I looked again and saw what he was pointing at. It wasn’t an urn. It was a jar of dirt with a label on it. I recognized it instantly.
“Remember when we went to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery? They had a bunch of jars because they were collecting soil from every lynching site,” I said. “I’m sure that’s one of them.”
“Oh yeah,” Britt said. “I remember that.”
We moved closer. The label said:
Lewis Jackson Hillsborough County, Florida December 4, 1903
I asked the barista at the Portico Cafe if the jar was indeed part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Soil Collection Project. She said yes, and added that a historical marker had just been put up at the actual site.
(The Soil Collection Project and Community Historical Market Project are two parts of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project. The Legacy Museum is just a few miles away from another EJI project, the iconic and moving National Memorial for Peace and Justice.2)
Seeing that soil filled me with sorrow, as it was a tangible reminder of our history of bigotry and violence. One hundred and twenty years later, our society is still cursed with those plagues, and a lot of the progress that has been made is being eroded.
But that jar also made me hopeful. It shows that people — well, not all people — don’t want to hide from the shame of the past. That leads to dialogue, and dialogue can lead to change.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.
Errol Morris, filmmaker
These jars might make people uncomfortable, but discomfort is the only way we’ll evolve on these issues.
There’s pain in that soil, but without soil, nothing can grow.
___ 1 The Portico Cafe is a coffee shop founded by a local Methodist church. It helps recovering addicts, people who were in jail, and others get second chances by giving them meaningful jobs. The revenue goes toward local homelessness initiatives.
2 This monument is powerful, disturbing, and essential. It records the individual victims of lynching while conveying the enormity of the violence.
This is an extended version of something I posted on Facebook a few days ago.
As an ACLU of Florida volunteer, one of my favorite things to do is to get out in the community, explain our mission, and advocate for change. I got to do that twice recently.
Last weekend, I participated in a talkback session at “When the Righteous Triumph” at Stageworks Theatre. A few days ago, I spoke to the Tampa City Council about an initiative to make our Citizens Review Board more independent (which passed).
At Stageworks, someone listed everything going wrong in Florida and asked how she could help. I could tell she felt overwhelmed. I shared my personal view on this:
First, try not to focus on the entirety of the situation. Pick one organization or cause that resonates with you, and participate as much as you have time for — even if it’s just a few phone calls a month or showing up for a meeting.
Second, understand that no one will solve all these problems by themselves — if you think that way, you will be frustrated and burn out quickly. Think of yourself as part of a team, and do something that aligns with your strengths and makes you feel satisfied. Even a small effort makes a big difference.
And, third, wear pants when you’re going to be on stage. I was woefully underdressed on Sunday.
Where Passion Meets Usefulness
The conversation at Stageworks got me thinking: Why do I bother volunteering? It’s a good question — especially today in Florida, where progress is slow and setbacks are frequent. If Sisyphus were here, he’d say, “fuck this, I’m going back to my rock.”
I think it’s because I get to do good things by doing things I’m good at.
Here’s how to parse that sentence:
I get to do good things: I get to help make our country more equal and just by protecting and advancing civil rights. I’m deeply committed to this cause — not just because I’m a gay man, but because I’m a human being.
By doing things I’m good at: I can apply the experience and unique set of skills I’ve developed over the past [age redacted] years.
Put those two together, and you have a compelling reason to volunteer. Buddhist monk Jay Shetty would call this Dharma.
Everyone has a psychophysical nature which determines where they flourish and thrive. Dharma is using this natural inclination, the things you’re good at, your thrive mode, to serve others.
Jay Shetty, “Think Like a Monk”
The Indigo Girls put it this way:
If I have a care in the world, I have a gift to bring.
Indigo Girls, “Hammer and a Nail”
In my volunteer life, I’ve gravitated toward opportunities that play to my strengths. I’m not a lawyer or policy expert, but I certainly know how to solve problems, collaborate, develop strategies, explain things clearly, and create compelling narratives. One of the things I do best is craft messages that resonate with people, make emotional connections, and inspire action. That’s why I sat on the stage after the play and spoke to the city council.
By applying my skills, I’ve played a small but meaningful role in improving police accountability, restoring voting rights, reforming the criminal justice system, protecting free speech, and more. These have all been group efforts, and it feels good to know that I’ve contributed some knowledge and expertise that others might not possess.
Living at a Higher State
Another thing I have discovered is that volunteering improves my mental well-being. That seems counterintuitive, considering that it can be hard work, setbacks are frequent, and knowing that others suffer takes an emotional toll.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says serving others can create a state of flow — a state of mind in which people are engaged, involved, and perform their best.
Unfortunately, many people who move in the public arena do not act at very high levels of complexity. Politicians tend to seek power, philanthropists fame, and would-be saints often seek to prove how righteous they are. These goals are not so hard to achieve, provided one invests enough energy in them. The greater challenge is not only to benefit oneself, but to help others in the process. It is more difficult, but much more fulfilling, for the politician to actually improve social conditions, for the philanthropist to help out the destitute, and for the saint to provide a viable model of life to others.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Performance.” Emphasis mine.
Again, Shetty would connect this to the concept of Dharma:
When your natural talents and passions (your varna) connect with what the universe needs (seva) and become your purpose, you are living in your dharma. When you spend your time and energy living in your dharma, you have the satisfaction of using your best abilities and doing something that matters to the world. Living in your dharma is a certain route to fulfillment.
Jay Shetty, “Think Like a Monk.” Again, emphasis mine.
This Dharma stuff sounds great. Perhaps I should become a Buddhist. But for now, I’m satisfied just being a volunteer.
It’s easy to become a volunteer, but it takes some effort to volunteer in a way that makes you feel valued and impactful. Here are some tips:
Find a cause you’re really passionate about: Relevance will make your work more personal and meaningful.
Shop around: There are dozens — maybe hundreds — of organizations dedicated to your cause. You don’t just have to go with the biggest and most famous ones.
Consider the culture: If you don’t click with an organization, find another one. You don’t want to feel isolated, unmotivated, or disengaged.
The most important thing you can volunteer is your time: Money buys stuff. People create value and make an impact.
Make it a learning experience: When I joined the ACLU, I was able to use and improve professional skills that I couldn’t at work — especially leadership skills. Doing so helped me advance my career.
Don’t overcommit, and feel free to say no: If you don’t set boundaries, you might find yourself in over your head. You can also say that you’re not ready for something yet. I turned up some volunteer leadership positions until I felt ready to take them on.
Take care of yourself: If you’re emotionally or mentally exhausted, you have burnout. Take a step back until you’re ready to give your all again, and do not feel guilty about it. This is the most important piece of advice I can give you.
When my boss, Ben, signed into our Teams meeting yesterday, he didn’t see me. He saw a limited edition RuPaul teddy bear (thank you Build-A-Bear) sitting where I should be.
He cracked up. I moved the bear. Being gay men, we were legally obligated to discuss this season of Drag Race. And then we got down to work (email drips and ABM campaigns, if you’re interested).
I waited decades for that moment.
I was a journalist when I came out professionally in the mid-1990s, and my editors told me to keep my mouth shut — usually subtly, but occasionally overtly. Once, I pinned a postcard-sized rainbow flag to my cubicle wall. The publisher took it down and told me it was inappropriate.
Even though leadership didn’t like me being out, many of my coworkers expressed their support and became allies. (Special shout-out to Carolyn, who remembers more about my coming out at work than I do!) I realized how healthy and reaffirming it was to be my authentic self in the office.
An aside: Over dinner a few days ago, Carolyn reminded me how I came out to her. “You told me, ‘After many years of trying to deny the truth with Ben & Jerry’s and Oreos, I have realized I’m gay.’” I had forgotten that.
Stepping Into No One’s Shoes
Since I didn’t know any out LGBTQ people in the workplace, I had no mentors to help me navigate my challenges and celebrate my successes. I recently came across this quote from Richie Jackson that captures what I felt: “Each place where you look and fail to find yourself reinforces the fact that you don’t exist, that you aren’t worthy, that you don’t belong.”
I committed to becoming the type of role model I wished I had — someone visible and honest. I wanted to show others they could bring their whole selves to work. It was a risk, and there’s no doubt it held me back professionally. But I’ve helped many other LGBTQ people gain the confidence, support, and strength to come out at work — sometimes by talking to me, and other times through my example. That’s more valuable than a dozen promotions and a fat paycheck. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Moving Up and Speaking Out
At my next job — a major metropolitan daily — most of my coworkers were supportive, but a few of the editors were not. I still remember how I came out to my fellow reporters. We were trading stories about terrible first dates, and mine was about a guy named Marty who asked to borrow my car. There was a brief moment of confusion, followed by years of inclusion and allyship.
By not hiding, I could advocate for LGBTQ people in our newsroom and our coverage. Not only was I the first person from our paper to attend an NLGJA conference, but the paper paid for it, and my presentation to the reporters and editors after was well-attended and well-received.
But even though the newsroom became more accepting, the rest of the company did not. Every year, we employees shuffled into a big meeting room to learn about our benefits. I raised my hand one year and asked about domestic partner benefits. I was shot down and told they would be too expensive.
The following year, I was prepared. I asked again about domestic partner benefits and got the same response. I then pulled out reports showing that the costs were negligible, based on years of research. I also listed our competitors with domestic partner benefits, cited reports about how the benefits helped recruit and retain talented employees, and shared the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. They were caught off guard but, alas, didn’t budge.
Every year, I pushed more forcefully. Every year, they dismissed me. But I never gave up.
A Mixed Bag
Since leaving journalism, I’ve worked for companies with various levels of support for LGBTQ employees. Without naming names, here are some examples:
The good: At one firm, my team threw a wedding shower for the Complimentary Spouse and me. One of our gifts was a pair of Ken dolls. (They are stashed away in a closet, and the irony of that is not lost on me.) The firm also had a well-organized LGBTQ employee resource group, and sent me to attend the Out & Equal conference one year.
The bad: One company regularly treated the staff to free lunches. Frequently, they were catered by Chick-fil-A.
The ugly: At one company, leadership celebrated Pride Month despite having no protection for LGBTQ employees. When I saw the head of HR wearing a T-shirt saying “ally” in an all-hands meeting, I spoke with him afterward and called him out on his hypocrisy. He committed to updating the policies, but I left before any changes were made. In addition, the company participated in the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program each year. I had to point out to the HR director that the Salvation Army has a long andwell–knownhistory of anti-LGBTQ bigotry.
The Payoff: A Workplace Where I’m Valued and Validated
My career path took me to my current employer last year. This is the first place I’ve felt that equity and inclusion are written into the organization’s DNA — it’s an organic part of our culture, not an afterthought or marketing ploy. A lot of the credit goes to the CEO, Felipe.
This is the first time I’ve worked for a gay boss. In one way, it’s just like working for a straight boss. In another way, it’s validating, affirming, and inspiring. He’s younger than me, and I’d like to think that, in some minuscule way, my coming out at work all those years ago paved the way for him.
And not just for him. For lots of professionals.
I often reflect on what Sir Ian McKellen told an interviewer 30 years after he came out: “I’ve never met a gay person who regretted coming out – including myself. Life at last begins to make sense, when you are open and honest.”
A week ago, the cowards at the Hillsborough County School Board banned “This Book Is Gay” from middle schools. It was only available at Pierce Middle School, and had been challenged by a single parent who didn’t have a child at that school — and was vetted by two committees before being put in the school library — but the school board saw fit to ban it not just from Pierce, but 121 schools serving more than 80,000 students.
Advocates for banning books said it wasn’t an attack on LGBTQ people, and they were just trying to keep inappropriate materials out of kids’ hands. But bullshit disguised as parental outrage is bullshit nonetheless.
I couldn’t go to the school board meeting to voice my opinion, but I emailed all the board members the day before. Here is what I wrote:
I encourage all board members to reject any action that would prevent students from reading or accessing “This Book Is Gay.” There are young LGBTQ students in every school — a fact that some people do not wish to recognize — and denying them of materials that validate their existence and speak to their life experiences is harmful and stunts their educational and personal development.
As someone who grew up without books like this, I know firsthand what is it like to grow up without seeing positive representations of yourself. Banning this book and others like it will cause real harm, psychological trauma, and self-hatred for many students, making schools not a place of education but isolation — a place where students will suffer, not succeed. You have a moral, ethical, and legal obligation to not let that happen.
Be brave, be principled, and be a board that does not bow down to bullies or bigots.
LGBTQ people are under attack here in Florida, and nowhere is this more evident — or appalling — than in our public schools. The “Don’t Say Gay” law and other initiatives demean and discredit LGBTQ youth and erase our existence. The book ban here isn’t an isolated incident. It’s the latest step in a campaign of hate and degradation.
Why This Matters to Me
What’s happening now hits me at a visceral level, not just an intellectual one. When I was growing up, there was no discussion of LGBTQ people — certainly not in middle school or high school. All I heard were crude jokes and a sense of disgust. In the news, gay men were dying from AIDS. Politically, LGBTQ people were punching bags. In movies and on TV, LGBTQ people were either considered jokes or made out to be wicked.
That really takes a toll on you.
In 2015, I took the Complimentary Spouse on a tour of my elementary and middle school in London, and when we turned a corner, I saw this:
I was choked up, and I’m still emotional when I think about it today. There was no overt effort to exclude LGBTQ people from schools when I was there, but there was also no recognition that we existed.
Seeing that flag years ago filled me with hope. I know it’s still there today.1 It shows children at my elementary and middle school that they’re welcome, accepted, and loved.
Sadly, children in my county will never see a symbol as important as this one. And, in a way, that’s worse. As a kid, I didn’t know what it would mean to be recognized. These kids will know what it means — and see that they’re being deprived of it.