This past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with legendary Houston activist Ray Hill. Though I thought of many questions for him that went unasked, an interesting thread wove through his story as told in the short film about his activism, “The Trouble With Ray,” and directly by the man himself. Ray spoke about being born into a family of “labor goons” who were relieved when he came out as gay and not as a Republican. His activism helped stop lesbian bar raids in Houston in the 1960s, as well as Anita Bryant’s homophobic march across the country less than a decade later. While still attending to the gay community, he also speaks out on prison reform and advocates for prisoners to this day.
Ray talked fondly about his family, especially his mother and her influence on his life and activism. Frankie, as she was called, raised her children to be fighters. She told them the picket line was long and stretched all the way from before civil rights to after immigration reform and we should each take a spot on that line to fight for our fellow man. This was the statement that struck a nerve for me. This mother, this family, created an amazing legacy of activism that has helped thousands, if not millions of people be able to live their lives on their own terms.
Also this week, I have watched in horror the act and aftermath of nine African-American church goers being gunned down by a self-described white supremacist who wanted to “take his country back.” The victims’ families have not been allowed to grieve, instead they have been trotted out as examples of good Christians for forgiving the murderer even without his asking. These families, as many others in such tragic cases, have been counseled and expected to forgive someone with no remorse for his actions, no penance paid, in the name of being the better person. It begs the question, what legacy are we leaving for our children?
What will our children say years from now when they realize we didn’t fight for them, instead choosing to appeal to a figment of our imagination who never rescues us when we need to be rescued even though our every action is ostensibly to please him? When nothing has changed and history is still being written by the victor, will they realize we turned the other cheek until there were none left? Will they figure out the existential idea of waiting for god is just that, an idea whose time has been up since inception?
Or will we leave a legacy of more of the same? Will our children grow up to be people so steeped in fear there is no fight left in anyone? Will they be so pious as to allow the continual suffering of others hoping and waiting on a heaven to escape to, while simultaneously being afraid to die and go there? Will my children be just as frustrated as I am by what I see today, or will my voice and the voices of others like me be enough to change things?
These are questions we have to ask ourselves as a community in order to move forward and enact real change. What good is forgiveness and a lack of retribution when it just continues the cycle of violence against our community? What good is a legacy of peacefulness when it only assures peace for those who harm us? What good is a “he was a good man” epitaph when that man is dead and his children have to understand they are no more protected than he or his forebears?
I want to leave a legacy of critical thought and activism. If my children have to fight, let them fight new issues, not these same battles again and again. Let them also understand forgiveness is not required, nor is it profitable to be given away freely to those who don’t deserve it.