by Jesse Monteagudo
What is a hero? According to the “Illustrated Oxford Dictionary” (revised and updated), a hero is “1. A person noted or admired for nobility, courage, outstanding achievements, etc.” In Greek antiquity, a hero was a “man of superhuman qualities, favored by the gods; a demigod” such as Herakles or Achilles. Modern culture is full of men and women who have unique powers that they use for the common goods, whether in comic books or movies or the television series “Heroes.” Not as powerful but equally as memorable are those real-life individuals who became heroes by leading a worthy cause, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa or Aung San Suu Kyi [image at right].
Like everyone else, the Gay, Lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is always searching for heroes who would lead us in the fight for freedom and equality. Recently the Advocate celebrated its 40th anniversary by compiling a list of 40 GLBT heroes. It asked its readers to go online (advocate.com) and vote from a prepared list, along with a line for write-in candidates.
Not surprisingly, the resulting “top 40" list, as published in the September 25th issue, favored celebrities over activists. Though I have no problem with Ellen Degeneres being # 1 — she did, after all, put her job on the line by coming out on TV – the absence of Virginia Apuzzo, Samuel Delany, Barbara Grier, Marsha Johnson, Jim Kepner, Franklin Kameny, Morris Kight, Paul Monette, Joan Nestle, Jack Nichols, Jean O’Leary, John Preston, Sylvia Rivera, Marty Robinson, Craig Rodwell, Eric Rofes, Vito Russo, José Sarria, Nadine Smith or others like them is appalling. (Barbara Gittings made it, but barely, at # 40.) On the other hand, celebs Billie Jean King and Elton John, who had to be dragged out of their closets kicking and screaming, scored high in the Advocate’s list (at # 6 and # 8, respectively).
To many people, just being openly queer in a homophobic society is an heroic act. One activist who agrees with that statement is Scott Hall, who told an interviewer that “It takes courage to live an openly Gay lifestyle. . . . I applaud the people who can do that.” But coming out often comes with a price, and many of our brothers and sisters have sadly paid the ultimate price just for being themselves. The fact that these men and women are all-too often forgotten moved Hall, himself a victim of anti-gay violence, to create the group Gay American Heroes (GayAmericanHeroes.com). The purpose of Gay American Heroes is “to honor and remember LGBT victims of hate crimes. . . To engage and inform the public about hate crimes against LGBT persons [and] . . . To inspire compassion and greater appreciation and acceptance of diversity.”
Gay American Heroes tries to preserve the memory of hate crime victims by creating a “traveling multi-dimensional memorial that will be displayed at college campuses, gay pride events and communities across the USA to honor LGBT persons, who have been murdered as the result of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.” Though one would argue that these “heroes” did nothing heroic – they were just passive victims – it is good that something like this exists that would preserve their memory – and hopefully prevent future hate crimes.
Even before Stonewall, GLBT people have searched for a “gay Martin Luther King, Jr., one” who would unite and lead our often disparate communities. But as Nadine Smith of Equality Florida – herself a hero of our community – famously said, what our community needs is not one Martin Luther King, Jr. but a thousand Rosa Parks; women and men who do not flee injustice but use it as a catalyst in their lives. Two Gay men who did just that are Waymon Hudson and Anthony Niedwiecki. The two life partners were energized into heroic action when they heard an anti-Gay message coming over the P.A. system at the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport.
Though Hudson and Niedwiecki were surely not the only GLBT people at the Airport at that time, they were the only ones who did something about this outrage. Risking ridicule (or worse) from the press and the public, the men contacted Airport authorities, the media, and openly Gay Broward County Commissioner Ken Keechl. Eventually, Hudson and Niedwiecki received an apology from the County and the Airport; and the offending individual was fired from his job. Since then, the two have has remained active in South Florida GLBT politics, creating the group Fight OUT Loud as “a national non-profit organization dedicated to helping GLBT individuals and their allies fight discrimination and hate.” If Waymon Hudson and Anthony Niedwiecki are not gay heroes, none of us are.
Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and Gay geek who may not be a hero but tries to do his best, one day at a time. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.