Living Out Loud (On Outing Myself in the Newspaper)
This past Saturday, Fayetteville, AR, held a local event as part of the Great Nationwide Kiss-In. I know this not only because I attended, but because I coordinated it. I had never planned a protest before, and didn't quite know what to expect. It was pretty easy. I made a few phone calls (the City, the Town Center, and the Farmers' Market), let them know about the event, and asked kindly for reservation. The City called proved superfluous, as I was not asking for any roads to be shut down. The Town Center just needed a heads-up on the use of their plaza, and the Farmers' Market gave us a booth for free. Being affiliated with a 501(c)3 really helped out. As the event was sponsored by the NWA Center for Equality (dues paid member, represent) I had a built-in net of help; the booth at the Farmers' Market used their tent, table, and members. Our ribbons and other supplies were purchased by the center. I didn't buy anything, just planned. A friend wrote our press release, and sent it to all of the news outlets. I made the facebook invite, and invited some friends. They invited some others, who kept the process up. Last time I checked, 1014 people had been invited. 101 had confirmed their attendance (these numbers never pan out, and we never got a full count, but the paper estimated 100 people showed). I sent out emails asking for volunteers, gave them all a couple of hours to work at the booth at the Farmers' Market, and planned on being there the whole morning.
The night before the protest was spent mostly cutting ribbons and decorating our poster. That morning we set up at the market and began to wait. Eventually Saundra, an Avon lady, dropped off the box of lipstick samples she had promised us, and the real fun began.
The samples were in response to a question many people had raised on the facebook invite: "how can I participate if I don't have someone to kiss?" We threw some ideas around (a kissing booth), and eventually I had that "A-ha!" moment: we'll get a poster and some lipstick, and people can show their support by kissing the poster. This turned out to be very popular, and a lot of people at the market came to our booth and kissed our poster. My favorite kiss was by Marley, an 18-month-old whose (straight) parents encouraged her to kiss. A lot of people picked up our rainbow ribbons, too (we ran out!), and some of them gave us donations for the ribbons! Not once did we ask for money, but we ended up making $34!
People started showing up about 30 minutes before the protest. And with the people came the media; all three local news stations sent cameramen, both papers sent reporters, and a CNN iReporter drove down from Bentonville to cover the event. I had a couple of TV interviews before the event. At 5 till, I got everyone to congregate around the steps—where we had placed a pride flag—and I took the "KISS" poster with quite a few kissprints on them. I did a countdown using my watch, and saw everyone smooch for a second. I walked down into the crowd asking where my kiss was until the boy appeared out of nowhere, pecked me, and let me get back to interviews.
After the kiss proper, I was questioned by both papers. I gave pretty simple information—I'm doing this cause I feel safe to be gay in Fayetteville, and I want everyone to know that I feel safe. Right as I was winding up, Barbara Rademacher, the CNN iReporter, asked me for an interview. By now I was familiar with what to do—I spelled my name and repeated my spiel (somewhat quickly) about why I planned the event. I helped take down the booth, then went home, napped, and caught myself on the 6:00 news. The night was filled with celebrations—Casey Willits congratulated me on a good first protest, saying that I really got the numbers out.
But it was Sunday morning that I was waiting for. I got copies of both papers and took them down to the center. There were a few of us there, and we looked over the articles together. The NWA Times had put us on the front page, with a nicely-sized article and a kind of obscure photo. The Morning news put us a few pages in; no article, just some captioned photos, but they actually showed two women kissing (a same-sex display of affection was not to be found on any other report). We were all pleased by the coverage. A few hours later, we found the CNN iReport, and felt that that gave a good depiction of the day's events.
On Monday morning, I awake to a text message from Casey Willits: "Fwd:The Fayetteville kiss-in is featured on CNN.com today." My only response: "Holy shit." I quickly ran over to CNN.com and, lo and behold, found a link to MY interview. It's not just any Kiss-In that's featured on CNN, it's the FAYETTEVILLE event. By this time, I'm getting pretty damn excited. I pimp it out to everyone I can think of—Twitter, facebook, text messages. Random friend requests start coming in on facebook, with messages like "Jonathan, I saw you on CNN and as a gay southern man who has a home in Little Rock, I am so proud of you and I hope that we can become facebook friends! Hugs! Michael" attached to them.
In my excitement, I call my mom. "I MADE THE FRONT PAGE OF CNN!" I tell her. Her response: "your grandfather is pissed off." She doesn't share my elation at the success of the event. This has been the only negative reaction I have received so far. Overall, the iReport has been viewed almost 30,000 times. Combine that with everyone who reads the paper and watches the local news, and it's probably safe to estimate that I was outed to around 45,000 people. And damn, it feels good. All of the reactions, save the one from my mom, have been incredibly positive and really inspiring. My favorite reactions are as follows:
- While staffing the booth at the market, I ran into my 8th grade guidance counselor, with whom I was very close. She told me she was proud of me and donated $20 to the center without being asked
- The next day, Karla Caraway—practically a surrogate mom due to the amount of time I used to spend at her house during middle school and jr. high—told me "Saw your pic in the paper this morning. Good going--proud of ya!" on Facebook
- Karla's husband, Steve, works at the Morning News, and emailed me a copy of the photo of me they ran
- All sorts of showings of support on twitter and facebook poured in. Lots of texts from friends telling me how awesome the CNN front page was
A lot of the comments the CNN story received went along the lines of 'I didn't realize how open-minded Arkansas had become!' While this isn't necessarily the case for the whole state, it certainly is for Fayetteville. Practically the whole city now knows my sexual orientation, and not a single bad thing has happened to me because of it. As far as protests go, I can count the Fayetteville Kiss-In as a smashing success. It did exactly what I wanted, by showing that Fayetteville is an open, safe, and accepting place.