The Purple Hat Project

A little background is in order before I start this. Somewhere along the line, my son has come in contact with white supremacists. Since he's really not all that social of a person, there are really only two possible sources: school (teachers or friends) or from his best friend's family, where he occasionally spends the night. In the last year and a half, I've started hearing comments like "That's so Jewish" or "That's so black" or "That's so gay" when referring to something he disagrees with or thinks is stupid. He came home a couple months ago saying that "the Mexicans" were taking all our jobs. (We have very few Hispanics in our area.) He's talked about how he hates the way blacks dress (of course, ignoring the fact that the sagging look he refuses to give up is from the black culture).

I do my best to counter the arguments he gives, like pointing out that most of the Hispanics who are here illegally are working in jobs that most Americans won't even consider doing: the low paying janitorial jobs, migrant crop workers and working the shifts Americans won't work. But this past weekend, we hit a new low. He asked us if we were doing anything special the next week and I told him that my wife and I were going to see Judy Shepard speak. He asked who that was and I told him it was Matthew Shepard's mom. To his credit, he at least knew who Matthew was (unlike many other straight people I talk to), but his next question felt like a knife in the heart. "Is that the fa...the gay guy who was killed?" He came so close to saying "fag"— he admits to almost saying "fag."

My wife and I were both stunned. It's one thing to hear it from someone who's ignorant as to what it means to be gay. It's another to hear it from your own son, who's been living in a gay household for more than five years now. I didn't know how to react. The internal turmoil of guilt (where did I fail as a parent? as a role model? as a guide?), anger (how dare he use that language in my home?), pain (my own son hates who I am), confusion (how did this happen? where's he getting it from? how do I stop it?) and fear (what if I can't stop it?) went on for the next two days.

On February 2, 2004, during a conversation on the phone with my wife, I asked what she thought of us taking both the boys to see Mrs. Shepard speak. She was hesitant— she knew it was a good idea, but she also knew that there'd be drama and attitude. My wife is 5'-5". My oldest son— the one with the bigoted attitude— is 6'-3" tall and weighs 280 pounds. His hair is down past his shoulders— died dark black (although its fading rapidly), long sideburns, a goatee and mustache. He has 00 gauge earrings in both ears and a spiked eyebrow ring. He dresses all in black, wears only Metallica T-shirts (black) and carries a chain wallet with a chain that I swear must be close to five feet long. His appearance can be very intimidating. My wife doesn't like confrontation, and we were going to spend almost an hour on the drive up and an hour on the drive back, not to mention the actual length of the presentation, and hope there would be no confrontation. She was leery. So was I. (After all, if he simply refused to go, what was I really going to do about it? But so far, I don't think he realizes that that option is there yet...) Then in the mail, we got a DVD of "The Laramie Project". It centers around Matthew's murder and how the community responded. So we gave him an option— watch the video and write a three page, typed report on it or go with us to the lecture. Guess which he picked...

So my wife and I went to see Judy Shepard speak. (Of course, just before we were ready to leave, a pipe in the basement started leaking badly. I had to shut off all the water in the house and spend the next 40 minutes rigging a temporary repair. In retrospect, the water line break was somewhat indicative of my emotional breakdown that would come on Tuesday night.) In case you're still in the dark about who Judy Shepard is, her son, Matthew, was the young gay man who was beaten, tied to a fence in a field and left for dead in Laramie, Wyoming in freezing temperatures where he wasn't found for more than 18 hours. That was in 1998. Just over five years ago as I write this. Four days after he was beaten, Matthew died of his injuries. (Ironically, it was on my son's birthday.)

Mrs. Shepard now travels the country speaking to groups on the need to end the hatred and discrimination and injustice perpetuated on the GLBT community in particular and on all those who are "different" in general. The program that night started out with a short video presentation. The first image was of a young boy of about 14, bending over and "getting in the face" of the camera and screaming "Faggot!" Tears began pouring down my cheeks, and even as I write this, I'm tearing up again. At the time, I didn't know why I started crying other than that it's painful to see that kind of hatred, so raw and unmasked. Even though I knew that this was just a video, my heart also knew that this was very real. That there were people who received this kind of treatment every day. And I thought my tears were for them.

After the video was over, Mrs. Shepard spoke for almost an hour and something she said during that speech is what inspired me to start the Purple Hat Project. But I will get to that in a bit, because I want to finish my story about my son. It will explain why this project has become something very important to me. And maybe it will inspire you to pass the word about the Purple Hat Project.

After we got home, my oldest told me the DVD was stupid. I expected such a response. I told him that whether he thought it was stupid or not, he still had to write a report on it. The next day, after he came home from school, we had another conversation that went something like this. (I used his name, but since I don't have his permission to put his name on the net, I've changed his name to "son" in the following dialogue.)

"Why should I have to write a stupid report on that movie? I have a right to believe what I believe. I don't try to change your mind about being gay. Why should you be able to try to change my mind about what I believe?"

"The difference, son, is that you are choosing what you believe. I did not choose to be gay."

"When was the last time you dated a man?"

"Your father was the last man I dated."

He mumbled something I couldn't quite make out, so I asked, "Tell me, son, when did you choose to be straight? Can you choose to be gay?"

"No!" (sort of in that "duh!" tone, as if it's obvious and I'm stupid for asking.)

"So what makes you think that I chose to be gay?"

"I don't know. It's just that ever since Dad left and you said he didn't take care of you or listen to you and he's not being responsible and paying child support, you've only ever been with women."

"But my being bisexual has nothing to do with how your father treated us. Being bisexual only means I can love someone regardless of their gender. You can't help who you love. I didn't go looking for just women to love."

"Well, I still don't see why I have to write a report on that movie. I don't care if I hate. It's not hurting anyone."

I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. I sort of shut down emotionally— went numb. My actions, voice tone, etc. were rather flat and mechanical for the next few hours. My wife came home from work, asked me what was wrong and I started to cry. Said I'd had another "go 'round" with our son. That I was scared for him. She said she was too. I was too emotional to really talk about it then, so she sat down to check her email, I went to see what the cats were screeching about and discovered their food was low— and I had forgotten to go to the store that day and get more. So I walked out of the room and mechanically told my wife I had to go to the store. As I drove to the store, I had my emotional breakdown. (As a word of warning, it's best not to have emotional breakdowns in the car when you're the only one in the car, especially when you have no tissues in the car.)

But by the time I got home, I knew what I had to do and what I had to say to my son. What follows is, to the best of my recollection, what I told him. As you read it, please remember that as I spoke these words, I was crying. No, sobbing. Controlled sobbing— trying not to sob while trying to talk. The kind that makes your throat hurt and your chest hurt and the words sound almost as if you're screaming them because they're so full of emotion. (There are a few offensive words in this little talk I had with him— words I'd never use in normal conversation.)

I walked into the living room and he was watching TV. I turned on the light so he could see my face. I'm sure it wasn't a pretty sight— I'd been crying almost solidly for the last two hours. "I want you to turn off the TV and listen to me for five minutes. Since you want to be treated like an adult, you can start by acting like an adult and pay attention to me, look me in the eyes when I speak to you." I then explained to him the start of the presentation the night before, just as I did above, so I won't do it again. Then I continued, "I didn't know why I started crying last night, but now I do. I was crying because every time one of those changing faces screamed 'faggot' or 'queer' or 'pansy', I saw your face screaming that same thing to me. You are right, son, you do have the right to believe what you want. But it is my job— my responsibility— as your parent, to show you when something you believe is wrong or dangerous to you. When you were a kid, you believed you could put something in a socket and not get hurt. I had to show you that was wrong. I'm not going to try to convince you that what you believe about blacks and gays and Hispanics is wrong. You'll find that out on your own as you live your life. What I intend to show you is wrong is your belief that your hate doesn't hurt anyone. I'm not standing here now with burning eyes, a sore throat and congested nose because I feel good. I'm standing here like this, right now, because I hurt! And my pain is the direct result of your hate as surely as if you had slapped me across the face or stabbed me in the heart. So the next time you get the urge to call someone a faggot, I hope you see in front of you my face when you look at him. The next time you feel the urge to call someone a nigger, I hope you hear the pain in my voice right now. The next time you feel the urge to hate someone who is different than you, I hope you remember that it is ME you are hating as well. I don't want a report from you on the movie you watched because all you're going to write is what you think I want to hear. But you're not going to get off that easy. I still want a report, but I want a report on WHY you believe what you believe. Because if you don't know WHY you believe what you believe, then your beliefs are not really true beliefs, they're just an excuse to be hateful. And I will not allow my son to be hateful in my house. I will not allow anyone to be hateful in my house. If you truly believe what you say you do, and you truly feel the need to hate me for who I am, then go right ahead and hate me. But know this. No matter how much you hate me, not matter how much I disagree with what you believe, I will always— ALWAYS— love you unconditionally. And you will always— ALWAYS— have a place in my home. But I will insist that, as you wish for me to respect your beliefs, you respect mine, which includes respecting the rules of my home. And those rules include no hateful language. I love you, son. Thank you for listening to me." Then I turned and walked away.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear the words on that video, but now the faces I see are those of people I know and love— my own son and most of my family of origin as well as the in-laws among them. [Note: Like most people, my family of origin is not overtly bigoted. They might even find it offensive that I say they are.] The GLBT community is still the only minority that it is still socially acceptable to denigrate while standing around in mixed company and making jokes about the faggot or the dyke. "Nigger" is no longer an acceptable word coming from the lips of someone who is not black, yet "faggot" and "dyke" are still tossed around like "stupid" and "idiot". I have been the subject of such harassment twice that I can recall. Once while holding a one woman protest outside the local Boy Scout council's headquarters, a man of about 65 drove by in his car and screamed out the window at me "Faggot! Go back where you came from!" (I smiled, thanked the man for his compliment and told him to have a nice day.) The second time was just this past October (ironically, the pictures I took and the police report show that it was October 12...five years to the day after Matthew Shepard's death) when some neighborhood kids took silly string and wrote "les" on the back of my wife's van. The state police came and took a report and talked to various neighbors, but didn't hold out much hope for it to be solved. The incident was classified as criminial mischief and further classified as a hate crime.

Each time, despite not being physically threatened in any way, my heart was pounding in my chest and the adrenaline was rushing. I knew it was the old "fight or flight" instinct, and each time, I chose to stand and "fight", although not by returning violence with violence. For that's what these verbal assaults are: violence. And hate. And fear. But never before last night did I see the attitudes of most of my family as being a major factor in the continuing hatred and discrimination against gays. Don't get me wrong-- most of my family (and extended family) wouldn't be caught dead using the words "faggot" or "dyke"— at least not in my presence. But, as a character in one of the books I've written said, "If you refuse an active role in stopping injustice, you accept an active role in perpetuating it." I write articles here online and letters to the editor about the injustices I see towards the GLBT community. I'm a new member of a local group called Voices, which is seeking to increase the positive GLBT presence in our area's political, religious and social arenas. I've done some activism, but for the most part, I refuse to do the most important activism there is: educating my own family. I accepted their silence on the issue. I accepted their "I don't want to talk about it" attitude. I went to Colorado five years ago and married my wife and didn't even tell my family! I went to Toronto this past October and legally married her (we both see it as a renewal of our vows, although it was the first legal ceremony) and I said nothing to most of them! I'm an ordained minister whose ministry is to the GLBT community, and they know nothing about my ordination or my ministry. While I am doing more than some, I'm not doing enough. I realized that MY attitude was the one that needed to really change. And that's going to change, starting now. Which brings me back to the Purple Hat Project.

During her presentation, Mrs. Shepard mentioned that a young woman had said something like, "If all gays and those who support them and those who have family members or friends who are gay would paint themselves blue for ONE day, then everyone would see that there are a LOT more of us than they think and things would really start to change." Mrs. Shepard added that she thought wearing a blue hat would do the same thing. And so the idea for the Purple Hat Project was born. I chose purple for several reasons. First, I don't particularly like blue. (Not much of a reason, I know.) Second, purple is often associated with the gay pride movement because of the lavender triangles that gays had to wear in the Nazi concentration camps to designate why they were unacceptable to the Nazi regime. And third, so many baseball caps and other hats that are worn on a daily basis are blue. Purple will stand out much more.

October 11 is the annual "National Coming Out Day" sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign. On that day, gays and lesbians who are not already out of the closet are encouraged to come out. Coming out is a very emotionally draining and trying experience given society's attitude towards gays, especially under this administration. So I want the Purple Hat Project to help take some of the stress off of gays that day but asking that not only gays, but all friends, family members, co-workers, doctors of, clergy to and supporters of gays come out that day as well— by wearing purple hats. If this country is overrun on October 11 by people in purple hats, those who are opposed to gay equality will not know whether the purple hat is on the head of someone who IS gay or someone who "merely" supports gay equality. This show of support will also hopefully make it easier for more gays to come out, even if only to other people in purple hats. It will give those gays still in the closet a taste of freedom since they can wear a purple hat but no one will really know if it's because they're gay or because they support gays. If you don't look good in a hat, wear a purple bandana or purple beret or head scarf— SOMETHING purple on your head that day.

So here is the link to the official homepage of the Purple Hat Project. It contains information on how you can get involved, how you can support the project and buttons to put on your homepage to link to the Purple Hat Project. So spread the word. The internet is a wonderful tool for getting information out fast and to large groups of people from all walks of life. Post the information about the Purple Hat Project on your email lists, forums, bulletin boards, in your church bulletins, in letters to the editor of your local papers. Contact your local GLBT organizations and let them know about the project. I'm going to be contacting HRC and the Matthew Shepard Foundation and everyone else I can think of to see if we can enlist their help. And this site, One Spirit Project, is the first official sponsor of the Purple Hat Project. So please, please, please, get out the word. Let's make this grassroots project such a success that no gay who is still in the closet will go through that day without seeing a purple hat and without knowing that someone in their life supports who they are. And maybe, just maybe, my son will understand how much hate hurts.



Update: I'm thinking that either my talk with my son had some effect or that I over-reacted and what he was telling me was just teen-age rebellion. See, there's not many places my son can rebel. He can wear his hair like he wants, we let him pierce just about anything he wants. He wears the clothes of his choice. Listens to the music of his choice. About the only thing he can rebel against, the one area where he feels "confined" is in how he treats others. I insist on respect for others. But whether he's rebelling or rethinking is rather a moot point.

On Tuesday, February 24, 2004, Bush made history: he became the first US president to ask Congress to pass a federal amendment to the Constitution that advocates discrimination against a sizable segment of society. Less than two hours after his announcement, I had an email cross my desk that said a local television reporter was looking for a GLBT couple to interview. I called and volunteered. When I got home, I said something like, "OK, boys, I don't know how you're going to react to this, but I just want to let you know. I'm going to be on television tonight. Bush declared war on gays by asking for a ban on gay marriage and I went down to be interviewed to give the opposing point of view." My oldest, the one who this article is about, said, "Righteous!" That night, I was on both the five and six o'clock editions of the evening news. And they both watched it with me and both applauded and said "Way to go, Mom!"

*happy sigh*

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