The Wild Wild West
I am from a desert that smells of wild creosote and aloe when it rains. I can drive an hour in any direction and be in a completely different environment, from the red clay mountains and the tip of Tucson’s Picacho Peak, to Tonto National Forest and the depths of the Grand Canyon. The beauty is intoxicating, but I would never tell anyone to move to Arizona because of the people.
In seventh grade three girls teased me mercilessly and called me a lesbian. I continued to relay to my government teacher the details of harassment, but she ignored me. As she described the beliefs the United States was founded upon, I learned that when I spoke out about this discrimination, I would be silenced..
I was scared to go to high school. During my sophomore year, a boy in my journalism class killed himself on prom night. Everyone blamed music and video games. Nobody spoke about the tornado of encouraged ignorance and violence, distorted self-image and lack of direction, or the silence. By fifteen I was scared to talk about any difference I might have recognized in myself.
I went to New York when I was 17. The first gay pride parade I went to in 2002 had over 250,000 people smiling and waving flags. I saw men holding hands in the stairwell of the Oscar Wilde Bookstore. I watched women loving each other outside of Henrietta Hudson’s. Greenwich Village was a far-cry from Mesa, Arizona where the word lesbian might as well have been followed by a scarlet L sewn into my clothes.
I moved to Massachusetts and watched Ani DiFranco switch her guitar with every song at Mount Holyoke where my girlfriend and I had secretly met up because her mother hated me for loving her daughter. I experienced my first hate crime with courts and homophobia in a town a train ride from Boston.
In the sweet embrace of Northampton in Western Massachusetts with its historical buildings built like a town that people would always want to live in, rainbow flags hung from business doorways not for pride of sexuality, but so strangers would know it was safe.
Returning to Arizona made me feel as though I had time traveled. Here I am bearing witness to a society in disconnect, in a country that is supposed to be a model of equality and freedom, living within a state that continues to take those things away. Those of us who are fighting are exhausted. Fighting is not the word. Moving forward does not fit either. We feel like we are playing an old-school game of Red Rover, Red Rover, send the next hateful bill right over. The hands of humanitarians, activists, progressive-minded citizens and equalists are feeling splintered and drying out from holding on so tight. When we are lucky enough to keep an opponent out the victory feels short-lived although we become possessed by a tighter grip. As I look to the left and right of me, they are fading. The social worker protecting women’s rights to health services and the freedom of choice feels like instead of making progress she is just continuously putting out fires and staying on the defense. The hands of creative teachers trained in differential learning and diversity are looking to the horizon for job opportunities, not because teaching jobs are unavailable in the state, but because creativity, progression, and equality do not seem to be current Arizona values.
My story as a witness is not as a lesbian in the gay and lesbian community. My voice has been met with constant opposition and silencing simply because I believe in human equality. Do I tell you about the gun laws in my state that allow people to come into bars and grocery stores with holsters and loaded pistols, painting a historic image of Arizona stuck in a Wild Wild West mentality? Do we discuss barriers that keep people from protesting outside of funerals with signs that declare, “God is punishing Arizona by allowing homosexuality,” even though homosexuality is irrelevant? The most applicable statistic to consider is our electorate. It may be growing more diverse, some Arizonans may be electing open representatives, but we need to look no further than to the people continually elected to understand why those of us who are embarrassed and ashamed are looking at our duffel bags every day wondering where else we might go or return to in order to feel a sense of community and feel safe to talk about anything.
People in Arizona do not want to talk about sexuality, unless it is the standard idealistic, traditional sense. I worked for the University of Phoenix for four years, during which employees were encouraged to make collages of their visions of success. More often than not, men would cut out half-naked models from magazines and paste them to poster boards, next to a shiny car, and a house that could accommodate an entire commune of people. I sat in trainings where the people leading my division would make openly homophobic remarks and laugh about it as though they deserved applause for their outstanding wit. It was alright for the man who sat next to me to hold up pictures of airbrushed women and say, “Hey, I bet you like this,” because I am a lesbian, without any repercussions, but after four years I was fired because of discrimination against my sexuality. We need not to look at just isolated incidents, but collective mentalities and behavior. I hear stories from friends who still work there about the same behavior and they are some of the most compassionate, intelligent, active people who believe in fairness and equality, but are seen as negative by the majority for saying anything that supports that sense of equality. It is not just our corporations, but our state.
On January 8, 2011 Jared Lee Loughner opened gun fire at a congress on your corner event held at a local Safeway grocery store. The media focus has been predominantly on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head and is in the process of recovering. But community outreach director Gabe Zimmerman, 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green; chief judge to the U.S. District Court of Arizona, John Roll; and Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard were all murdered.
Then on the steps of the United States Capitol, at 11:00 a.m. on January 10, a moment of silence was held nationally for Arizona, for all involved. I wonder if we were only having a moment of silence for Tucson, or if in that silence we were inwardly asking how many more vigils we need, how many moments with heads bowed and hearts hopeful, before we start to talk about how we feel about it. President Obama spoke of the expectations we need to live up to because of Christina Taylor Green, but what about the expectations we need to live up to because of Jared Lee Loughner? What are we saying about our political situation when we are constantly going to differentiate, pick sides, and holler the loudest about the hottest issues?
I asked Selah Geissler, who has been an active addition to any community she has traveled in or through, about how she felt about what happened in Tucson recently. She said, “I feel like the Safeway shooting could be a mirror for us here. Look Arizona, look at your own face. You’ve got kids with guns shooting up democratic events in grocery stores, but public schools without air conditioning and enough books to go around. Press will blame parents who will blame kids at school and death metal who will blame violent movies and video games, but no one will focus inward to do anything about it.” Which is why the events do not have to be relayed once again, regurgitated in a minute-by-minute account of the tragedy. What has to be relayed is how we feel about it as human beings baring witness to the hostility of our state. The spotlight is once again on Arizona, and once again media and rhetoric are trying to convey to everyone what happened and why it did.
Another woman, Erica Vega, who has been actively protesting SB 1070 from the beginning, stated, “People are not talking about the other facts of the Tucson incident. They are not talking about how the mental health of Jared Lee Loughner is in serious questions. Or about how the state’s mental health budget was just cut so that in the future we can have more Loughner-esque incidences, rather than cutting them off at the pass with professional mental health help.”
I responded much in the same way Geissler shared, “I really can’t help thinking we failed him somehow. I feel personally responsible in an unexplainable way when a young person loses their mind, slips into a dark abyss of unbearable despair and violence, and goes so far as to take others with them.” We even separate ourselves based off of who we are empathizing with, and if we would see how tragedy touched everybody involved in different ways, we would be able to look at what the actual state problems are and how to fix them.
The reality of Arizona is that although many are hopeful for change, the continuing electorates clearly show us that change is not happening. The solution boils down, always to the same thing: conversations about everything we are told not to talk about, gatherings of like-minded people so we feel supported for the causes we are advocating for and grounded when we have to explain to everybody else why it is a bad idea to cut mental health care budgets, or how to change businesses from the inside out to employ cultural diversity trainings that are inclusive and protect, not only women, but anyone different within the workplace from being discriminated against.
When Governor Brewer said that immigration law SB 1070 was not a racist bill, she neglected to offer details about the training officers would go through. A social worker who has been working in the field in Arizona for over ten years said, “We can’t even nail the response training for officers to respond to domestic violence here and we have been trying for years, so assuming that a classroom training will protect Arizonans from racial profiling is naive.”
In a hotbed of immigration debate, a community with sparse support for anyone who appears to be different (since, let’s face it, the media has done a great job at reminding us how scary differences are, unless we’re suddenly coming together over a tragedy!), we are exhausted. We are still bound together, hands interlaced. I am starting to wonder what is more important: having conversations with people who disagree with me and respond violently to challenging questions about ingrained thoughts; or having conversations with the ones whose hearts broke for the same reason two weeks ago after Tucson?
Vega stated, “The state of Arizona has the potential to be a highly diverse and culturally stimulating environment. Unfortunately, on a daily basis, without searching for it, we are able to see the racism, bigotry, and discrimination that makes this state a ‘red’ conservative bowl of hatred.”
People in Arizona want the global community to know a few things: Geissler says, “Don’t be like us! Find a way to open the lines of communication in your communities, especially with your kids, and talk about the political issues affecting you and your surroundings! Don’t underestimate your children’s minds! Talk…that’s the only way to know what’s going on in people’s heads and hearts, and relate to it, or address it, or just release it. This is a brutal truth: we affect the world with our actions. Talk about it, or this can happen in your community.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.