Seven Straight Nights to Shine Light on Gay Rights
Straight folk go to bat for queer folk
If you're straight and the words "heterosexual ally" haven't yet entered your personal lexicon, chances are you're not yet part of the growing movement to speak out on behalf of gay rights – even though the latest Gallup Polls show support for the gay community at an all-time high. With a majority (57%) now believing that "homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle" (make that 72% if you're a Democrat or 75% if you're between 18 and 35), the upcoming Seven Straight Nights for Equal Rights event aims to bring that support out of the closet.
Beginning Oct. 7 and corresponding with National Coming Out Week, Seven Straight Nights is a series of sundown-to-sunup vigils taking place in 30 different cities, with each city picking one night to show its straight community's support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Gay-friendly events of this scope traditionally come out of New York or California, but Seven Straight Nights began right here in Austin with two locally tied national organizations, Soulforce and Atticus Circle.
In its eighth year, Soulforce is the older of the two groups. Its members focus on fighting anti-gay attitudes, especially those rooted in religion, with nonviolent resistance. Founded by the Rev. Mel White, who came out as gay in the early Nineties after years of ghostwriting speeches for the likes of Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, Soulforce has grown roots here since the 2006 appointment of Austin-based Executive Director Jeff Lutes. Lutes now offices in the same Downtown building as Atticus Circle, the homegrown group launched in 2004.
Named after literary hero Atticus Finch, the white attorney who fights racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Circle's mission is to galvanize straight supporters and parlay their political power into new policy. Austin attorney Anne Wynne launched the organization in the wake of the November 2004 elections, when 11 states passed amendments banning gay marriage. As a family-practice attorney, herself married with children, Wynne quickly realized the implications of the bans, which deny the LGBT community hundreds of rights otherwise afforded heterosexual Americans, affecting health-insurance benefits, child custody, hospital visitation rights, and much more.
"I didn't have on my radar screen what discrimination actually meant to gay people in this country until then," says Wynne. "I didn't know what legal rights I had that they didn't have, and I certainly didn't know what rights my kids had that theirs didn't have." After an unsuccessful search for an organization catering to straight supporters like her, Wynne founded Atticus Circle. Its fast-growing membership – along with the recent surge in similarly targeted efforts, like GLAAD's Be an Ally & a Friend campaign – confirmed her suspicions that others felt the same way she did.
"My sense is that there are many heterosexual allies looking to have a voice on this issue," says Lutes. He hopes that, more than simply bringing attention to the issues and proving that heterosexual allies care enough to sacrifice sleep, Seven Straight Nights will give supporters a chance to make important connections with one another and the gay community. These connections will hopefully keep them involved in the movement, abreast of the issues, and poised to speak out when needed. "It's not just a 90-minute cocktail party, and then everybody goes home," he says.
Rather than "cookie-cutter" the event, says Wynne, Seven Straight Nights allows each city's local organizer to follow his or her unique vision. In Madison, Wis., the governor's wife, Jessica Doyle, has organized a candlelit vigil and march. In Greenville, S.C., participants will light 1,138 candles to represent the 1,138 federal rights denied to gay Americans. In Lansing, Mich., participants will gather at a church to watch a documentary reconciling homosexuality and the Bible.
"This is a real justice issue that the church needs to stand up for," says Jack McKinney, a Southern Baptist minister in Greenville, N.C., and just one of the many religious leaders involved with Seven Straight Nights (his event will focus on showing support for a state anti-bullying bill and for businesses that have shown progressive attitudes toward domestic partnership benefits). Straight support for LGBT rights, he says, is critical. "The tipping point will come when enough heterosexual families realize that the spirit of basic equal rights is being violated." Austin pastor Greg McDonell of Central Presbyterian – a local Seven Straight Nights participant – echoes McKinney's sentiment. "If there's no justice for all," he says, "there's no justice for anyone."
Austin's Seven Straight Nights vigil, on Wednesday, Oct. 10, corresponds with the 20th anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, at which the AIDS Memorial Quilt was unfurled in the National Mall. Participants will commemorate the occasion on the Capitol grounds with picnics, live music, an all-night candlelit vigil, and an early-morning meeting with City Council members and state representatives. See www.sevenstraightnights.org for details on participating.
Portions of the now-54-ton AIDS Memorial Quilt are headed to town, as well, to be displayed Oct. 28 in Waterloo Park. See www.aidsquilt.org for details.