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The New Gay Activist: Living in a Small Town with Kids, Changing One Mind at a Time

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I come reluctantly to this pronouncement, but I am an activist -- the gay kind.

When I was younger I read an essay about why gay men live in cities. The author's point: it isn't so much that we have been trying to keep the others away -- relegating ourselves to Urbania --- but to keep us in. We inadvertently caged ourselves for our own safety, the essayist hypothesized.

I was living in the city's center in a loft at the time -- an urban-euphoric lifestyle by most young gay male standards. Was I case in point? I wondered. Clearly I was no rebel, much less an activist for change.

I did leave Urbania eight years ago though, moving with my family to small town. It's Mayberry: gun racks in the back windows of pickups, a lot of Americana. It is one part newcomers and one part old timers. It's not rural Georgia or small town Texas mind you. But living here is not Urbania.

Now we live everywhere. We all know that -- intellectually, anyway. But gay men are scarce out here, thus the hysterical questions:

"You moved where?" "Why do you live there?" "Are there other gay men there?" "Is it scary?" Is it safe?" "What's there to do?" "When are you moving back to the city?"

I didn't give any of it much thought really.

But when I recently became the publisher of Portland's 30-year-old gay magazine, Just Out, I was forced to think about it.

I was barely getting acquainted with Just Out's Facebook fan page when out of the blue a "fan" took a swing at me.

"Why would we trust you? From what I can tell you haven't done anything for our community!" he posted. The thumbs started going up.

Ouch!

But did he have a point?

I haven't travelled in gay-circles for some time. It has been eons since I attended a chichi black tie event. You'd more likely see me at a spaghetti feed out here in the sticks. I haven't been to a see-and-be-seen art auction in many years. I have been to some more, um, shall we say, simple small town fundraisers though. Hey! I can appreciate Christmas door-handle cozy.

It's true. I haven't been going to white-gay-guy-wearing-Gucci-loafers-garden-parties; I've been busy changing diapers and making peanut butter sandwiches for the kids that come to the house to play with our kids (we now have two). I'm not on the gay softball field. You can find me though, next to all of the straight dads on my kids' soccer fields talking about what straight dads talk about.

I've not been having Sunday brunch with 10 of my favorite boys, in what feels like a lifetime; I'm apt to be having post-church weak coffee with a Vietnam Vet. I'm not on a non-profit board of directors for the Q-this or the LGBT-that. I am working on my little town's school budget committee, sweating over deep cuts elbow to elbow with the others. I've not been in the running for Mr. or Miss Gay anything, but I did run for city council. I lost.

Don't I get any credit for being out in the community -- for the betterment of our community, Mr. Facebook?

Then it hit me.

I'm an activist -- the gay kind.

Turns out I'm not alone. I am but one of many new gay activists.

And we are quietly playing an important role as the gay rights battle edges slowly toward victory. We are helping to move rural and suburban Americans from just theoretically supporting same-sex marriage -- based on their sense of fairness, justice and goodness -- to actually liking, maybe even loving, us. Understanding is coming too. The new gay activist isn't interested in mere acceptance. That's so 1990s.

Not unlike Jane Goodall observing the chimps of Africa to gain unprecedented understanding, rural and suburban Americans need to see us up close and personal. They need to observe us living our daily life, rather than just catching a glimpse on a weekly sitcom.

Every time my family drives into the nearest suburban Red Robin to grab a burger and two dads are grabbing juice cups and simultaneously asking the kids "Do you need to go potty?" we are the chimps to suburban America's Jane.

Every time we stand in line at our little Safeway store and the kids beg Daddy One for a candy bar (No! We are about to have dinner) and then turns to Daddy Two after the initial rejection, to ask the same question, we come face-to-face with our neighbors. Yes, Zach and Annie have two Dads. Not as weird you thought, huh?

These are precious teaching moments. That is what the new gay activist lives for.

Activism is so much more than passionately believing in this and that, practically paralyzed by one's own opinion and inner rage from the injustice of it all. It's seeking change. It's creating change, sometimes quietly, but always methodically.

The moments when the others get to see us first hand that we are not who they think we are, are the moments when meaningful change happens. It's that mom sitting in a nearby booth, staring at our family and then knowingly grinning, the international sign of parental unity. And it's the good ole country boy in his dirty John Deer cap who looks confused. "There are two men feeding that little baby. They can do that?" he face says.

Even otherwise open-minded and liberal bent people often don't understand what it means to be gay in 2012. They think they know. But as we chat at the school program, at the farmer's market, or on the playground, it quickly becomes apparent that they are still willing to learn.

They don't know that my partner of 18 years and I feel married, consider ourselves married, and aren't holding back on our relationship until the government gives us a thumbs up. They don't know that we -- individually and collectively -- still suffer discrimination because we are gay. Some think it is all wine and roses, gay dance parties, and fabulous clothes. They don't know that we saw our kids' births and teared-up like every other parent does. They don't know we'd take the same bullet they would for their kids.

Some of the others are perplexed by our parenting. "Where did you learn to do that?" "Are you the mom?" Some are surprised we are headed to Disneyland instead of Key West. Others are shocked that we'd go camping and sleep in a tent and bypass room service at the Ritz. (Only for the kids, people. Only for the kids.)

Jane didn't understand the chimps at first either.

We need marriage equality activism. We need aggressive lawyers to fight the good gay fight. We need marches and rallies. We need in-your-face activists who push the conversation in the vein of the 1980s Fight Back. Fight Aids. We need radical queer groups pissed off and fighting back -- even breaking windows now and again -- if that is what it takes to get attention to the cause. It's all important.

But we need more than that if we are to win this battle for good.

We need to open the cage's gate and spread out in greater numbers to every corner of this country. Activism won't lead to fast and final change if we spend such energy and financial resources "preaching to the choir" in mostly left-leaning and gay-friendly Urbania. It may be the place of important activist-money, but it is not the place where the final battle to this horrible war will be won.

The new gay activist -- with humility, gentleness, and perseverance -- will continue meeting their neighbors one at a time and changing minds. Not because there is an election on the horizon. Not because there is an anti-gay measure on the ballot. Not because of Michelle Bachman or Rick Santorum. Not because we want Obama re-elected. Not because we want anything.

We will simply reach out and have a cup of coffee with our neighbor because, in the end, it's not a bad way to spend 30 minutes -- as we change the world.