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How the Harvey Milk Day Conference changed my life forever

It’s coming up very close to the time of year when GetEQUAL TX hosts the Annual Harvey Milk Day Conference. Around this time of year, I start thinking back to the first Harvey Milk Day Conference in 2010. Not too long ago, I know, but a lot has happened since then.

The year of the first conference, I was a first year student at Trinity University, brand new out of Kerrville, Texas where we have a total of about 6 gay men and probably 2 lesbians. No bisexuals or transgender people allowed (kidding! but really there weren’t any, or if there were, they weren’t very open about it). I had heard about the conference through the LGBTQ student group on my campus, the Sexual Diversity Alliance, and decided I should go since others I knew were going. Really, it was just something to do to get out of the house and maybe meet other gay people, which was pretty much my mission in life at the time.

When I got there, I was totally swarmed by awesome people. I went to the meet and greet the night before, and I’m really glad I did. I’m usually a pretty shy person when it comes to introducing myself to people, but after hanging around in the corner of the meet and greet with my friend Michael for about 20 minutes, I took a leap of faith and started introducing myself to people. I met Jay Morris, a blogger and activist well-known for his site, and I was totally floored to be meeting the Jay Morris, whose articles I had been reading for quite some time. I met his husband and several other people that night.

The next day at the conference, I was relieved to have met some people the night before because there were so many more people in this room! I sat next to Jay’s husband Christopher and throughout the day met so many other people, both people new to activism and those who had spent their whole lives doing it. I met people who worked in retail, and I met lawyers. Everyone there just totally rocked my socks off with their kindness and dedication to equality. And being little 19-year-old me, I was shocked to be meeting real, live lawyers, and lawyers that would actually talk to me and not above me (Kerrville is a small town, I’m telling you).

When we went to the march that has been a part of the conference weekend, I was just totally overwhelmed by everything going on around me. I had been to one protest before, a protest against the Westboro Baptist Church when they came to San Antonio to protest the play The Laramie Project at Our Lady of the Lake University. That was enough of a trip to me, just standing on the sidewalk and seeing protest signs, but this, the march in Austin, was beyond my comprehension at the time.

Once the march from Austin City Hall to the Capitol building got started, I was really timid to start chanting. I was thinking, “A guy like me doesn’t do this, these people are weird just yelling in a street.” Eventually, like I did at the meet and greet, I took a leap of faith. I started chanting kind of quietly, and over time my voice got louder and louder till I was yelling in what my friends today call my “protest voice” (I’ve been told it’s really frightening to people who haven’t seen that side of me before). By the time we got to the Capitol, I was pretty hoarse, but I kept yelling my little heart out. Chanting like that, I felt more free than I have in my whole life. I felt like I was in total unison with everyone around me, not just vocally, but spiritually, even physically. I felt one with everyone there, and I felt like I was part of the earth and extending into the sky. The MC for the rally, C.D. Kirven, told us to shout as loud as we could, and that our voices would be the only ones there to represent those who didn’t have voices, the ones who died before they could see the gains we’ve made or what’s left to come. I cried and cried at the rally, and even though my voice was totally gone, it was beyond worth it. I was on fire. I knew what I had to do.

Before this point I had avoided telling my parents about anything involving activism or really any socializing with other LGBTQ people. To my parents at that time, I was a docile gay who was renouncing that “lifestyle” to grow closer to God. But after that march, I knew I had to go to them and come out as an on-fire activist. I spent days writing what I was going to say to them before I had to go back home. Eventually I did tell them my new thoughts, and it went pretty poorly at first. That first summer was pretty tough, I’m not going to lie. Over time, though, especially through educating myself and then educating my mom, I helped bring my parents almost totally around to where I am now. Looking back, I’m shocked to see how quickly my parents evolved (I’m borrowing your word, President Obama) to see that their love for me could extend beyond just me and all the way to the community I lived with, the people I cared about, and the values I held dear. Even though my parents don’t support marriage equality at a federal level (something they have in common with President Obama), they do love me and my friends, and they have a lot of empathy for those who are discriminated against for their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

Over the next year, I got involved with the Direct Action Network of San Antonio, a group of activists who actually came together at the Harvey Milk Conference. I also served my position of Co-Secretary for the Sexual Diversity Alliance at my school, now on fire and trying to make as big a mark on campus and in San Antonio as I could. I was asked by Jay Morris on Good Friday, 2011 to be a speaker for the second HMD march happening a few months after that. I knew I was supposed to be sad on Good Friday (I’m a good Catholic, promise!), but I couldn’t control the overwhelming joy and awe I was experiencing for being asked to do something so grand. I didn’t know why I had been chosen, but it was an incredible gift to go back one year later. That spring, I looked back on what had happened in just one year: I had met Jay, one of my blogger-idols, met tons of other incredible activists, and then worked closely with them on organizing our community. It was humbling and inspiring to see what was happening so quickly in my life.

I had to miss out on some of the festivities of HMD last year because of my work and travel schedule, but I did make it to the march (by “festivities,” I mean the conference, which really is a festival to me). This one was especially emotional because my parents, the same two people I had been afraid to tell I was even friends with gay people a year before, had come all the way from Corpus Christi up to Austin to the march to see me speak. This was definitely the first LGBT-themed event my parents had been to in their lives, so I was understandably very emotional. I really enjoyed giving my speech that day, knowing the two people I loved the most in the world were there watching me. Here’s the speech if you’re so inclined to watch it (and enjoy my little moments of pure derp of that being my first time speaking to that large of a crowd):

Now, preparing for my third trip to Austin for this conference, I’m focused on building my workshop, “A History of Nonviolent Action,” which is basically a culmination of my absolute and undying love for Gene Sharp, nonviolent action historian extraordinaire. In the meantime since that first conference, I’ve been volunteering for GetEQUAL TX and other LGBT organizations to bring about full federal equality as soon as possible. I’ve been working diligently on learning more about LGBTQ communities and people so I can try to become as close a representation of their needs as possible to those in power. I’ve made some friends I truly believe will be life-long, people who have absolutely changed the way I view everything in the world, from politics (which used to be boring) to how I view my relationship with my parents. Luckily, my relationship with everyone in my family has only grown deeper because of my involvement in activism. Completely contrary to how I thought it would turn out, my parents are overjoyed that I’m pursuing a life focused on justice and equality, something they see as a fulfillment of Christ’s message to love your neighbor. So I’m rip-roarin’, ready to go for this year’s conference. I hope I’ll see you there (yes, you, I’m looking at you through this computer screen right now!), and even if you don’t want to go to my workshop, just go to any of the workshops because they’re all great. You can find the full schedule of events here, and the Facebook event page here (if you’re going to the conference, make sure you register so we know you’re coming!).

If you’ve read this far, I’m really proud of your stamina. It’s probably proof that you already are or would make a great activist. Thanks everyone, and I’m signing off!

—John Dean Domingue

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