Lesbian Mom Kicks Off 500-Mile “Walk for Togetherness”
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Jennifer Schumaker isn’t the first person to think of a long walk as a way to achieve social change. A woman who called herself “Peace Pilgrim” walked across the U.S. several times in the 1950’s and 1960’s to highlight her opposition to the Cold War and the U.S.-Soviet arms race. More recently, Doris “Granny D.” Haddock did a cross-country walk in 1999-2000 — at nearly 90 years of age — to protest the high cost of running for office and call for campaign finance reform. U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) publicly acknowledged her and invited her to the Senate gallery during the vote on the reform bill he and Russ Feingold (D-WI) co-authored. And John Francis spoke in February at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest about his commitment for over a decade not to speak and not to use any sort of motorized transport — he walked, rode bikes and, when he needed to cross water, sailed — to assume personal responsibility for avoiding the use of fossil fuels.
According to Schumaker, she’d never heard of any of these people when she first hit on the idea of walking up the west coast of California from San Diego to San Francisco on what she calls the “Walk for Togetherness.” While Peace Pilgrim, Granny D. and John Francis were criss-crossing the country and the world on foot, Schumaker was growing up, marrying, having four children and settling down into a suburban existence from which she was wrenched when, at the age of 34, she fell in love with a woman and realized she was a Lesbian. As she explains below, having been married to a man for 15 years made her all too conscious of the costs — social and psychological, as well as financial — Gay and Lesbian couples have to bear because they don’t have access to civil marriage. Her principal demands on the Walk for Togetherness are for marriage equality and equal treatment for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender youth.
Schumaker will start her walk Saturday, August 8, 9 a.m., in Balboa Park at 6th and El Prado south. She’ll finish it in San Francisco Saturday, June 3, 2 p.m. in Golden Gate Park, at a big conclusion ceremony at which Assemblymember Mark Leno — openly Gay sponsor of last year’s marriage equality bill in the California legislature, which passed both houses but was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — will speak. Her list of endorsers include the international Love Exiles group, the Family Pride Coalition, Marriage Equality USA, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the two publications she’s written for (Lavender Lens and Update), San Diego’s Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Community Center and various other local Queer, mixed and straight organizations.
One of the goals for her walk is to popularize its symbol — a “rainbow ribbon” modeled after the red AIDS ribbon, originally designed by the late New York artist Keith Haring (though his version also contained a scissors; the ribbon represented government red tape that was allegedly blocking AIDS research and the scissors represented AIDS activism). She’d like to see the rainbow ribbon adopted as a symbol straight people can wear to show their support for Queer rights. Schumaker is selling rainbow-ribbon pins for $10 to help support the Walk; to donate, or for more information, please visit http://www.togetherness2005.com
Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, your background, and what made you decide to do the Walk for Togetherness?
Jennifer Schumaker: I figured out I was Lesbian about five years ago, and I did the logical thing, which was move to Escondido. I’ll admit that’s one of my standard jokes, but I followed my first love to Escondido. And I found myself a mom in this ultra-suburban gated neighborhood, hanging out with a lot of soccer moms. I had four little kids at the time, one who’d just gotten out of diapers. I don’t think he was even out of diapers, actually. He was not quite three. And then I had a four-year-old and a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, so my life was primarily mom, and then trying to figure out, “Wow, I’m this thing that I’ve heard about all my life, mostly heard bad things about, and it’s me.”
I went to a Jesuit university, and my politics had always been to stand up for my Gay and Lesbian friends. I had tons of Gay and Lesbian friends, which makes it funny that I never figured myself out. I actually sang in a Gay chorus in Omaha, Nebraska for six years. I started there right after I got married and had my first child about two years after that. I spent time with all those Gay folks, never figured it out, moved to California, weaned my last baby, figured myself out and, once I ended up ensconced in Escondido, I could not be the extrovert that I am and not be out everywhere that I was.
I didn’t know if suburbia was ready for it, but I couldn’t live in the closet. My girlfriend wasn’t the type to run around holding hands in Escondido, and I was. So I just started letting it come up in conversation with the other soccer moms, at the pool, at the Little League, wherever. And I kept getting these really positive responses.
After a little while I started writing some little things for Lavender Lens magazine, because Bixi Craig, the editor, had me help her with editorial things. I wrote some things for her about living in suburbia. Then one day, as I was driving out by the Wild Animal Park, where we live, the title for my column just came to me: “Letters from Lesbeyond.” That’s what I think I’m writing about, sending back to Hillcrest what it’s like out here, like I’m this big pioneer. I even looked up “pioneer” in the dictionary one day. It means someone who goes into new territory or brings a new idea to a new area. I can say that being backstage at your kid’s junior theatre production and helping with the other moms and having a button on that says, “I’m much Gayer than I look,” probably fits the pioneer definition.
About a year before I figured myself out, I was in the airport waiting for my girlfriend of the time, waiting for her flight, and I let a man get in line in front of me because he had been in line, but he kind of had to chase his two daughters or granddaughters or whatever t hey were. He happened to look Asian, and it hit me: in America, when different people of different colors have started to mix together in cities and suburbs, we’ve known it, because you can see it on our faces. If Black people move to suburbia, we would know it. If I just let a person who’s Asian-American in line in front of me, it’s got nothing to do with the fact that he’s Asian-American, but we see at least one thing about us is different, which is on our faces. We could have a whole lot of other things in common.
I thought, he doesn’t know a Lesbian just had an interaction with him. No one ever knows they’re having an interaction with a Gay or Lesbian person unless we bring it up, or we fit some stereotype. That moment really struck me. I thought, “Wow, I would just love to tell that person, ‘Guess what? A Lesbian just did a nice thing for you today.’” I started realizing, O.K., we’re here, but we’re invisible. And invisible is not O.K. with me. I really thought I could help people just be more comfortable with it.
So I would do things like that. I would buy my groceries and I would say, “Remember, a Lesbian spent money here today.” I would get my car towed, and I would say, “Hey, guys, remember you helped out a Lesbian today.” I would leave a plane, and I would look at the crew and say, “Hey, remember, 10 percent of your passengers are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender.” It was never easy. Sometimes my face would get a little red. Sometimes I had to ask myself if I could really do this when I feel like it could be helpful. But if it isn’t easy for an extremely hyper, extroverted person like me, how are other people doing? So I just kept -doing it.
If I’m able to say, “Oh, yeah, my girlfriend” — and I say it enough that they figure out that I’m talking about my significant other, then they would start asking questions, and they would be more comfortable. I hate the words “we” and “they,” but let’s say I’m talking to people who aren’t Gay or Lesbian or Bi or Trans. I kept seeing that this seems to be a relief to people, that it’s just out there and open. I guess I could get upset that it’s always on me. I feel like it’s always on the Gay people, that we have to make it better. Well, that’s always how it is with any minority, with any group that’s trying to get their full rights and citizenship.
After a while of doing that, just kind of being out all the time, having these positive responses, I would write about it for Update. Sometimes I would semi-stage things. I went to the store one day — and I wrote a column about it — when Hallmark had the little Blushing Bears campaign. I marched into Hallmark in North County and asked them if they had same-sex bears that blushed when you put them together. Of course they don’t, and of course I knew they didn’t, but the whole point was to say, “Hey, we’re here, and we want to be included in everything, so 10 percent of the bears should be Gay.” As I wrote in my column at the time — which was about two years ago, right after Gavin Newsom gave all those marriage licenses in San Francisco — I just went to the store and said, “So we can get married in San Francisco, but we can’t buy the appropriate bears for Valentine’s Day,” just to make the point.
I always do it when I’m in a good mood. I’m always cheerful. I always have a smile on my face. This is really arrogant of me, but I consider myself sort of an ambassador from the Gay/Lesbian world. I don’t ever want to be angry or be in someone’s face, even though I know we have every right to be angry sometimes.
After a while I also noticed that I had great privilege compared to some of my brothers and sisters, other people in the LGBT world, because I was a mom, and even though I live on the fringes of suburbia — I’m actually a low-income single mother —my girlfriend’s house is in the affluent area, and I spend my time and my kids go to school in the affluent area. They still go there. Because of my politics in the past, I’m already aware of privilege, whether it be based on color or financial background or education, or your sexual orientation. After a while of realizing that I got these positive responses, and I think some of it had to do with the privileges I already have of being accepted as a soccer mom, I realized that I really don’t want to rest on that privilege.
That’s really the crux of this walk. I’m very aware that I have a lot of privilege in this society, and if I can share that with people who maybe wouldn’t get received the same way I have, hopefully I can open some dialogue that will include people who do feel more invisible than I do, people who don’t necessarily have the confidence or the privilege to speak up and say, “Hey, we’re here, we’re Queer, deal with us, be our neighbors, be happy,” whatever.
Zenger’s: How did you hit on the idea of doing a long walk?
Schumaker: Look at this society. We’re full of newspapers, wonderful magazines like yours, newspapers, Internet, TV, good causes. There’s a cause around every corner. There’s a hundred different groups working for LGBT rights, all of which I respect and which really made it possible for me to be doing what I’m doing. But there’s so much noise in America. How do you get people to focus on one simple message? How do you get them to see how important it is, and how much you care about it?
Maybe this is just my Jesuit-Catholic background — though I’m now a Unitarian-Universalist — but I believe it’s through doing some kind of sacrifice. Not a martyrdom. I’m not going to do a hunger strike, although I thought about it once. But doing something sustained, something positive, something visible, simple, that people will see when they pop on the evening news that night. Maybe they’ll get on the blog: “Oh, that woman is still out there walking to tell people, guess what, we’re all interconnected.” Maybe you can wear this ribbon.
So I just thought if I do something hard — if one person does one thing that’s really hard for quite some time — I think it would focus people’s attention enough that maybe a simple message would get through, which is that we are all interconnected, so let’s stop talking about “us and them,” and “we and they,” and acknowledge that we are all interconnected; that Gay, Lesbian, Bi and Trans people are in everyone’s families, in everyone’s ethnicity, in everyone’s economic background, etc., etc.
I’ve been planning it for 11 months, and right after I told people I think is when that gentleman who wanted to raise awareness about obesity started walking. I looked at him, and I thought, “O.K., that’s a great idea.” But I don’t want to be a flash in the news in a few cities. I want other people to pick this up. I’m really hoping to start a movement, not just get a little bit of media attention for something. In fact, if my name fades from it and it becomes its own thing, that’s what will really make me happy. Like, for example, who came up with the AIDS ribbon? You might know, as a news person. But no one I know knows who came up with the red ribbon for AIDS.
I don’t care if no one ever knows who came up with the togetherness ribbon, but I want it to become something that people pick up, and our straight allies start to have a symbol that they can show their support in, because what do they have? How does a straight person who’s well-meaning bring up their Gay/Lesbian friend’s family? How do they bring it up, when half the time Gay/Lesbian and Bi/Trans people can’t bring it up? We don’t know how to bring it up. We can look at Ellen on TV. We can have a whole room of people looking at Ellen on TV, and still no one will say the word “Lesbian.”
That’s why I figured I’d do this walk. Of course I’ve been inspired by the people who have done difficult things, who have given of themselves and their time. Absolutely. I’ve also been inspired because, as a mother, I don’t ever want to see a Matthew Shepard again. As we all know, he made the news, but there are Matthew Shepards every day. There are people being lost every day, and they’re on the other end of the continuum.
I’m on the [end where] I can be so out, out, out, even though I still have to be careful sometimes. What about the kids? What about the young people? What about people who can’t even tell their own families because they feel there’s no place in this world for them? I’m doing this definitely for them. I do have a seven-year-old who says he’s Gay, and who’s been saying it ever since he was five, and I really want for him to be able to go to his first dance with the right person, you know? So it’s like, come on, people, we’ve got to hurry this up. Change is coming, but not fast enough, so what can I do to help it?
Then there’s the Right wing, inflaming the people who are against us having rights and marriage. Marriage rights are just huge for me. There are people inflaming the hostilities towards us, because they’re a very organized, very loud, very rich minority. I don’t want to inflame, but I do want to show the actual support we have in the non-LGBT world. It’s huge. And I want it to be visible. So I’m willing to walk 500 miles to ask those folks to wear this ribbon, display this ribbon, and give money to all these organizations that are already existing, to help their children, you know? Because the children in suburbia are just as Gay as the children everywhere else, right? I mean, you can’t move to Hillcrest when you’re 12.
Zenger’s: I noticed on your mission statement that the top two issues you put there were marriage equality and encouraging Gay/straight alliances in schools. Why are those your top two?
Schumaker: I think a lot of people did not think we would see marriage equality in our lifetimes. Before this became an issue, a really prominent issue, because of Gavin Newsom and because of the folks who are working so hard for it, I didn’t even understand the federal rights. I was married to a man once; I didn’t understand the rights that gave me, because we never needed family leave, we never were really sick, and we didn’t have Social Security issues. I didn’t realize how many benefits came with that.
When people say, “Oh, you just want marriage so you can have more money,” I say no, that’s not it. It’s about the rights and the duties given to an American citizen. We’re fulfilling our duties and we’re not getting our rights: totally un-American. So, because I think that’s the huge issue of our time, I’m definitely on it and, if there’s any impact from Togetherness, I definitely want to impact marriage equality.
Zenger’s: If I could interject here, I’ve heard the argument made that the word “marriage” seems to be the really provocative thing, the thing that turns that so-called “movable middle” against us, gets them to vote for the so-called “defense of marriage initiatives,” and if we just sought the rights of marriage but called it something else —
Schumaker: Here’s my thing. First of all, do you know how many lines of code you’d have to change in the American legal system to change “marriage” into “civil — ” — whatever they want to call it? And you’d have to do that for the straight people, too. We can’t have something separate. We have to call everything what it really is. We need to stop fighting around the word “marriage” and start making straight people understand that what they have is a civil contract, and what they do at church is something different. Every single one of them just has a civil contract. That’s the thing that gives them the rights, not the priest or the rabbi or wherever they go to have their marriage ceremony, if they do it in a church.
I will never agree with anyone who says we should drop the word “marriage.” Yes, it does set off some people who might be more movable, but what we need to do is educate those people. I’ve been doing phone banking at the Center. I’ve had conversations with people, a senior citizen for example. She said, “Well, I just don’t — you know, I just don’t see it. I think marriage is between a man and a woman.” I said, “Do you know that if I’m with my partner for 30 years, that when my partner dies I do not get Social Security benefits?” She said, “Oh, no, that’s not right. That’s not right, Oh, no, then I’m for it.” And we were done.
But no one had ever told her that before, so we need to keep having these conversations. And I’m hoping that by walking this far, it will spur more conversations. Some of those are going to be about marriage, because it’s so hot in the news. The conversations about youth who need support are actually more difficult, because then you have those underexposed folks who say, “Oh, no, you’re recruiting.” No, I’m here for someone who is needing someone. Even Gay people, when I say, “My son says he’s Gay,” they freak out. I say, “You don’t freak out if someone assumes they’re straight when they’re seven.” Nobody says a word.
So why do they have a problem with him saying he’s Gay when he’s seven? It doesn’t mean he wants to have sex. It means he identifies; he sees that there’s this other thing in the world, and he feels a lot closer to my Gay male friends because he feels like there’s something similar. Why does he drag me to the diamond counter every time we go to the mall?
There are a couple of kids who seem to be Gay or Lesbian over at my kids’ school. They’re junior-high kids, and they know I’m a Lesbian. There I am, at their school every day. And whether they can say anything about it; whether they tease their peers about it or not, at least they know that I’m there, which is more than I ever had.
Zenger’s: I’ve heard that the phrase “it’s so Gay” has become a big piece of kids’ slang now, usually to describe something they don’t like.
Schumaker: Oh, it’s huge. It’s all over the place. It’s just a generic put-down. I’ll say to kids, “How come you use ‘Gay’ as a put-down? Do you know that hurts Gay people, like me?” I said that to some kids at a candy store at the mall, and they were like, “Oh, we’re sorry.” But They looked right at me when they said, “Oh, we’re sorry,” and I don’t know what they said after that. But the point is that I put it out there, over and over.
There are other kids who, instead of calling someone a “fag,” they say “gaf,” because they’re getting in trouble in school for saying “fag,” so they’re reversing it and they’re using the word “gaf.” That’s a new one. That one really is mean, and the kids are doing it to get around teachers who are finally becoming aware that they need to redirect calling someone a “fag.” So now they’re calling people “gaf,” and the teachers supposedly don’t know what it means. I don’t know how widespread that one is, though. You understand I’m getting it through the amazingly reliable sources of my own children, but they’re observant. They pick those things up.
I work at a foster home, at a foster facility. It’s a residential and school facility. Those kids are saying “It’s so Gay” all the time, all the time. All the kids in my house, they know I’m a Lesbian. Some of them are wearing the pin for my walk, and they’re very supportive and know exactly what it’s for. There are other Gay staff that are out at that campus. So, you know, because of all these seeds that we’re planting, I think that that phrase will be gone in the next generation. I really do.
Zenger’s: What are your children going to be doing during the Walk?
Schumaker: We just added this to the FAQ page, because that is a frequently asked question: “Where are your four kids?” Most of the way they will be at the Y at their school, which is the onsite day-care some of their friends go to, and then their father will pick them up every day. He lives in Escondido, also. So he’s agreed to have them every single day, and then let some of my friends bring them up. I don’t know if he’ll ever bring them up on a weekend. It depends, but —
Zenger’s: How are your relations with him?
Schumaker: I can’t say too much about that. He’s there for them, so that’s what matters.
Zenger’s: How did your children react to your coming-out?
Schumaker: Let’s see, my eight-year-old was standing in the kitchen one day, and I told him, “Mommy’s in love with a woman, and Papa and I are getting a divorce.” I probably didn’t tell him I was in love with somebody; I said we were getting a divorce, Mommy’s figured out she’s Lesbian.
First of all, they already knew what it was, because that was the kind of family we had. All their baby-sitters their whole lives had been Gay or Lesbian. So there wasn’t any sitting down and explaining, “Well, some men love men, some women love women.” They already knew it because of Roger and Warren and all of our friends. I just said, “What do you think of this?,” and my eight-year-old — he was eight at the time, he’s 12 now — said, “Whatever, it’s perfectly natural. Can I have a snack?” It didn’t even rate stopping and thinking it over, because they’d already been taught. They’d already known all our Gay friends, so they’d always been very cool about it.
When my daughter was seven, she looked at me and said, “Mommy, I don’t think I’m a Lesbian.” I said, “Yeah, really, I don’t think you are, either, but you know, you never know.” And then one day my five-year-old — when he was six — said, “Mommy, will you still love me even if I’m straight?” “Of course, honey, of course I will.” So everything in our house is all up front. It’s all out on the table.
It did get hard for them after Gavin Newsom started the whole marriage thing, because suddenly Gay people were in the news every night. The rainbow flag was in the news every night, and I had a little flag on my car, and no one in Escondido knew what the hell that was — until all of a sudden some seventh-graders figured it out, and they started teasing my fifth-grader. The school put a stop to the teasing, but they couldn’t put a stop to the ostracism.
So my older two have been ostracized at school, and that’s too bad, because I’m very, very out with all the parents, but they don’t talk to their kids about it! It’s like, oh, wow, one of your other soccer moms is a Lesbian, you’re cool with that, but you couldn’t possibly discuss with your children what it might mean, and that some of their friends might in fact grow up to be Gay or Lesbian. They don’t make that jump. Why? Because people are afraid of it. So that’s why I’m doing the walk. I’m hoping it will demystify it.
My family comes from strong physical stock. I can walk like this because we’re strong people, and we have education. We have intellectual abilities, and that is the stuff that I’m so grateful for. But I can’t tell my own father that because he won’t speak to me. He wrote me out of the will. He went down to the lawyer and wrote up some nasty paragraph in there about me. I never read it. My sister saw it; she won’t tell me what it says.
But I am cut out of the legacy of my family — financially, anyway — and my father acts as if I am dead. Which I can’t believe because he really does have a dead son, so how in the world he can act like one of his remaining two children is dead, I will never understand. As a parent, I cannot understand that. But he’s a product of his culture, and he cannot get past it. He cannot get past the embarrassment of the neighbors finding out. Whatever he’s worried about, he can’t get past it.
So I look at that, and I just go, “You know what? That stuff is not being passed to my children.” Right there, I have done something so transformative. And if I can do that for my four children, I really think that I can help other people transform those horrible messages that just flood over us, and find the really beautiful things that trickle through. If I can do that for other people, and give them the space and the time to collect themselves, then I’ll be that strength if I can.