A light mist is resting on the historic landmarks that dot our nation’s capital as our chartered bus pulls into Washington, D.C. It is 7 a.m. The sun is lazy, barely peeking out from the clouds. The groups gathering are electric; already dancing, singing, chanting words that date back as far as many of these monuments.
“Look at all the escalators, y’all! They’re everywhere! We only have one escalator in my hometown.” Tanner Faulkner is 15. He is an openly gay teenager living in a part of rural Alabama where the Ku Klux Klan has deep roots. His passion for justice is so strong he’s making this pilgrimage to the Women’s March on Washington by himself. He is my future. For the first time, in a long time, I’m feeling optimistic.
My journey here is a longer one. I’m a (much older than him) lesbian who spent most of my life in the closet. Afraid. Ashamed. Fearful of an eternal damnation drilled into my head since birth. I left my church long ago. Not Tanner. He’s a proud Christian. He and his boyfriend go to church every, single Sunday. While in D.C. he uses the opportunity to visit a Methodist church there.
“They had a woman pastor,” he tells me later with great excitement, “I’ve never met a woman pastor before.”
I assume he doesn’t know the world can be a dangerous place for people like us. I am wrong. When I ask him he explains “there is no harder place for a gay person to live than in Alabama and Mississippi… faggot is a word that is used down here so loosely and it’s so demeaning and detrimental to the spirit.” This, he says, provides greater opportunities to work for change.
Right now he’s planning to start a chapter for student democrats in his high school. During the election, he registered 100 voters by going door-to-door. He spent every, single day volunteering at his town’s small, democratic headquarters and he says he’s “fixing to start another voter registration drive to get more voters in the projects and places where no one wants to go. We desperately, desperately need them.”
Living in Gadsden, Alabama, isn’t easy. In a town with less than 37,000 people, the most recent census figures show a per capita income of less than $19,000. A full quarter of all residents live in poverty. Research out of the University of Alabama shows two-thirds of those living in this rural town are either unemployed or underemployed. “It isn’t easy” he says “the south is a very unforgiving place.”
Unforgiving is not a word Tanner uses often. During his campaign work, he says a teacher asked him in front of his entire class if he “advocates the killing of millions of babies”. He says she called him a baby-killer because of his pro-choice stance and the school did nothing about it. When I suggest she should be fired, he disagrees. “These people should not be penalized for not knowing better. That is something she has believed since she was a very small child… Never stop doing what is right. Be forgiving. Nine times out of ten, they think they’re helping you in the best way they know how.”
Some of us more seasoned organizers might disagree. I live in Colorado, a blue state where it’s not unusual to see same-sex couples walking hand-in-hand. I am no longer afraid to be who I am. But, I am angry. Anger brought me to this march in Washington. With each step I find anger replaced with gratitude. Seeing this historic moment through the eyes of a 15-year-old brings a sharper focus. We will not be silent. We will stand together. We are kind. We are loving. We are supportive. And we are fierce.
“Knowing who Donald J. Trump is, I did not expect [the march] to change his agenda at all.” But, Tanner says, the day “had a bigger personal value than political. It was an excellent opportunity for us to lift each other up. To love one another, the minorities, the Muslims, the gays, and to keep us the kind of people we need to be.”
The kind of people we need to be. Not a single shot was fired. Not a single stone thrown. Not a single harsh word spoken. Yet, the message sent reverberates across the globe and continues to catch fire. Tanner says he wants to be a teacher someday. I think that day is already here.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally written around the time of the 2017 Women’s March. It’s been one year since the Women’s March and Tanner did organize a chapter of young democrats at his high school. It now has 230 members and he plans to run for vice president of the statewide High School Democrats. Tanner also worked as an intern for the Doug Jones campaign that defeated conservative republican Roy Moore in December. Jones is the first democratic senator elected in Alabama in 25 years.