the same name, use the “LARAMIE” sign as the image for the production.

I finally reached the city. Driving through the streets, I thought about the things I was seeing, and wondered if they were the same things he had seen when he lived here. Surrounding the city are hills and plains with barely any trees. The wind blows like I’ve never experience before. I thought about Matthew being tied to that fence, with the wind howling. He must have been freezing.

I headed to the University of Wyoming, where Matthew went to school. There I found the bench with a memorial plaque dedicated to Matthew Shepard. The plaque reads:

MATTHEW WAYNE SHEPARD
DECEMBER 1, 1976 – OCTOBER 12, 1998
BELOVED SON, BROTHER, AND FRIEND
HE CONTINUES TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
PEACE BE WITH HIM AND ALL WHO SIT HERE

I sat on the bench and thought about all that has happened since Matthew was murdered 10 years ago. Progress is being made. Congress is on the verge of passing The Matthew Shepard Act, a hate-crimes bill that will protect members of the LGBT community nationwide. I looked around at the beautiful campus of the University of Wyoming and hoped Matthew liked it here.

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After visiting the bench, I went to the outskirts of town to find the famous “LARAMIE” sign. There it was. Seeing this sign struck me harder than anything else in town. There may be a memorial bench dedicated to Matthew, but it is this sign that I had come to see. It is this sign, this picture, that I have connected with the death of Matthew Shepard for 10 years. Seeing the words, the letters, L-A-R-A-M-I-E, moved me. Of course I never new Matthew Shepard and have no personal connection to him. But I do, like every other LGBT person, have a personal connection to his story, his life, and his death.

Laramie

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Hate-crimes are considered as such because they are not only crimes against the victims, but against an entire community. The murder of Matthew Shepard was also a crime against a 16-year old Chris Mason in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. I had come out two years earlier and was now being shown that I could be killed for being gay. It made the anti-gay threats I heard in the halls of my high school much more real, scary, and deadly.

I never expected to be so moved by this town. I put it on the itinerary because it seemed like a good idea to stop here for the film. I never thought my heart would race like it did or that I would be so nervous to see the town. I had internalized more of this story than I had realized.

After seeing the “LARAMIE” sign, I jumped back on the highway and headed out of town. I felt a sense of relief wash over me. I felt better after being here. I took a deep breath and drove on.

If you like what we are doing, please help us continue the project by making a contribution.


Salt Lake City

August 6, 2009

Day 89

I rolled into Salt Lake City around noon today. My first stop was the Utah Pride Center. This place is amazing! They are doing such great work. I was a little nervous about being in Utah, home of the anti-gay Mormon church, but as soon as I got to the Pride Center, I let out a deep breath and felt right at home.

I was lucky enough to interview four employees of the Pride Center. Jennifer gave me an idea of what kind of work the Pride Center does. Jude told me about the queer youth in the state. (Queer youth make up nearly 45% of the homeless youth in the state.) Marina talked about the work that is being done on a legislative level. And Michael talked about the climate for LGBT folks living in Utah.

The state does not protect LGBT people under employment, housing, or hate-crimes legislation. Marina believes these protections must come from the federal government, because Utah’s legislature is too conservative to pass any such laws. I asked about the influence of the Mormon church in the Prop 8 campaign in California. Everyone agreed that, since the church became so involved in helping to pass that anti-gay amendment, the Utah LGBT community has come together to stand up for their rights in their own state. It has galvanized the community.

While in Salt Lake City, I had to see where the two boys were arrested for kissing. They were arrested in a part of the city called Temple Square. This is where Main Street travels through a piece of land that was purchased by the LDS church. The deal with the city was that the walkway would remain a public throughway. Walking through the area where the boys were arrested, it is clear that the pathway is a public walkway. Yet, when the boys showed affection for each other by giving a simple kiss, they were harassed by the LDS church security guards. The boys, rightfully so, protested this harassment. The security guards then detained, handcuffed, and arrested the boys.

The incident has created a call for “kiss-ins” nationwide. August 15th there will be “kiss-ins” all across the country. Fortunately, the Salt Lake City District Attorney threw out the case against the boys. It appears the lasting impact of the arrest is a spotlight on LGBT equality and dignity. This is certainly not what the LDS church could have hoped for.

Special Thanks to Michael and John for dinner and giving me an incredible place to stay the night.

If you like what we are doing, please help us continue the project by making a contribution.


Incredible Idaho

August 5, 2009

Day 88

Today was an incredible day. On my way from Yellowstone National Park to Idaho Falls, I stopped to grab some WIFI and find some folks to interview. I found a news article about a rally against Prop 8 that took place in Idaho Falls. The minister at the local Unitarian Universalist church was quoted in the story. I googled her name and called the church. Reverend Lyn Cameron answered the phone and answered the call. She was able to round-up some amazing folks to interview on just a two hour notice.

We met at the church and then went over to Dino and Steve’s house to conduct the interviews. They are both wonderful straight allies. Dino has pledged to answer every anti-gay letter-to-the-editor that is printed in the local paper. She is unstoppable. She dissects the opposition’s arguments and pleads the case for equality in simple to understand terms.

First up in our series of interviews was Cherie Stevens. She is a fabulous PFLAG mom and has been part of the organization for 13 years! She was at the protest against Prop 8, standing up for her son’s rights. Her gay son lives in California. Check out the video clip of the interview with Cherie. This woman rocks!

Next up, Sam took the hot seat. (I’m withholding Sam’s last name because…well, watch the video and you’ll find out.) I have been starring at my computer screen for a while now, trying to figure out how to put the impact this interview had on me into words. It is not possible. You need to watch this interview. Sam is one of the most incredible, amazing, inspiring, fabulous people I have ever met. His story is one that needs to be told.

Sam “came out” to his parents when he was 10 years old by asking his father why he was attracted to another boy. His parents are Southern Baptist missionaries. His father’s response landed Sam in the emergency room. For the next few years Sam underwent aversion therapy to “cure” him of his homosexuality. First he was told over and over again that he was evil, the only gay person left on earth, and that he had AIDS. Then he was forced to hold ice while being shown pictures of men hugging. Then came the electrocution. He was shown pictures of men and women. When the men appeared, he was electro-shocked. Sam screamed in pain as his mother listened from the next room. He was 12 years old.

I should also mention that Sam is a bit of a genius. He is a nuclear engineer and has testified in front of Congress on the positive aspects of nuclear energy. He is also an incredible opera singer. Check out the clip below. (Sam also sings for us!)

After the riveting interview with Sam, we all sat down to dinner. Steve made a great meal with fresh vegetables from the garden. After dinner, we conducted an interview with Dino Lowrey. She talked about her support for LGBT equality and her work with Breaking Boundaries, a local group that provides services to the underserved population of Southeast Idaho. This year, for the first time, Breaking Boundaries and the local PFLAG chapter had a float in the local 4th of July parade. Not only that, but they won 1st prize! Check out the clip of the interview with Dino below. She is a powerhouse of an activist.

Idaho may be a conservative state, but with the folks I met tonight, bigotry and homophobia don’t stand a chance in the Gem state.

If you like what we are doing, please help us continue the project by making a contribution.

(This video was taken with the ‘behind-the-scenes’ blog camera and is not the actual footage for the documentary.)


Day Number 87

August 4, 2009

Day 87

This is my last day in Yellowstone National Park. I went on a 6 mile hike through some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. I saw deer and buffalo grazing about. I was sure to wear my bear bell, as I didn’t want to surprise a grizzly on the path.

Today is day number 87. In the original Driving Equality itinerary, today would be the day I made it back home. For the first year of planning, I was expecting to be home on August 4th. A few months before I hit the road however, I extended the trip to 107 days in order to cover more ground and talk to more folks. As I sit here in Wyoming, twenty days from my homecoming, I wonder how I could have done this is such a short amount of time. Even as it is, I am only in most states for a day or two before moving on. I’m glad I extended the trip. This 107 day plan had me leaving two days after my last final at Tufts and has me returning home one week before starting classes for the fall semester. It’s a tight squeeze, but it’s well worth it to cover more ground.

On day 76 I told you that we crossed the Puget Sound on an automobile ferry. Check out the little video I put together of our crossing.

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Yellowstone

August 3, 2009

Day 86

I got a chance to explore a little bit of Yellowstone National Park today. I checked out Old Faithful and the other geothermal sites. Pretty amazing. Unfortunately, I blew the fuse to the power inverter in the van, so I’ve been driving all over the place to find a replacement. None of the shops around here carry a fuse big enough to fit, so I’ve ordered the part. It should be in before I leave the park. I’m going to try and find a hike to go on today and see more of Yellowstone.

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Resting

August 2, 2009

Day 85

I’m in Yellowstone National Park. I arrived here at 1:00 in the morning. It was beautiful for the first part of the day, but it is raining hard and very windy right now. The thunder and lighting is blazing. I hope my tent makes it through the storm. To be honest though, I love the rain and the wind. I have always loved storms. I can’t stand the cold, but a good, hard rain is welcome (almost) anytime.

I didn’t explore at all today. I spent the day resting and catching up on a few things. I had a couple holes in my shorts to sew, some footage to edit, and the camera to clean. I’ll do some more writing and a little bit of reading tonight. Then maybe watch a movie on my laptop. Resting…


Inspiring

August 1, 2009

Day 84

Today was the longest day of the journey. I started off from northern Montana around 10:00 in the morning and didn’t stop driving until I reached Wyoming at 1:00 AM. Along the way I was able to stop, find WIFI, make a bunch of calls, and find an amazing person to interview in Bozeman, Montana. All in all, it was about 12 hours of driving. Yikes. But it was worth it!

I interviewed Ken Speers. He was born and raised in a small town in Montana. He has an incredible story. Ken realized he was gay at a young age, but stayed in the closet. Homosexuality didn’t fit in well with the cowboy culture. He joined the Navy and was in the department that would research the backgrounds of people that were applying for classified positions. His job was to find out if these people had any skeletons in their closet. During the week, he would kick people out of the military for being gay and doing drugs. Then, on the weekends, he was meeting up with guys and doing drugs himself. It ripped him apart.

Ken went into a downward spiral before coming out and getting sober. Since turning his life around, he has become a beautiful person and a true inspiration. He is now making a difference in people’s lives by working at a recovery house in Bozeman, Montana. He is also an amazing artist.

If you like what we are doing, please help us continue the project by making a contribution.


Montana

July 31, 2009

Day 83

I spent most of the day searching for WIFI, editing video, and updating the website. What should have been a 1/2 hour process turned into a five hour event. After I finished with work, I got to play in Glacier National Park. This is another amazing place. I hiked for a few hours up to Avalanche Lake. From there I could sit back and look at four waterfalls flowing down the mountain. It was incredible. Tomorrow is a long driving day. I’ve also got to find someone from Montana to interview.

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Big Sky

July 30, 2009

Day 82

I spent the night in Spokane, Washington. This morning I drove through northern Idaho and into Montana. I’m going to check out Glacier National Park before doing interviews in Montana and southern Idaho. This sure is big sky country. It is nice to be back in the West. I’m dusting off my cowboy hat.

Check out this incredible monument near Quincy, Washington. There are all these horses high up on a hill. I’m not sure what it is though. Anybody know?

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Domestic Partnered

July 29, 2009

Day 81

I spent the day in Quincy, Washington. It’s a small farming town in the central part of the state. My friend Gerald grew up here, so I stopped in to see his family. Quincy is just a few hours, but a world away, from Seattle. The rural town has fields as far as one can see, and now has two traffic lights. I was warmly welcomed by the Todd family and had a great time talking about everything from LGBT politics, to worm farms, to life on the road. I felt right at home in Quincy. They fed me well. These were some of the kindest people I’ve met on my journey. Next time I return to the Northwest, I plan on stopping in to say hi to my new friends.

I also had an amazing interview in Quincy. Tracy, a gay man who grew up, and now lives in Quincy, agreed to talk with me on camera. He has an incredible story. Tracy and his partner are registered Domestic Partners. He spoke about how he feels like second-class citizens when he hears about the movement to take his rights away. Before the Domestic Partnership legislation was passed, Tracy and his partner tried to protect their relationship in some ways by drawing up certain paperwork with a lawyer. The process cost them $1,800, and that still didn’t even cover close to what the Domestic Partnership bill law does.

I wonder what Senator Val Stevens would say to Tracy. She is spearheading the effort to repeal the Domestic Partnership bill. When I interviewed her on Saturday, she told me that she wasn’t trying to take anybody’s rights away and that same-sex couples could still receive all the same benefits of a Domestic Partnership by drawing up the correct legal paperwork. I doubt that Senator Stevens cares that it would cost same-sex couples thousands of dollars to file that paperwork. Also, the senator is completely wrong; same-sex couples are not able to receive all the rights that a Domestic Partnership affords by drawing up legal paperwork. There are some benefits that only the state can grant.

If you like what we are doing, please help us continue the project by making a contribution.

(This video was taken with the ‘behind-the-scenes’ blog camera and is not the actual footage for the documentary.)

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Stay Cool

July 28, 2009

Day 80

I slept in the van last night, right in downtown Vancouver. When I awoke, I headed to Davie Street, the gay district, and was able to do three street interviews. The first interview was with a gay man who had just emigrated to Canada from the United States. He came up north to live a better life, with healthcare and equal marriage rights. The second interview was with a heterosexual couple, both born and raised in Canada. They didn’t understand why LGBT people are treated like second-class citizens in the US. The third interviewee was a young Vancouver woman who told me to send the gays to Canada where “everyone is welcome!”

I left Vancouver around noon and headed back to the states. Crossing the border was a breeze. I expected to be searched, as I am driving a big white van with no windows. I don’t have any problem with being searched at the national border, it is legal and constitutional. However, when I got to the border, the guard just asked me what I was doing in Canada. He asked what was in the van and how much money I had with me. Then he told me to “stay cool” and waved me along, never asking to look in the van.

After entering the US, I headed back down to Seattle to interview my friend Josh Friedes, the Advocacy Director for Equal Rights Washington (ERW). Josh is taking a leave of absence from ERW to head up the campaign to protect Domestic Partnerships in the state. He is now the Campaign Director for Washington Families Standing Together. I never got a chance to interview Josh while I was in town earlier, he was so busy with dealing with the signature deadline.

My interview with Josh was incredible. He has an eloquent way of making the case for equal rights. He described the process by which the Domestic Partnership legislation came to pass and is now being challenged. We talked about the importance of LGBT folks telling their stories and how to win, we need to be having conversation about our lives. Josh thinks that if Referendum 71 goes on the ballot, it could actually work in our favor. It will cause the LGBT community to have discussions about our families and why we need protections and, in turn, convince the citizens of Washington to support full marriage equality.

If you like what we are doing, please help us continue the project by making a contribution.

(This video was taken with the ‘behind-the-scenes’ blog camera and is not the actual footage for the documentary.)

skitched-20090731-115013 Crossing the Border into the United States


Vancouver

July 27, 2009

Day 79

It is hot. I rented a bike and scoped out the gay district. I’m in search of some Canadians to interview, but most folks around here are tourists that are not interested in being filmed. I rode down to the beach and swam in the ocean. It was a nude beach! I couldn’t believe it was legal to be naked in public. Oh Canada.

I spent the rest of the day cleaning out the van, doing research for upcoming interviews, and working through the endless pile of emails that fill my inbox. Administrative work is not fun, but it piles up fast if I don’t stay on top of it.

Tomorrow I’ll try to get a Canadian perspective, them I am heading back to Seattle to interview my friend Josh at Equal Rights Washington. It was so hectic the two days I was in town, we never got a chance to sit down for a formal interview.

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Canada!

July 26, 2009

Day 78

I am in Vancouver, Canada. I came here to get an outsider’s perspective on the struggle for LGBT equality in the states. I hope to do street interviews Monday or Tuesday.

I almost wasn’t allowed into the country. Upon crossing the border, I was told to park the van and wait inside the building. The van was searched (which is fine and perfectly legal at a national border crossing). Then I was called up to the counter. I was asked about my arrest in 2003. I was arrested for defacing a military billboard. It was a protest against the war in Iraq. (Actually, I was the lookout. Woops.) I did 10 hours of community service to complete my sentence.

However, while the arrest was in the computer, the judicial department never entered the data that I did my sentence. Technically, the Canadian border officials should not have allowed me to enter the country. Yet, the woman at the desk said she believed me and that it sometimes happened that the courts don’t update their computer data. She suggested that, when I get back to Boston, I get a certificate from the court, verifying that I did my time. That way, the next time I try to enter Canada, I won’t have a problem. It was scary.

I slept in the van last night and spend most of the day looking for a campsite. British Columbia is incredibly beautiful this time of year, and all the campgrounds are full. Eventually I found a campsite about an hour outside of Vancouver. It is nice. I am in the mountains, right next to a waterfall. Tomorrow I’m going to check out Davie Street, the gay district in Vancouver.

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Crossing the Border into Canada


The Big Day

July 25, 2009

Day 77

This was an exciting day. The signatures for Referendum 71 were due today. It had been reported in the local news that the anti-gay forces might not have enough signatures to get the referendum on the ballot (R-71 Looks Doomed). I was hopeful that they were going to come up short.

I accompanied the staff of Equal Rights Washington to the state capital building in Olympia. The opposition was supposed to turn in their signatures at 2:00. The Secretary of State’s office opened up this Saturday special for the signature deadline.

We stood on the steps of the capital. Pro-equality clergy joined us to go toe-to-toe with the anti-gay forces. We waited. Nothing happened. I became even more hopeful that they would not show with the required number of signatures.

Then we noticed a table with a group of people at the bottom of the steps. There were about 25 people frantically counting signatures. The Secretary of State’s office would be open until 5:00. That was their deadline.

I went down to film the signature counting. An anti-equality State Representative reprimanded me for filming the gathering, telling me it was a private event. He kept asking me my name as if I would be afraid to give it to him. I told him that I am Chris Mason and that I am making a documentary about gay rights across the country. I gave him the website address and told him that I’d be writing about him tonight. I also informed him that his people were on public property, right in front of the capital building, and that I had every right to film the not-so-private event.

A few other anti-gay folks came over to harass me and take my picture and write down my name in case they had to file a suit against me for filming the signatures on the petitions. It was a bit ridiculous. I could tell they were nervous.

A few more cars showed up with boxes of petitions in the trunk. It was about 4:00 and they were still counting. I was hoping time would run out on them. The pro-equality side took the high-ground, standing on the top of the capital steps, while the anti-equality crowd huddled around the bottom of the steps.

Eventually, the decided that they had enough signatures, and started carrying the petitions inside. They all went into a little room in the Secretary of State’s office where staff started counting the number of petitions.

They needed 120,577 signatures to move on to the verification stage of the process. According to the Secretary of State, they turned in 9,356 petitions sheets. Each sheet can contain 20 signatures, but most sheets were not full. Some sheets only have a few signatures on the page. So, while the anti-gay groups claim they turned in over 138,000, the number may be a bit less.

Now it will be up to the state to verify the signatures. This usually disqualifies 10% to 25% of the signatures, due to double names, invalid addresses, and unregistered signers. Right now, we don’t know if Referendum 71 will go to the ballot or not. It is going to be close.

It will take the state about a month to verify the signatures. If they get the required 120,577 signatures, then Washington state will have a fight on its hands. There will be a ballot question this November asking voters if they approve of the Domestic Partnership legislation. This is going to be a tough campaign if it goes to the ballot.

It was great to spend the day at the capital during such an exciting time. I just wish we had a different outcome. I got a lot of great footage though. After the signatures were counted, I conducted an on-the-spot interview with the anti-gay senator who is spearheading the referendum. I’ll try to upload the video soon. She made no sense. I asked her why she wanted to take rights away from same-sex couples. She told me that they already had all the same rights, that they could get legal paperwork to secure everything that the domestic partnership legislation would do.

Usually in the fight for marriage equality, you will hear people say that it would be fine if they called it civil unions. There are some folks who are still against civil unions, but are fine with domestic partnerships.

It was very interesting to see this push against domestic partnerships. Most anti-equality folks I speak with usually say that they have no problem with same-sex couples having the same legal rights, as long as they don’t call it marriage. That is not the case in Washington state. The anti-gay forces don’t want same-sex couples to have equal rights. This is very telling. It shows that it really is not about the word “marriage,” it is about gay and lesbian couples having legal relationship recognition. They don’t care if it is called “marriage”, “civil unions”, or “domestic partnerships” – if it legitimized same-sex relationships, they are against it.

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Pro-Equality Clergy Go Toe-To-Toe with Anti-Gay Forces in Washington State’s Capital Building


Farewell Potter

July 24, 2009

It is time for Potter and I to go our separate ways. It has been an amazing 76 days together, but he has to head back to Boston now. Potter has been an incredibly important part of this project, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him. I urge you all to leave comments on this post wishing Potter a safe return and thanking him for all his hard work in advancing LGBT equality.

I’ll be on my own for the next 29 days. Let’s hope I don’t run into too much trouble. Although, as I’ve been saying this whole trip, conflict creates good footage.

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