Transcribed by Melissa Berney
My name is MaxZine Weinstein. I'm forty-four years old. I live at IDA, which is a queer community in the woods of middle Tennessee.
I come from a nice Jewish family. Not so big but kinda big in the mind, if you know what I mean. And, oy vey -- my family came mainly from Russia or some undetermined border area -- was it Ukraine, was it Russia, was it Prussia -- and they came here in the late 1800's, early 1900's.
So, my family -- they come from the old country. They were escaping Tsarist Russia. It was really bad. People who immigrated to the USA, they didn't talk much to their kids about some of the horrors they witnessed. One of my brothers and I particularly wanted to know about where our... like our family story. We didn't get it much growing up. One time I asked my Great Aunt Ida to tell me stories about life back in Russia, and she says to me, "Oh! It was a very nice family. There was a teacher, there was a this, there was a that...." And I'm like, "Okay, nice family. But can you tell me a little more what life was like?" "Oh, well, we were very lovely people in the shtetl." And I'm like, "Okay, Aunt Ida. Can you...." The more I asked her, the more I didn't actually get any answer. I was young, and I realized that she just couldn't talk about it. I think she was an orthodox Jew, and whatever she'd been through or seen, or what had happened to her family that didn't make it out of Russia... she couldn't talk about it. She could only talk in sweeping generalizations.
Well, her name was Aunt Ida, and I believed she died the winter that I moved to IDA...I don't remember when she died, but it was the first time I ever got an inheritance cheque. It was very small -- a couple hundred dollars or something, but I got that inheritance cheque the month I moved to IDA, and I was like, "Wow, Aunt Ida's died and I moved to IDA." It doesn't maybe mean so much. I later found out... it was hard to get information from my family about our roots... I've later found out stories... little bits and pieces here and there... about --- I don't even know who -- someone hiding under a table while someone else in the family was raped, and the men being taken -- Jews who were taken and forced into the Tsar's army, never to be seen from again, the families split apart, the villages may or may not exist anymore.
So I guess my family history's important to me, because I also initially grew up in a suburb of New York where there were a lot of Jews, and my neighbour across the street -- who was also my first dentist -- was a holocaust survivor. And growing up, as a kid, first in the sixties and then in the seventies, it was... we heard a lot about the Holocaust. There was a lot of footage being released that we saw in Hebrew school, and we were always taught, "Never again. Never again." So, this happened, and it was somehow emblazoned in my brain that I had a responsibility to try and do my part.
So, I went to public school, but I went to five years of Hebrew school, three days a week, two hours each time, in addition to public school. And a big part of what we were taught at Hebrew school was about the Holocaust, and lessons from the Holocaust, and we were taught how to be a part of a world where those kinds of things could never happen again. And granted, as I grew older, I realized that those things were happening in other parts of the world in different ways -- there's a lot of hypocrisy about who gets cared for and what kinds of genocide gets challenged. But, the important thing for me as a kid was, from ages eight to thirteen, they showed me holocaust footage that was very awful, and I was the kind of kid that took it to heart, and thought, "Wow, what can I do to make that never happen again?"
I know a lot of my family got out of Tsarist Russia, and I'm grateful. I also know a lot of my family that got out of Tsarist Russia, when they got to the USA as poor, penniless, immigrant Jewish workers, were treated like shit. I heard a story about my Dad's father almost starving to death in the streets of New York, I think it was. And these were little stories, bits and pieces, that I heard through asking family members. You know, not everyone who hears stories like that is going to take that, to then start making stands for justice, or moving their family stories into some kind of version of themselves that makes them passionate for change. But for whatever reason, I feel like that really affected me and made me that way.
(Crowd cheers) See -- they agree. There's a crowd here cheering because they agree.
So, life in the New York suburbs where I lived until pretty much the start of high school... I grew up in the suburbs of New York, almost knowing I was bored and alienated, and life sort of seemed easy. My Dad was born during the Great Depression... right when the Stock Market had crashed. My dad was born into a family... I think they had four or five sisters, and he said they were always told, "Show up at dinner on time, or no food, and that's all we have." Just, a very disciplined Depression-era family of hard workers. And my dad was always determined that his kids wouldn't have life as hard as he did as a child. And he really started subscribing into the American Dream, and wanted the good life for the family in the suburbs. And I'm really grateful for his and my Mom's efforts to give us a really comfortable life -- much more comfortable than anything they had ever had. I think that's a remarkable thing to do.
It also felt at times like a really hollow life. We were on the edge of the suburbs and the country on Long Island. There were beautiful farms near us. And of course, we lived in a place that had been farmland. I didn't associate our moving out there as helping to wreck farmland, but I saw the pumpkin patches we used to sneak into as kids, being destroyed one after the next, seeing the potato fields all disappear... All this amazing, fertile farmland on Long Island turning into condominiums and gated communities and strip mall after strip mall. I watched this massive destruction of farmland and woods, and I hated it. I liked to go play in the woods and the farms, and it was disappearing as I was growing older. There was a pond I used to love to go ice skating on, and we played ice hockey on the pond every winter. And then, one winter we went back there, and the woods... We went to the woods where this pond was, and we kept seeing more and more garbage there, and it was getting kinda gross. So one winter, the water in the pond was gone, and we saw that people had dumped washing machines or ovens or appliances that didn't work anymore. I was still like twelve, thirteen maybe, and I just couldn't understand why people would wreck this beauty to throw garbage there. I guess they threw garbage in the pond or the woods so they wouldn't have to pay to use the landfill or drive to the landfill. I guess watching suburban development encroach on rural areas was kind of a pivotal thing for me. That would come back to me later in life, because it was really upsetting.
At the age of fifteen, we moved from New York to Iowa. It was kind of a traumatized, weird move. I threw temper tantrums, I cried, I just said, "No, you cannot make me move from New York to Iowa." I should also add that, one thing I loved about living near New York City was that I thought New York City was just this amazing place. As a kid, we went to the city a lot. Some families... some of my friends, their parents were very guarded about how much freedom kids could have to run into the city and roam around, run, play. My parents were very liberal in the sense that, from a young age they let us take the commuter trains into the city, and just be like, "Oh, you've gotta be on guard in the city," or something. New York in the seventies was considered a scary place to a lot of suburban people, but I was lucky in that my parents were like, "Go, have fun and explore and take care of yourself." It was like -- what an amazing playground to have as a kid, I thought. And then all of a sudden -- BOOM -- news comes that we're moving to Iowa, because of my Dad's job. And I said, "Well, could we maybe go to Ohio or Idaho or something else with i's and o's?" I'm like, "Why Iowa? That sounds so foreign and horrible and scary."
So, we flew to Iowa in a blizzard, in the year of 1980-81... I don't remember what year exactly... flew to Iowa, and we landed at night in this big snow storm, and we went out to dinner somewhere, and I remember so well -- the waitress came up to us, and she's like, "Hi! How are you tonight?" And my family just sat there, frozen. And I looked around this restaurant, and I was kinda scared, because all the people in the restaurant were blond, and my family were all dark-haired Jews. And I look around, and everyone has light hair, and I'm like, "Why is this woman being friendly to us? She doesn't know us!" She's like, "How are you today?" And I'm.... So, if you go in a restaurant in New York, mostly you get, like, "Hi, what do you want? C'mon, you want me to go back? I don't have all day. I can take your order now, but if you're not... if you don't know..." And here she's like, "Hi. How are you today?" I was so scared. I was such a scared fifteen year old kid, going, "Uhhh..."
So I remember my first day of class... I don't remember what class it was... my first day of one of my classes in high school, the teacher goes, "Class...we have a new student!" And I'm trying to hide down in the chair, I'm like, "Isn't there something I can take that will make me invisible?" Why do they have to point you out? It's the kind of words that most kids never want to hear. There's nothing like being an awkward teenager, and having everyone staring at you, putting their preconceptions and judgments on you and just, "Who is this person?" And she's like, "Class... we have a new student! His name is MaxZine,"...okay, that wasn't really my name then, but anyway... "His name is MaxZine, and he's from New York!" Like, I'm not kidding, like, "He has a switch blade in his back pocket, and he's going to get you!" I just went home and... I probably cried or screamed at my Mother, or something: "Why did you move me here? I'm never going to make it here. Everyone has blond hair and is scary, and there are people that have never met a Jew before, and they treat me like I'm a criminal." My first day of school.
So, after living in Iowa, I went back to see my friends living in New York, and... there were some things I found I liked about living in Iowa. I liked being back out once again in the suburbs, but in the country, like on the edge of the two. I could get on my bike and ride, and I'm in farms immediately, and I'm on beautiful roads by beautiful rivers and beautiful rolling hills, and I loved it. I couldn't ever bike ride like that in New York. The friends I did make -- I didn't have so many friends in high school, but we'd go camp out at state parks a lot, and kinda get high, and stay up all night, and I totally loved it. We found beautiful oases... And I went back to visit friends in New York, and everyone was in such a rush, and everyone was almost a little bit rude, it seemed. And everyone was like, acted like they lived in the centre of the universe because, "New York is the financial and cultural capital, and so we're the most fabulous people." And it was kind of a turn-off. Like, after just four months or five months, I was a little alienated in New York. And then I went back to Iowa, and I was kind of alienated there too, because I really didn't fit in.
And I also realized I was a queer boy, who was alienated because I didn't know... how do I deal with being queer? In the early 1980's, there were very few queer youth support groups. I know there was in New York and San Francisco, but I hadn't even heard of such a thing. I didn't have any good way to deal with being attracted to boys. I didn't know how to cope with it, other than to repress it, deny it, and lust after my friends. And that wasn't a good combination, most of the time. In fact, it sucked.
Oh, there was another thing that happened when we got to Iowa. I moved to Iowa when Iranians had taken over the US embassy in Iran, and taken hundreds of US citizens hostage. The big hostage crisis of 1979 and '80... That should tell me when I moved there, then... And when I lived in New York, our next door neighbours were Iranian, and it was totally fine. It was like Jews, Iranians, and Italian-Americans coexisting in the neighbourhood where I lived. I moved to Iowa, and I immediately saw signs -- like signs at bars -- that said, "No Iranians allowed." Seeing this kind of stupidity and reactionary, racist behaviour was kind of stunning. I'm sure there was plenty of racism in New York, and still is, obviously, but it wasn't plainly on sight the way it was in Iowa, to me. When I see a sign like, "No Iranians allowed," and I have teachers who treat me like I'm from outer space because I'm from New York, and the synagogue that my parents went to around then had some kind of violent threat on it, so then they have police there protecting it...When I see all this, I'm like, "I don't fit in this picture well. Something's really fucked up here."
So I started thinking as a high school kid, "Well, it's time... I'm old enough to do something now." I saw films of the sixties that were still fresh, and I was like, "People did something to make a difference. I want to do something to make a difference." Me and a friend organized a petition drive in our high school to stop forcing kids to go to football pep rallies. And we got the rules changed, which was great. It was like one of my first activist things, and I could see: sometimes if you just organize people you can make a small difference in the world.
I left high school a year early. There was some kind of law... or... I don't remember how it worked, but there was some kind of law in Iowa where, I didn't finish my high school -- all the requirements, but I could go to certain colleges early, that would accept you without a degree, and I had to take classes at college that would fulfill the rest of my high school requirements. And once I figured that out, I jumped on the chance to get the fuck out of Dodge, as we say -- because I had to get out of that conservative, imprisoning high school. So I went to Drake University, which is in Des Moines, and still lived at home, and still worked on finishing my high school degree. But it was kind of cool to get out of high school a year early and be in college.
I remember one day, I saw some posters that were put up. This is 1982, now. In 1982 at Drake University in Des Moines, I saw some posters go up about some film and rally against nuclear weapons. And I was like, "Oh, yay! That's what I want to find and be a part of." So I went to see this film. It was called 'If You Love This Planet,' and it was made by Dr. Helen Caldicott, who's an Australian doctor, but better known as an anti-nuclear activist. This was during the Reagan years, when the cold-war rhetoric was really intense, and the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the fear of nuclear war was... seemed a lot more prominent than it is now.
I saw this film which showed footage of the devastation of Nagasaki, and I was pretty shocked. I wondered why that footage wasn't being shown so much on television. And I also knew, as a kid, my non-Jewish friends didn't see much Holocaust footage, that they showed it to us every year in Hebrew School, and they wouldn't show that kind of thing on US television, just like they wouldn't show what the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did on television. They would show fictional depictions or stories dealing with the Holocaust, but not the actual footage, and so I noticed that Jewish friends watched this, but other people -- I would tell them about it, and they hadn't seen it. I'm sure some had, but many hadn't.
I remember in... I think it was in that film, Dr. Helen Caldicott talked a lot about the psychological numbness that people have towards the pain that gets inflicted by things like holocausts or nuclear war. So for me it was like... this was an example of the voice in my head that said, "Never again. Never again let this happen." And here we are in this nuclear arms race, and here is these people having this rally against nuclear weapons.
So I went to that rally the next day, and saw that there weren't that many students who seemed to care. And I kinda noticed that the people who were there, they kinda looked like they were fringey or on the outside -- not in the mainstream. I was actually kind of scared to go up and talk to people. I was really intimidated. They all seemed really confident, and belligerent in a kind of hot way. I was just a shy kid that was like, "Oh, I want to try to go up and meet these people and be a part of it". And I felt like it just looked like I didn't... maybe I had this voice in my head that was still like, "How do I get myself to belong?" That was like a lot of my story of my teenage life, I guess. But I did go up finally and talk to some people and started to get a little involved.
Once I finished my first year at Drake University in Des Moines, I also met my high school graduation requirements and I was free to go elsewhere. I really wanted to not live with my parents, or close to them. I love my parents. They're great. But I felt like it was a good time in my life to break free more. Both of my brothers had also gone to college. I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Before school even started, I moved into the dorm, and I found this newspaper that was like a disorientation...
Dateline... late August, 1983. I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to a kind of disgusting dormitory in Ann Arbor. I found this newspaper, because I went to school a couple of days before it started to move into the dorm and have orientation. I found this sort of dis-orientation newspaper put out by radical students. They were called the Progressive Student Network. I read it cover to cover and just was like... I was blown away by it, because the newspaper talked about how the University had been cutting a lot of the programs I was interested in. They were cutting the Arts. They were cutting a lot of social sciences. They dismantled the geography department, which is actually what I was interested in majoring in, but they somehow had all these funds to build a big new business school and increase engineering, and increase certain things that I wasn't interested in. The priorities seemed really messed up.
The newspaper talked a lot about why students need to get involved to try to save programs, so there'd be more diversity in education. They cut education -- the School of Education funding -- big time, and we're like, "Well, don't we want to train good teachers? Go out and teach?" "No, we need businessmen and engineers to..." Do what? How about develop nuclear weapons? Because the newspaper I'd picked up also talked about how, at the Engineering School, they were conducting Stealth Technology research. And it talked about how, at the School of Public Health, they were researching nerve gas. Well, really, what they were researching was an antidote for nerve gas, but in war you need an antidote for your weapons so your troops aren't affected. I was just blown away.
I found out that the University had, I think it was fourteen million dollars of military contracts. I wondered why... The University of Michigan had one of the larger, more known protest movements in the late '60's and early 70's where they had banned military research -- or stopped it, anyway. And then slowly, as that radical era faded, the military research was coming back into the universities. Professors went for it because they went where the funding was. Reagan was president, and the funding was definitely increasing for the military, while education was cut, and aid to poor people was cut. And what happened in the Reagan administration was paralleled at places like the University of Michigan and so many other places where these big corporate-style universities followed the political whims and agenda, because they want the bucks. Big public universities like University of Michigan care more about their research agendas and that money than they do about teaching people. Well, I didn't realize that when I went there. I learned a crash course right away.
The first month I was at school, I was no longer so scared to go to meetings and things as I was my year at Drake University, where I was really intimidated by what seemed like this really cool, hard-core crowd of students. I was ready to be like, "Okay, I can handle it. I see the newspaper says go to this meeting..." And I went.
The first month that I was a student at work, the Progressive Student Network was planning this sit-in at a laboratory at the Engineering School that was conducting electromagnetic pulse research. Basically, they were trying to figure out, the military was funding universities to do this research to figure out how to keep electronic devices working for 'us', 'the good guys', in the event that someone like us happens to use nuclear weapons, so that all of our communication systems can survive the electromagnetic pulses that are emitted when a nuclear weapon's used.
We ended up having a 72 hour sit-in in the lab, something like 20, 25 students, and getting all this national media attention. I actually wasn't willing to risk being arrested and ended up being the media coordinator of that -- which I had absolutely no experience in, but it was really fun, anyway, and it was a really good training for me as a young, budding activist or something.
I remember giving a speech. We had this march across campus where about three hundred people went, and I gave my first public political speech, [which] was in front of the ROTC building -- the Rohtzee building, which is the Reserve Officer Training Core, I think that's what it stands for. Maybe it means Rock Out, Troublesome Children, but I don't think so. I don't think it was like a punk thing -- it was a very military building on campus. I was really nervous to give a public speech against the military with media looking at me, and crowds. But definitely, living in Ann Arbor was a good training, and lots of people with different generations to help us learn about it.
So, I was kind of a happy student. I didn't necessarily do too well as a student going to classes, but I got involved. I was kind of a full-time activist-y student. I would see different causes I was interested in... so... jumping...
My first year as a student in Arbor, I was still kind of trying to come out as gay. I was definitely sexually active, but somehow in denial that I was gay. It might not make sense... like, this is twenty-something years ago, and being a political activist and queer, but still closeted to myself might not make sense in the context of today in 2009, but I understood. What was going on was, that it was still really hard to be openly gay for a lot of kids, and I was one of them. It was weird, because I had some friends who were in this group the PSN -- the Progressive Student Network -- who were lesbians and a lot of people were sort of... called themselves bisexual or try-sexual or androgynous, and would experiment, and I sort of started seeing myself as oh, one of these experimental types -- but I wasn't gay.
I went to a gay rally on campus before I even totally came out to myself. Again, it doesn't make sense, but it was easier to be politically vocal, because it's about justice and equal rights and stuff. We had this rally. We were trying to get the university to pass a non-discrimination clause -- so that gay people would be covered under the university's non-discrimination clause. They weren't going for it. It wasn't going anywhere. I wasn't actually involved in the gay student group that was doing this, but all the different political groups tried to support each other.
So, I heard there was going to be this rally and march to the president's office. Most people in the queer student group wore paper bags on their head to show that it's not safe to be out on campus, because you might be graded differently or something or anything as a student. Workers didn't have protection to be out back then. So people decided to wear paper bags over their heads, which was a very visual statement. I didn't actually wear one, and it was so funny, because I didn't identify as gay, but I felt like, well -- I want to be seen. If people know me, I want them to see that I'm supporting gay and lesbian, bisexual rights, or whatever rights we were supporting.
It was very hilarious... It wasn't announced that we were going to go to the president's office; it was just that we got there, and found out that we're marching on the administration building. About forty of us went in there, and the secretary of the president was like, "What are you doing? You can't..." By the way, there's an administration building that was built during the height of the sixties when there was intense shit going on on the Ann Arbor campus, and they tried making it this fortress, demonstration-proof sort of thing. I mean, you can get in there, but they can shut it down. We got in there, because in '83, '84, there weren't such huge demonstrations with people fighting with the cops like there had been in the late '60's, early '70's.
So we managed to get in there -- not into the president's office, but into the conference room attached to the president's office. And we're just packed in there, some people still with their brown paper bags on. And in comes President Shapiro himself. There was a great picture in the Michigan Daily -- which is the Michigan student newspaper -- of the president sitting kind of like [crosses legs and makes a stiff face], with his hands right over his private parts, looking really uncomfortable and scared; they somehow managed to get such a great photo of him -- it was brilliant -- as he was saying things like, "I care!" and, "I'll look into this!" The president would always say, "Well, that's really a decision that the regents of the university, who were publicly elected to govern this place, have to decide," or, "The People of Michigan need to decide." Everyone wanted to pass it off to everyone else and not deal with the queers.
So, I was involved in many different things. I was involved in some environmental activism. I was involved in the [South African] anti-apartheid movement for a little bit. And when I say "involved," that means mostly just going to rallies, demonstrations, making phone calls, writing letters to the editor, whatever...
I got real involved with a group called LASSC -- that's Latin American Student Solidarity Committee. At the time, in the early '80s, most governments in Central America were dictators supported by the United States -- with a big exception of Nicaragua, which had had a revolution in '79. The US was mining the harbours of Nicaragua, and arming the Contras -- which is short for contra-revolutionaries, contrarevolucionarios. They were arming the Contras to attack Nicaragua from Honduras and from Costa Rica. It seemed really weird -- why are we attacking this country that's trying to feed their population and have literacy programs where most people had been illiterate? And yet, we're arming the dictators that are keeping their people down.
So, one day I was sitting at a LASSC meeting... there would be sixty or seventy people at the weekly meeting... and someone passed around a pamphlet that said that there was this international march for peace from Panama to Mexico. I looked at it and was like, "I want to do that!" And I was like, "Uh, oh! That means that I'm going to have to miss the end of this semester and miss the beginning of the next semester, and go to war zones. But somehow I was like, "I want to go see these zones that I've been involved in."
So I did that. And my parents were not happy with that. They weren't happy about me missing school, they weren't happy that I was going to march in war zones. But, my parents, being really cool as they are, were like, "We're not going to support this venture," and then they're like, "Okay, what do you need?" and helped give me money towards it anyway. I was like, "I could fundraise. But sure, if you want to make a donation, great."
So I went on this march. It was about three hundred people from thirty different countries. We all got together in Panama City, about five days before we were set to go. It was really utter, insane chaos. This march had been planned by people from different countries, who speak different languages, and there was disagreement and disarray about what kind of decision process we had, who was going to decide things...
There were crazy debates and, before we even got to Panama to start, someone had taken posters with the peace march design, which was like some cutesy, artsy thing with a dove, a peace dove and stuff -- they had taken that logo and put them all over Panama City with a hammer and sickle, to say that we were Communists supported by the Russians, and that the KGB was leading this march. And this was before we even started. We were in the center of the Cold War turmoil and it was really intense.
The peace march that I went on in Central America in the winter of '85, '86 was mostly a peace bus -- the word 'march' is more metaphorical. We'd sometimes march for a few hours, but mostly we were being bussed from city to city, or farm to farm, or wherever we went. When we got to the border of Panama and Costa Rica, the Costa Rican government wouldn't let us in. Costa Rica was officially a 'neutral country' -- they called themselves the Switzerland of Central America; they claimed they didn't have an army.
But everyone who knew what was going on knew that Costa Rica was letting the Contras attack Nicaragua from there, and they didn't want us. They said, "Look, you're this KGB-supported peace marchers. We don't need your communist trouble, coming here to... We're a peaceful country. We don't know if we want you in."
We sat on the border in horrid conditions, not knowing what was going on, our group of three hundred people who were exhausted and hot in the tropics. We didn't have sufficient clean drinking water. We didn't have bathrooms, so we had to make toilets out of cardboard boxes and plastic bags...it was disgusting. And there were camera crews from media from all over the world showing people at a border, not being let in... it was just a madhouse. I slept less then than I do at IDAPALOOZA -- at the music festival -- I live at IDA. When I get completely drained here, helping host a music festival, I think back to those days on the peace march, when it was really hard to sleep because we had to figure out what to do.
Eventually, we got into Costa Rica, with a lot of international pressure. We were bussed into San Jose, and got in somewhere at 1:00 am or something, and we were attacked immediately by a group called El Movimiento de Costa Rica Libre -- or Free Costa Rica Movement. This was a group that was funded by the CIA. One of the founding members of El Movimiento de Costa Rica Libre was... I can't remember his name... he was the Minister of Security for the country. So it would be like the equivalent to me if the head of the FBI was a founding member of the Klu Klux Klan here -- it was that insane.
So, this Minister of Security came out... maybe his name was Benjamin Piza, but if you include that in footage we'd better look it up. We can google it. He came out and he said that we had provoked violence, and our visas were revoked, and we had to leave the country first thing at daylight. Twelve Costa Ricans were hospitalized, one person was blinded in at least one eye.
What happened was, on this peace march, in every country, we had host groups who were different activist groups, who wanted to host these internationalist peace marchers.
The Costa Ricans... when they attacked us with rocks and tear gas and stuff at a hostel where we were going to stay, and there was glass smashing everywhere, people being hit, and people having a hard time breathing because we had no way out of this compound... The Costa Rican host committee tried to form barriers with mattresses from the youth hostel to protect us, and twelve of them were hospitalized -- one of whom, like I said, was blinded. It was the scariest thing. This went on for hours.
So we were bussed out of Costa Rica the next morning. Again, with little or no sleep. We had a big argument about whether to stay or not. Because some people were like, "Let's take a stand, right here, right now." There was a whole debate. It was just hours and hours through the night. I mean, "Are we about to be attacked again? What do we do? What's going on? Do we leave, do we stay?" We agreed to leave, because it seemed like if we didn't leave, the people... we knew that the people that were most in jeopardy by us staying were the Costa Rican host committee.
As we left... as we were bussed out of San Jose, the Costa Rican government put 'police' on our busses with machine guns, to keep us in order. We had people cheering for us, who were sad we were leaving, and we had people attacking the busses as we drove out of San Jose. We were putting sleeping bags up against the windows cuz you don't want rocks coming in the windows. We drove hours and hours and hours and we would ask, "Can we stop and pee?" "No." "Can we stop for food? We don't have food." "No. No, you've provoked violence. You must leave."
These non-soldier soldiers would stop the bus, get out, buy food, and stand by the busses and taunt us, by eating and not letting us off to get food. I kind of realized, "Wow. That's how a lot of people live all the fucking time. Having people that have some means to get food, and guns to protect themselves, who are keeping people down, and this is being funded largely through US tax dollars through the actions of multinational corporations."
So, that was kind of the beginning of the end of being in college for me. Once I decided to make that commitment, I just felt like... I got back to the States from the peace march, and I couldn't... I had seen so many things, I just couldn't be a good student; I couldn't focus on work. I felt like the university was training me to be a corporate citizen, and the reality of the world needed something different from me.
We left off in Guatemala, in the spring of 1987. I was working with the Peace Brigades International, as an escort for the relatives of the disappeared. What that meant... being an escort meant that we had people that weren't Guatemalan in the lives and homes, usually, of Guatemalans who were fearful for their lives because of having spoken.
I was in Guatemala working with Peace Brigades International, and there was one time that I was sent to escort these two brothers to their small village of Santiago Atitlán. One of their family members had been 'disappeared'. To 'disappear' means to basically never see them again. Usually you don't know what happens. Sometimes mass graves were uncovered later; sometimes tortured bodies found. There were prisons filled with people who maybe had just been a union activist or a student or something, or misidentified and just disappeared. And it usually meant tortured and killed.
Well, these brothers were going home -- they were students at the University of Guatemala City, and they were going home to their village. I was assigned to escort them for five days, during the Easter period. Easter is the week when the most disappearances happened each year, because -- or that's what I was told. And the reason for that, is because it was a really important holiday in a very Catholic country, Christian country. So, the death squads and the military know where to find people on the Easter holiday, because they're going to visit their families. So there's also, amongst people who have reason to be scared for whether they're going to live or not, Easter's a heightened period for that.
So, I went to this little village, and I was filled with so much despair. I saw people with guns bashing this man with the butts of the gun, standing in some ruins. And they saw me standing there, and they turned and pointed a threat towards me, and all I could do was walk away, knowing maybe this person's about to be killed.
I was trained as an escort in Toronto, actually, which was where the office was for the Peace Brigades International that I worked with. And basically the training consisted of a lot of how to deal with potential violent situations and things, and our role as international peace activists.
We always had to have a camera visible. Our non-Guatemalan looks with our camera was supposed to be our main function -- as an observer, to deter violence, because the ruthless regimes of Guatemala and the death squads were dependent on funding mainly from two places -- the United States and western Europe, and through tourism. The theory was that they didn't want to kill someone from North America or Europe or India who was a peace activist, because they didn't want to make a scene. That was the theory of why we would be relatively safe. More importantly, the theory was that if we're there with a camera documenting it, they don't want to be seen. So that was our role -- as a deterrent.
But I kept seeing really horrible things. One thing I saw was in this town, Santiago Atitlán. It is a big lake, and is a big tourist lake. Even with war raging -- the military was brilliant about how they conducted their war. What they would do, because it was a 'civil war' and not an 'official war', they made sure that the tourist industry could thrive to some degree -- filled mainly with western Europeans and North Americans -- and carry on attacking their population, ruthlessly, through means that the tourists wouldn't know what was going on.
The main groups of tourists that I witnessed in Guatemala were a lot of senior citizens -- like what they call the 'blue-hair tours', and a lot of hippies. The hippies would go to Guatemala, buy 'indigenous crafts', come back and sell them at Grateful Dead concerts or boutiques or wherever. You could make a lot of money on it, because you could get the stuff really cheap, because the US dollar rules, or whatever.
This village of Santiago Atitlán was mainly accessed by most people in the country, and most visitors, through taking a boat from the village of Panajachel, which was the main big tourist resort town. People would take the boat over in the morning ,and spend the day in this quaint village, buying crafts. The military would be mostly invisible. And then they would take the boat back in the late afternoon, having bought their 'authentic crafts' and seen 'authentic indigenous Mayan culture' -- Tzutujil was the name of the language. There's twenty-two, I believe, languages spoken in Guatemala. They'd hear all these sounds they hadn't heard, and buy these crafts, and eat these foods, and then get back on the boat -- there were no hotels on the island -- and they'd get back on the boat. And at night, the military came out and did door-to-door sweeps, looking for subversives.
I got to this point by day five of being in that village, where I just felt... I had seen some nasty things... It wasn't my role to go and talk to the tourists; that wasn't part of why I was there. But it made me really despondent... reading some stupid book by Herman Hesse that I didn't like, but I was craving something in English and that was the only book I could find to take to that town.
I got a tour of the Catholic Church office of the former priest. In this Catholic Church, there had been a priest from Oklahoma who had come, and he was preaching liberation theology, and he was murdered in his office for that. The sisters had left the bloodstained walls and not let that office be used, because they loved -- he was a very popular priest -- trying to be supportive of poor people, trying to have food, learning to read and write, things that are considered subversive under a totalitarian regime that's there to protect multinational investments and keep the price of coffee and bananas and cotton low.
Seeing this blood on the wall, seeing someone get beaten, seeing Protestant missionaries like Born-Agains trying to convert this kind of weird cross between Catholicism and Mayan practices into their born-again evangelical churches... Seeing all this go on, knowing Reagan supported the Protestant missionaries from the US going down and trying to 'save the heathens', I just felt so much despair.
I'd get back to Guatemala City, and there was a woman who had lost a number of family members to whatever horror of torture or massacre, and she was asking me how I was doing. We were trained, as escorts -- it's not about us. We're not allowed to get involved in people's lives in any way that they don't ask us to. We're not allowed to share our observations. It's really not about us -- we're there to serve.
She was asking me how I was doing. I didn't even know her. I told her that it was hard because I feel a lot of despair, and I was trying to figure out how to be helpful, but didn't know what to do, and was scared of going back to the United States, which I felt was a country that was at the root of a fair amount of the misery I was witnessing. And she looked at me, and she said, "Go back, and enjoy your life as much as you can." And I was like, "What?!" And she said, "You have the freedoms that I don't have, and probably never will have. And the only way these things are going to change is, if you live your life to the fullest." And she just kind of looked at me... and she was a very sad person, from what she'd been through... It was really quite... it had quite an impact on me.
I came back to the States, and really tried to take that message to heart.
My activism shifted a little bit.
It was also right around that period that I was more determined to come out as gay. One of the things I noticed once I was an out gay person, was that I felt marginalized in a lot of the political scenes. This is now 1986-87. Also, AIDS had become a big political crisis and health crisis in the US. And we had a president who wouldn't even utter the word AIDS. And we had a government that seemingly was indifferent to what, at the time, was a lot of gay men dying, and they wouldn't respond to this crisis because they didn't care if gay men died. And then when it started to be a LOT of gay men, and black people in this country, they still didn't respond.
It became pretty clear that this was a very politicized disease, where the homophobes and right-wing jerks were using HIV and AIDS as a way to put down marginalized populations including gay men, of which I was a part of. I found that a lot of the lefty, political things that I was involved in that -- crash, boom AIDS hit -- I found that a lot of people were tentative about embracing gay people.
I went out to a protest at the Nevada nuclear weapons test site, where the US in the 80's was still testing nuclear weapons on western Shoshone land, that they had never agreed to fully cede in the treaty of 1868. The Shoshone had been trying to get their land back, and don't want these nuclear detonations poisoning the land, and gearing up for war.
I went out to this protest there, as an openly gay activist, and I kind of got freaked out, because there must have been about a thousand of us camped out in the desert for a week together, and I couldn't visibly spot many gay people. So, I was back to that spot where I had, like, as a kid, a place where I was not finding myself able to fit in. I took a piece of cardboard and painted a pink triangle, and wore it. I helped serve a meal, and on my pink triangle I wrote -- I don't know what I wrote -- like, "Gay caucus meeting -- dinner tomorrow" or something, to try and find other queer people, that I could feel a little less freaked out by the straightness of the event.
A number of the peace activists were kind of offended that I was looking for gay people. They said, "This isn't a gay issue, it's nuclear weapons". I put up with that -- it wasn't that horrible. The point wasn't to educate people who were homophobic, the point was to find other gay people I could be comfortable with, and found some kind of affinity group with. Which I did. And that became a theme of a lot of things going on for me in the 80's, where I was involved in a lot of activism, and it seemed like a lot of gay people didn't seem to really care about these important issues.
The fact that the US bombed El Salvador -- and at the time, that was the largest aerial bombing in western hemisphere history -- and I didn't see many gay people at any of the protests. They weren't at the sit-ins. They weren't speaking out about it, usually. But then, at the same time, I saw how a lot of the people who were doing it were feeling like they couldn't totally embrace gay people, if they're openly gay. It was kind of a mind-fuck, and I was kind of determined to bridge some of that gap in my life, because I wasn't quite fitting into any one scene.
Then I got involved in ACT UP -- AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power -- and started doing AIDS organizing, and AIDS demonstrations, and also working at an AIDS service organization in Washataw County, where I lived, in Ann Arbor. It was really exciting to find ACT UP because it was really exciting to find radical militant queer... mostly queer people. Not only queer... people to do activism with.
I realised through being involved in many different activist projects and community projects, that while I was having trouble fitting in any one place, that it was starting to come together for me, a realization that I wanted a place where I could put all the elements together of who I was. I think to a large degree, I found a lot of that through the Radical Faeries, by going to Gatherings.
I helped form a Radical Faerie political satire theatre troupe, and spent pretty much three years writing and performing queer political satire and comedy all throughout the United States and Northern Europe.
It brought together creativity, activism and community. I felt, as a political activist, being angry, like, "Screw You! We're right, you're wrong! We're right, you're wrong! We're right, you're wrong! This is how it is!" I was really annoyed with a lot of ACT UP tactics. In a way, I felt like the anger really brought us together and kept people alive, literally. It kept some people with AIDS alive, literally, because they didn't have medications, but they had determination.
But sometimes it all felt like a big cliché to me. I was like, how do we change the hearts and minds... get people to open up to what we're saying? If we're right, you're wrong! You know. I started to feel like theatre and humour had a power to do that. I was really interested in anarchist writing and thoughts.
I read a book that Emma Goldman wrote about theatre. She talked about how she felt that theatre had the greatest capacity to change people's minds. As a lecturer, Emma Goldman lectured a lot about theatre. She'd break down plays, and look at George Bernard Shaw, or Henrik Ibsen, and talk about the radical visions and power of the theatre, and how, when audiences watched these things, they're moved, and that helped shift the culture.
I was really excited to read some of her essays and speeches about theatre, because I found that I was having more fun, and had more potential to be engaged with people by theatrics. Somewhere along the way, I joined a street theatre group in Ann Arbor called the Pinkerton Theatre Group. Their motto was kind of like, you'd go to them and they'd say, "Okay, you want to be in our street theatre group?"... "Oh, yeah"... "What's your experience as an actor?"... "Well... um... not much really"... "Okay, you're in!" They were kind of a little scared of having too many actors, because they wanted the passion, not the professionalism of skill.
So, I really got schooled in performance through political street theatre, and even though they joked about how it wasn't about the skill, I could see that the people with the skills were much more effective in engaging people in guerrilla theatre style performance. When I hooked up with the Radical Faeries and found other people that liked to perform, I found that that was a great outlet for my creativity and political activism. We decided to tour the country, and wrote a number of plays and skits and did shows in the US, Europe, and eventually Canada and Israel too. That was really good.
One thing that happened was, I really fell in love with a Danish theatre group. It was a gay theatre group, and we talked to them about collaborating. They were really excited, and we were going to move to Denmark. We had an amazing director lined up there and everything. There's a lot more support for the arts in Denmark than there were in the United States, or is now. So, it all was falling into place, except that then a lot of people got AIDS, or had AIDS and died, and the whole project fell apart.
I was lost, didn't know what to do with myself, and pretty... really sad to see these friends get sick and die. And also, because our theatre project with all the funding we were planning on getting fell apart, I needed to earn some money. I came back to the USA to earn money. I also had come back to set up the US part of the tour we were going to do with our Danish friends. When that fell apart, I focused on earning money, and then kind of realized that I was really burned out on living on the road so much, performing, and also having so many friends die.
That was about when I heard that this community called IDA was forming in Tennessee near Short Mountain and I decided, "Well, I should at least go and help put in a garden." My friend Sandy, actually, at Short Mountain, was like, "Why don't you go help start this community that's starting nearby?" And I was like, "Well, I'll go and check it out", and packed my bags. And now, fifteen years later, I'm still at IDA.
There's a couple reasons why I think I've been here so long, and one of them is that...I did a lot of hiking when I first came here. We're out on a couple hundred acres and our couple hundred acres is bordered by lots of neighbours' land that isn't developed, so there's lots of great hiking opportunities. There was one day where we had a friend who's a botanist who was giving us a tour of plants, and we were hiking all around, and it was the first time I saw one of the waterfalls around here. And I looked at it, and I thought, "Oh, I'm definitely going to have to live here for a while. I hadn't even been here for a month at that point. I never knew that you could live somewhere where you could just walk out your door and hike to a waterfall. That just never crossed my mind. I've always loved waterfalls, and here at IDA I can walk to six different waterfalls, each with their own personalities -- each are unique. I saw this waterfall and I thought, "Ooh. I'm gonna stay." But really a more important reason...
There is another reason... in addition to the beauty of the nature here... we live on a couple hundred acres... it's gorgeous land -- very hilly, there's waterfalls, there's caves, there's a creek we can dip in -- and that made me just want to be here, but I think something more important happened. I realized part of why I've been here for fifteen years, and that is that there's a way in which I've felt... I somehow came to feel like I was... it was easier to be myself than anywhere else I had ever been. That sounds almost like sentimental sap to say that, but I really believe it. I've gone through a lot of hard times, with physical ailments and emotional spasms of -- just my own personality freaking out in different ways, and I found that the people I live with have embraced me through some hard times, and supported me in being as gentle or totally whacked out as I could be. And once I identified that that was going on, I thought, "There's a place I have to stay."
We live by a creek that's dry much of the year, but sometimes it floods and we can even get locked in here and not get cars across the creek. Well, that's obviously gonna mess up your day, or your hairdo.
IDA started fifteen years ago, in 1994. IDA stands for Idle Dandy Acres or Idle Dandy Arts. As I understand it, Idle Dandy Acres refers to a comic strip from the 1930s, and IDA is short for Idle Dandy Acres.
IDA started as kind of an outgrowth to the Short Mountain Faerie Sanctuary community. There were a lot of people going to Gatherings at Short Mountain, and others, who decided they wanted to start a gay arts-oriented community. It happened that this piece of land called IDA was going to be available for people to rent. They came and looked at it and fell in love with it, and fifteen years later still love it, or at least the people that are left.
So, IDA started as a gay arts community, I think, in November, 1993. By gay, I mean kind of... IDA started as a gay male arts community in 1993. It wasn't too long before the gender dynamic started switching. Some women started spending more time here. Now it's kind of like someone put on the fast-blend button on a blender for the genders here, because it's really turned into a sometimes-indefinable gender situation. Meaning, that there's people that identify as gay or lesbian or trans or, like, 'other'. I think 'other' can be a big category around here sometimes. That's one thing that's been really interesting -- watching how the gender definitions and dynamics have shifted back and forth and all around.
IDA's now a 200 acre piece of land where, we call ourselves a community, but the word community... it isn't always so easy to say what that means. I think of it as a place where usually about eight people live on 200 acres in the remote hills of Tennessee. But also, IDA's much bigger than the people who live here. Every year we host a music event called IDApalooza Fruit Jam. That gets hundreds of people here. And then there's a lot of people who have lived here in the past or spent time here, regularly, in some cases, who are thought of as part of the whole IDA community.
Some of us have jobs here. Like, some of us have jobs off the land. Some of us find work that involves doing work through computers, on the internet. There's various ways people make money. So sometimes people will be gone working. Other times, it seems like it can be a full-time job for everyone in a sense, just to keep this place going. We have huge gardens; we also seem to always have a few different projects going on -- most recently, a kitchen extension.
We have to chop firewood to heat our buildings in the winter. We first have to chainsaw wood and then chop it, and haul it, for heat in the winter. There always seems to be something to maintain. We get our water from a really amazing spring. But sometimes it seems to take a lot of effort just to keep the whole system flowing properly.
Some people wonder what a typical day at IDA's like. I don't know that there is a typical day. In the sense that there could be five people around, each doing their own thing -- working, gardening, cooking, cleaning, sleeping. And then the very next day, there could be fifty people here, because a bus full of performers pulled up and are doing a show, and then lots of neighbours come, and the next thing you know, it's a big potluck and party. So there's no real typical day at IDA. People's schedules vary a lot. We do typically have dinner together -- not always. But a lot of our lives can be spent on different time schedules.
There's a lot of different ways that living at IDA has been challenging for different people. One of the first ones that comes to my mind is that we live in a relatively difficult area for people to earn money, compared to a lot of places people come from. That's one thing.
I think it's challenging to live out, relatively isolated, in the country. I think most of the people that have lived at IDA over the years are from suburban or urban backgrounds, so living really far in a rural area is challenging, because you don't have a lot of the cultural references you're used to available. One thing that's exciting about that is that it sometimes forces people to make culture, and that fosters creativity. But the downside of that you can start to see the same people all the time, and not have arts scenes or political activism scenes that people are used to. That can be really challenging.
Another big challenge is, it can be hard. The work can be hard, and stressful. Like when storms come and bad things happen, and we have a lot to take care of on the land just to make things work. Sometimes there's not enough people to do it, or it just seems really hard.
One of the challenges of living at IDA is that sometimes interpersonal dynamics are really hard to deal with. I've found that to be the case any time I've lived with a group of people, whether it was my biological family or friends, that it seems a lot of times that humans have a propensity to annoy each other.
At IDA we kind of live on the anarchistic side of decision-making, meaning to me, often-times it's not always clear what decision we made. A lot of times it's hard to get regular meetings going as much as we think we might need it. There's a lot of spontaneity in terms of how our lives go. And that can make finding a process of clear communication as a group difficult to do.
IDA is located in a holler surrounded by hills. We don't get to see the sunset unless we climb on top of the hills, and then only in the winter, when there aren't leaves on the deciduous trees. So it's kind of interesting, because the sun essentially goes down an hour to two hours before actual sunset. I think, in a weird way, that that changes people's perspective.
When I lived in Iowa, I could see for miles and miles, like The Who song, or something, and here you can't. We don't see weather that's coming as quickly as I did in Iowa. We don't see the sunset.
So, yeah, I think that the topography and the layout of the land itself really affects the personality of the group. Or sometimes I think maybe the opposite is true -- that the land attracts people with certain personalities, that are suited to, or in some way, negotiating with themselves -- like, personality issues in some way related to the land. Or that might be a bunch of bullshit, and maybe it's just coincidence -- who really ends up getting drawn here. I don't know.
The reason I was saying that is because I think that, living in a holler like we do, it kind of affects personalities and social group dynamics. That's one of the challenges.
One thing that's really cool to me is, having been in a place for fifteen years where there's a creek, I can see the erosion over a period of time like I've never seen before, with a body of water that's so close to me. So, it's really cool to watch how land changes.
Of course, the erosion I'm seeing is tiny compared to geologic time, but in the span of... in comparison to what I've seen elsewhere in my life, or what I observed that other people see, I feel really fortunate to get to see larger sweeps of natural changes going on. I've seen the beginnings of a shift in the forest, where there's certain species starting to become a little less dominant, and other species coming on as the forest matures through... I guess that's what they call 'matures through different phases'.
So it's pretty cool, definitely, to live in an area for a while. Maybe most exciting for me is, like I've seen gardens grow through fifteen years of gardening -- the same patches in some cases. But I still don't know exactly how this affects people.
The interviewer of this film, one David Sheen, was inquiring as to whether or not I was holding back information, avoiding subjects, or maybe trying to be PC (politically correct) and not trash the people that I live with in front of him, or something, by talking about what kind of dynamics can be hard here. I think one of the things I've noticed that I like about IDA is that I feel like people can be really honest about [the fact] that we have really fucked up dynamics, and that it's certainly not a utopia, nor do we want it to be, nor do we pretend... we try not to pretend we're more fabulous than we are, and acknowledge our human frailties and stuff. It's important, I think.
I've been in a bunch of different community environments and lived in housing co-ops and stuff. I read the Intentional Communities book, and I'm entertained by it, because people put out these glowing descriptions of their great, perfect home and everything, and you know half of it is bullshit when you're reading it.
Or I know that there's so many problems at these places. It's not like everyone has to publish their bullshit either, but it is a problem when people aren't honest, and pretend that they're more fabulous than they are. The problem with that, is then, when shit hits the fan, like in that song...
When the shit hits the fan in communities that aren't being honest that they have problems, it exacerbated the problems. The lack of honesty... If they put so much energy into being, "We're so fabulous, we're so great, we do this, you should live here..." then it's a lot harder to deal with things. I'm not saying that doesn't happen at IDA. It sure as hell does, and sometimes, I'm sure, I'm part of that dynamic and problem. But I like living at a place, I think, where, when we're doing well, we acknowledge when we're having problems and avoiding the people we're having problems with -- which doesn't solve shit.
One of the benefits of living at IDA is, when things are going well, it's a really easy place for people to be themselves. It's a really easy place to see people grow and flourish in an environment that's not as oppressive, at least as far as sexuality and gender, as most of this fucked-up country is. So, yeah, that's a benefit.
I think it's amazing to be able to breathe relatively clean air, and drink really amazing spring water. I go to Nashville for things, and when I'm in Nashville, I don't usually notice... I don't necessarily notice when I go to Nashville that the air feels bad... Sometimes I do, but every single time I come home from an outing to a place like Nashville, when we get out of the car door... the first thing I notice is the air. And I notice that my chest has tightened up because of breathing really disgusting air. And I don't think our air out here is necessarily that great. I'm sure there's some acid rain and pollution, because most of it's invisible. But I know that my chest can open up when I'm breathing relatively fresh country air. So that's a benefit.
We eat a lot of vegetables and berries out of our garden, which I feel really fortunate for. Most people in this country don't have access to fresh food. Most rural people don't have as good access to a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, because the whole roots of supply direct more of the better food to places like New York or Atlanta -- the bigger cities.
Rural people are generally screwed, as far as getting a lot of fruits and vegetables, fresh stuff, in the same way that a lot of people in parts of cities that aren't rich are affected. But we're lucky, because we have access to good land and water, and that we can grow good food.
Another benefit of living at IDA is, I've lived in some cities that are kind of like gay Mecca cities... Like, I've lived in San Francisco, I lived in Amsterdam, I lived in Copenhagen, and in all of those places, sometimes I felt really... Sometimes I feel really lonely in the big gay Mecca's, like everyone seems so busy. I'll go to a place like San Francisco, where I must know a ton of people, and then it seems like so much work to actually get together with people and do things.
I'm sure a lot of people can identify with the experience of, when you go to visit a place, and if you don't call all your friends when you're there, they're going to be pissed... but if you do call them to get together, it's such a hassle to work it out to get together, because they have so much going on. Or, they don't have so much going on, but they're recovering from having had so much going on.
One thing that's kind of cool about living at IDA that doesn't show up on the benefit statement, is that a lot of people travel through this area -- to Short Mountain, to other friends in the area -- so it's really easy to have an active social life, even living in the middle of the woods. It's much easier for me to have a lot of queer friends, and straight friends in some cases, that I'm excited about, just living out in the woods, meeting all the different people that pass through.
I think IDA is so unique in terms of its gender-queer persona that it has in the world. That doesn't mean that everyone who lives here or comes here calls themselves gender-queer, but I think that there's some weird gender-blending that goes on here that's relatively unique in the world, or at least in the United States. This factor is probably, in a lot of important ways, what our community's about. More so than the gardens or the sunset time.
I think IDA means a lot to a lot of freaky queer people, and even a lot of freaky non-queer people -- though a lot of times, freaky non-queer people are more queer than queer people. But anyway, I think IDA means a lot to people, because it's nice to have a vision, whether it's true or not, that seems like the kind of world that we want to be moving towards creating. I say 'maybe true or not', because IDA can be dysfunctional, like any family.
IDA can be dysfunctional, like any other group of people. For most of its history, IDA's a pretty white group, which is a big fucking problem. If I had my way, we'd offer like fifty acres rent-free to anyone who's not white, to develop something on this land, or something. I mean, land ownership and distribution laws in this country are so far beyond racist and fucked up...
I think IDA means a lot to freaks. I talk to friends who are doing some of the most amazing work in the world, and I am envious of the political struggles they engage in, and the cultural work they're doing, and the organizing they're doing, whether it's in immigrant rights organizing or... And I'm just totally impressed, and tell them how much I admire them. And a lot of the times, the answer I get from friends who are doing really amazing hard political struggle work is, that they're really happy places like IDA exist, because we're doing the work, they think, of helping to create what it is they're hoping to find for more people, after people have some progress through their struggles.
So, I think IDA means a lot to a lot of freaky people. And it means a lot to me that it means a lot to a lot of freaky people. We put on this music festival once a year, and we get hundreds of people here. Sometimes it's annoying and a hassle and we don't get sleep, and we get stressed out hosting that much, but it also fuels us to make it through to the rest of the year, till the next time. Because, long after people leave, you can sense their part in our community, and it keeps us from feeling isolated.
I want to talk a little about the relationships that people at IDA have with our neighbours. That's a complicated question, in the sense that you have to go close to a mile to find a neighbour.
First off, we don't have many super-close neighbours, in a way. Really the closest neighbour is gone most of the time, is someone who's a professor in Atlanta, and just comes up once a week, or once every two weeks for a short period of time. Then next, past that, is two pieces of land that were bought by a Mennonite family who are very active in church, and also have cows, pigs, and other farm animals, which people at IDA help to take care of when they're gone.
I think some people, such as, at first, our Mennonite neighbours, are kind of freaked out by the idea of living by a bunch of queers. Then, people who are willing to get to know us usually like us, because we're generally friendly people. It's not hard to become friends with us.
Then, after you go past that first mile... Well, let me talk a little about where we live. The neighbourhood where IDA lives is in DeKalb County, Tennessee. It's a mostly rural county about seventy miles east of Nashville, Tennessee. It's a dry county as far as alcohol goes, except for you can buy beer, because it's considered a malt beverage. There's very weird laws.
The county I live in seems to be politically run mainly by old, moneyed families in this area.
It's been a democratic county until very recently. It's pretty much split -- Democrat / Republican. And there's a lot of influence from the Baptists -- the Southern Baptist church -- in the affairs of the county, which is part of why it stays a sort of dry county.
This county has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and has, over the last number of years' surveys. There's not great opportunities for youth to find... to do anything around here. In fact, there seems to be resistance to it. There's something weird going on politically. There's a weird power dynamic going on, where a lot of people aren't very empowered, and don't get a lot of information about how to take control of their lives.
Our county has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state of Tennessee. There's a lot of people who have trouble finding decent-paying jobs here. There's not very many exciting social outlets, publically. And we live in a county that, like much of the rural south, had a lot of slaves, and then chased away a lot of black people after slavery was abolished. Some of that was done through intimidation, and some of that was just through discrimination as far as transportation goes, or employment.
One thing that's been changing a lot about the area we're in is that, over the last ten or twenty years, there's been a lot of immigrants arriving from Mexico and Central America, and it's not always a cozy situation with some of the white folks in this area. There's been some violence against people from Latin America.
There's also been some small amount of organizing in rural Tennessee to support people being able to live here without fear.
I guess all of that history, to me, is really important too, to addressing the question of what our relations are like with our neighbours, because most people who sped a lot of time at IDA are considered outsiders, in an area that has very specific historical and political traditions. I think it's good to be active in small ways in the community, and agents of change. And yet it's also kind of a scary thing, because many of us who are viewed as outsiders by the old order, the 'good-old-boy' network, are vulnerable here, and therefore, we have to be careful how we think about challenging things.
A lot of times, people move here who have been very active in their communities before, but then feel more isolated out here. One of the ways I've gotten involved just a little bit is by performing at... There's a youth services fair held annually, and they call upon us to come and stilt-walk and juggle and things like that, entertain.
When I first moved to IDA fifteen years ago, it seemed like a lot of people in town, and a number of businesses, weren't so friendly to us. People looked at us like we were utter freaks. And maybe we were utter freaks, and that's why they did it. But it was weird to go in the supermarket to buy something and have a cashier just be cold to you, and not look at you and stuff like that.
That's changed so much. It's amazing how many places in town seem happy to see us, and are respectful and nice. I remember when I used to kind of mentally count in my head how few places there were that would be nice. But a lot of people have become nice and are friends with us, and I'm really excited about that.
IDA is sometimes called "Hippy Hollow" by folks that live in this area who aren't very familiar with us. IDA is called "Hippy Hollow" because the people we bought this land from were hippies. They told me that when they first bought this land, around 1970, that there were two men who were part of starting this place. It wasn't called IDA; they called it "Whippoorwill Hollow," named after the bird.
They told me that, when they first walked in town, two white men with long hair in 1970, that everyone's jaws just dropped. Like, the world just came to an end, because there were men with long hair. It was just not heard of, from here. They said the following weekend -- back then it was typical for people to go driving in the country and look at things on the weekend, as a pastime -- they said the following weekend there were tons of cars that came to gawk at the hippies.
There was a really tentative existence between the hippies, at what was called "Hippy Hollow", and a lot of folks in town. I think one of the things that happened was, they lived here long enough that people who lived here started to relate better, and certain barriers -- social barriers -- got broken down.
I actually believe that folks that lived here, like the hippies, before IDA existed, really paved the way for queers to be here. I give them serious credit for helping to make some inroads here, that it might not have been so possible for us to coexist as peacefully as we do. Maybe it's because a lot of people in town start to see freaky people, but see how that's beautiful, how all the freaky people make the beauty of the world... I got it wrong... to paraphrase Michael Franti.
I work at a greenhouse for spring rush. A lot of the people I work with, you know, we talk about plants, because that's what you do when you're a dorky plant and flower lover. So... well, you don't talk about plants with the people who really don't care about plants, which you'll find in a greenhouse too -- they just care about getting their paycheque, mainly.
Anyway, I work in a place that I really love, and kept expressing interest when a couple of us -- Anais and I both worked at this greenhouse a few years ago -- and they really wanted to see our flower gardens, they said. Because we were always talking plants, and they were like, "Oh, we've got to see your flower gardens".
So we had them out to lunch, and to see the gardens, but I think that they were actually way more interested in seeing how the freaky queers live. Because we were such an anomaly to them. They just didn't know what to think or make of us. So that sometimes happens, where people are just... I think there's a lot of people who are kind of mainstream-defined, look mainstream, and they're craving some connection with something different.
They just don't have the vocabulary or the connection, or something, to make it happen.
I think a lot of people who, basically, can be seen [as] really conservative, are actually really open-minded when they come in contact with something.