- By Rick Hill, Equality Florida Development Officer
I’ve spent many years as a fundraiser in this march we’re on for full equality. I thought that my tenure had prepared me for any challenge I might face but, I was caught off guard on July 2. I hope sharing my experience will help ensure that we are all better prepared moving forward.
In the late 90s, I worked with an amazing, fearless equal rights activist named Donna Red Wing whose resolve to fight for equality at the very root of inequality took her physically to the headquarters and home towns of some of the most extreme right wing groups in the country.
I remember Donna reporting on those experiences and talking about being “right in the belly of the beast!” I had a naive picture in my mind of what she meant but I didn’t actually understand the impact of her description until now. I learned several things on July 2 or in the few days following.
When I was driving to the Miami Courthouse that day, the strongest sense I had was an overflowing pride to be part of such an amazing team and to know that we were presenting every aspect of our case in the most professional, confident, truthful and powerful way. I wasn’t giving one second’s thought about those who oppose us… after all we have truth on our side plus the confidence that a majority of Florida voters now support us - so who could stand against us?
I learned that… as we so successfully continue to change hearts and minds and win over a greater and greater majority to our side, the folks who still oppose us are the most extreme voices against us and, as their numbers continue to dwindle, those who hang on to their opposition and fear become increasingly more desperate for their voices to be heard and any restraint they may have had disappears and, I can tell you, they don’t hold back. Instead, they broadcast their illogical ranting louder than ever and with a vengeance that is shocking.
These are the kind of folks we faced that day on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse as our opposition protesters. They maintained a constant onslaught of extremely loud hate filled messages to us the whole afternoon. The best way I’ve been able to describe the experience we had is that it felt like we were being vomited on nonstop the entire time with nowhere to go to shield ourselves or get away from it. I think we found the “belly of the beast” on July 2 but it actually felt like we were in that belly and regurgitated over and over and over again.
I know that I only have to look as far as my own parents to know that there are people out there who believe that who I am is inherently evil and wrong and that I have a first class ticket on the express train to hell. I mean, I know logically that some people don’t support the change we are creating but what I didn’t know was that anyone could or would express his or her opposition in such a strong way.
I thought I’d had the experience of encountering haters before when I saw the crazy Fred Phelps Westboro Baptist Church folks two times and all I did was roll my eyes and move on – their signs had no impact on my life or me. However, on those occasions, I was part of a huge march of supporters and we passed quickly by a tiny contingent of haters and then, in a moment, they were forgotten. July 2 was so different. The intensity of the hatred that was continuously spewed at us by a large group of passionately hate filled folks in Miami during the hearing was overwhelming and it really hurt to be on the receiving end of it. I was determined to not let them know that their words had any impact on us whatsoever and we worked double time to try to make sure that our supporters were positive, respectful (that was a tough one) and continued to take the high road. We all had to, at times, physically move a member of our side away from the battle line when we saw they were reaching a point where they were going to let loose in response.
Many times we comforted members of our side who were brought to tears by the hatred being cast at them. It was a tough day. I still can’t comprehend how someone who has never met me could hate me so much that it consumed him or her. I realize that it isn’t really that they hate me personally but, I have to tell you, that is exactly how it felt. I know it took a surprising toll on everyone of our staff who experienced it and unfortunately on every one of our supporters and volunteers. Even when a monsoon dropped out of nowhere, it didn’t seem to dampen their resolve at all. It didn’t dampen ours either ;)
When I finally left at the end to go meet our staff, legal team, plaintiffs and some supporters at a restaurant, I first went to my truck to take off my wet suit and put on a dry shirt. When I got into the safety of my truck, I couldn’t hold back any longer and I simply broke down and sobbed because it hurt so bad – it really shook me to my core. Of course, before I cried I made totally certain that none of those haters were anywhere in eyesight because I still wasn’t about to give them any satisfaction that their words had power. I don’t think any of us anticipated being in that situation and I know I was not prepared for that part of it. I’m still a little shell-shocked.
If the pain we experienced can help avoid being blindsided by a similar situation, than it was worth it. This is the whole reason I am sharing this with everyone. As we continue to achieve historical advances toward equality and we continue to stand up for what is right – many times in places around the state that are not quite as progressive as downtown Miami - there is a reasonable possibility that we may encounter opposition like we did that day. Being aware is your best preparation and drawing on the support of our incredible staff and volunteers is certainly one of our best defenses.
Our Day of Decision Gatherings are going to be so great and such a wonderful opportunity for people to yet again see the impact of Equality Florida!
-Rick Hill, Equality Florida Development Officer