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This past weekend, March 12-14, I attended the Equality Across America Midwest Unite + Fight Conference at Columbia College in Chicago. Nearly 300 activists from seven Midwest states joined together to strategize for full, federal equality for the LGBTQ community, and to form a network to make such a commitment possible. At this conference, I discovered the one positive outcome of the passage of Proposition 8 in California- it lit the fire under a lot of feet. Everyone- and yes I mean everyone- was talking about it. It was the reason that a lot of us were there. It was what made us say: “Okay, now it’s time to get serious.” It makes us say to the Yes on 8 people and the Yes on 1 people and every other homophobic group that would try to deny us our rights or remove our rights: “Guess what, bigots? Look who’s organized now!”

Being, as a straight person, in the minority all weekend, surrounded by so many fantastic LGBTQ people, was wonderful. It was comforting, as an equal rights activist, to be with a crowd that was fighting for the same thing- full, federal equality. I didn’t feel out of place by being straight- I was welcomed. What was jarring was taking the train home each night, knowing I was surrounded by (mostly, I presume) straight people, some of whom may not care one way or the other about equal rights, and some that may be actively homophobic. That was where I felt somewhat out of place. I knew that all of the people around me were potential allies- so many people who could be adding their voices to this fight- so many people that could make a difference…if they cared enough to do so.

There were many different strategies talked about this weekend- many different ideas on how to move forward and what we should focus on, but if there was one thing that this conference showed me, it is that the one thing we must absolutely never do is stay silent. We must never believe that our voice doesn’t matter. This is, I believe, especially true for straight allies. We must be as out and as proud and as vigilant as our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Our silence helps no one. In fact, our silence hurts.

Saying that we have a bisexual best friend or a lesbian sister or a queer cousin or a transgender neighbor or a gay parent means absolutely nothing if we aren’t willing to fight for their equal rights. If we aren’t willing to speak up when someone says “That’s so gay”; if we aren’t willing to write to our state and national representatives- including the President- demanding that they support equal rights legislation; if we aren’t willing to march, rally, make phone calls, and boycott homophobic businesses, then what good are we as friends, siblings, cousins, neighbors, children, etc. of LGBTQ people? How can we honestly call ourselves any of these things if, when they need us, we’re still in the closet? Our silence hurts. If we don’t strongly and collectively say that it’s wrong when others are homophobic or violent toward LGBTQ people, what will make them stop? What will change? And when?

I believe that anyone who calls themselves a straight ally has the responsibility to come out as such. There is no shame in being an out and proud straight ally, just as there is no shame in being out and proud as LGBTQ. We must work together. There are mountains to be moved, and they cannot be moved by the hopes of a few, but can and must be moved by the strength, determination, and perseverance of millions. That’s what it’s going to take. Don’t think for a second that it can be accomplished without you. You are vital. You are necessary. You have a choice.

Don’t think that I’m implying that fighting homophobia is easy. It’s not. It’s hard and it’s frustrating and sometimes confronting such ugliness is depressing. But it’s worth it. It’s always worth it. What helps me when I’m feeling negatively overwhelmed is to think of the people I’m fighting for. I think of the 10 year old boy who’s terrified of admitting to himself that he might be gay. I think of the 13 year old girl who hates her body because inside she feels like a boy. I think of the 67 year old man who still wonders what his life could have been like if he’d taken the chance to come out as gay all those years ago and have a relationship with the love of his life, instead of marrying a woman.

But more than any of that, I do this because one day I might have a son or a daughter who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. I want them to be proud of who they are. I want them to know that they never have to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from me or anyone else. I want them to be able to live in a country that grants them equal rights. My children will not be second class citizens. So I owe it to them and to every other LGBTQ youth of this generation and the next to do what I can to make sure that they are treated and protected equally under the law.

There were a lot of amazing speakers at the Unite + Fight Conference, including the fabulous Staceyann Chin, the tenacious Sherry Wolf, and the vibrant Lt. Dan Choi. I really wish that all of you could have been in Chicago this weekend to hear them, and many others, speak so passionately and energetically. But really, the true stars of the weekend were the attendees themselves. Now, we are all leaders in our communities for this movement. We are the people who will change the world.

On Sunday, we joined together to form what we are officially calling the Unite + Fight Midwest Equality Network, which will be affiliated with Equality Across America to join our regional efforts with others to form a national coalition for full, federal equality. This is a very exciting time. I was thrilled and honored to meet with people from across the Midwest, and I am so happy that it will now be easier, because of UFMEN, to work together toward our common goal.

If you live in the Midwest and want to learn more about UFMEN and how you can be a part of it, send an e-mail to unitefightmidwest (@) gmail.com. By the end of the week, our Google Group will be up, as well as a Facebook page. I will update this post with those links when they are available.

If you live outside of the Midwest, there are currently conferences being planned in Massachusetts, California, Washington state, and Florida. To learn more about each of these conferences,follow this link.

If you don’t live in or near these states, I would suggest checking out Join The Impact to find ways to get involved in your home town.

I will wrap up this post with some quotes from the conference.

“There is no room for complacency.”- Anthony Martinez

“We have to become better story-tellers.”- Ed Reggi

“The best thing you can do to those mother f*ckers is survive.”- Staveyann Chin

“If nobody knows that there’s a problem, there’s no problem.”- Bob Mueller

“What kind of world do you want to struggle for?”- Yasmin Nair

“We can never lose site of the fact that we can find family in each other.”- Lawrence Perea

“We’re going to have to be a little bit audacious.”- Sherry Wolf

“When people do what they’re good at, they become leaders.”- Rachel Miller

~ Samantha

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