Hungry4Equality Strike Gets Worldwide Attention

By Crystal Proxmire

For some, being an active citizen means scarfing down a chicken sandwich at a fast food joint. But for the people involved in the 100-day hunger strike, activism is about more than just a one-time show of support. Hungry4Equality is a 100-day strike relay where strikers sit on camera for 24 hours in the window of Affirmations, and sustain themselves only through liquids for one day at a time.

The relay-style protest has been in force for over a week now, and community center partners are excited about the progress. "People are really paying attention," said Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia. "The story has made it to media throughout the world. And now it's time to keep the momentum going."

Leaders from all eight community centers in Michigan completed the first week of hunger striking. The cohesiveness of the Community Center Network shows a historically high level of teamwork, and the statewide effort is a strong beginning to everyone in the state working together. Each day of week one, a different Community Center Executive Director took over the couch in the name of their organization. After their shift, each has gone back to their hometowns with energy and information that will help them carry on the fight for equality in their region of the state.

Ray Magdaleno of Detroit Latinos took day 7 of the strike. "It was amazing. Very uplifting to see families walk by and stop and read the signs, genuinely interested in what they were reading."

He was referring to the giant posters in the front window of the Affirmations Community Center. The poster lists the reasons for the strike and a list of six politicians whose anti-gay legislative work is harming the community.

Other leaders had similar responses. "It was nice to see all the people walk by on the street and wave to us," said Pat Ward of The Network in Grand Rapids. "Some came in and started talking to us, to tell their stories. Everyone was really nice, and I never felt like we were just shoved in a corner."

Back home in Grand Rapids the torch carries on, as Ward prepares to report about the experience in the Network News. They've also hung a banner in their building and provide information about the strike to those that use The Network. There may also be an open house where Ward will talk about the efforts.

Overall Ward's excited about the collaboration.

"When I joined the CCN group this is exactly what I thought we should be doing. Most states are lucky to even have one community center. In Michigan there are so many, and now we can influence representatives as a solid front."

Ward did several media interviews while she was in town, including a half-hour discussion that was taped by a graduate student for a documentary about gay rights. Word of the protest has spread worldwide, and Affirmations Communications Director Cass Varner has counted over 100 different articles about it, including some overseas. Anti-equality publications as well as mainstream media have also picked it up.

"The story kind of took a couple of different forms when it was released so there wasn't really any surprise to that, however, I was surprised that a couple of fundamentalist groups picked it up and used the story to feed their anti-gay rhetoric. I was also surprised initially when we put this out on our social media streams, how many instant anti-gay rants we received - "I hope you all starve," "gay people shouldn't be allowed to get married or adopt," etc. We also got a few 'this is stupid' or 'this won't help anything' comments as well. I'm glad though that the vast majority is overwhelmingly excited with this campaign. It's really exciting knowing that the community centers all over Michigan are 100 percent behind this effort and working together," Varner said.

An email came from England for example, from a woman named Angela Burrow. "I don't live in Michigan, or even in the U.S., but I just wanted you to know that I will conduct a 24-hour hunger strike as a show of support. Please let me know when your campaign starts so I can join you in spirit. I am lucky in that here in the UK. I have the same rights as everyone else. Apart from I can only have a civil partnership instead of a marriage, but even that looks like it will be changing in the next couple of years. Take care and good luck with the campaign."

Now that news of the hunger strike has spread, Garcia and the Center Network partners must work hard to keep the momentum going. They are seeking out strikers and strike supporters, and reaching out to any celebrities, bands, nonprofit groups, political leaders who would like to take the stage. "We need people to get involved. We need community members and allies. Change will only come if people stand up with us," said Garcia.

When the hunger strike opened up to the general public on day 8, Alex Allen of Ferndale was the first in line. The Oakland University student is studying English and communications, and hopes to work for a nonprofit one day.

"I think it's every individual's responsibility to take care of the community and educate people about the issues, take political action and be public about it. We can't expect people who are already established as leaders to do it on their own," said Allen.

"The thing that bothers me the most is HB 5039, the bill that takes away the human rights ordinances cities have worked so hard to put in place. I find that to be hugely discriminatory in and of itself, but also it limits us to be able to expand. It limits the rights of communities. Cities should have ordinances that include everyone and doing it city by city is a way to show this is important to the cities," she added.

Overall, Allen said, people need to act. "Contacting their representatives, writing letters, making phone calls, educating their friends about what's going on, staying up on the issues. Research and stay knowledgeable," she said.

Executive Director Zack Bauer of the Resource Center in Kalamazoo said this is the perfect time for individuals to hold the spotlight as activists.

"Activism is this unobtainable thing they want to do, but can't because of work or family obligations, or because they just don't know how. This is a way to do something to get involved and be a part of something bigger than you," he said.

Bauer said going without food was not hard, and that Affirmations staff made the whole experience easy by providing lots of good conversation and support. After his 24-hour stint, Bauer headed back to the west side of the state, stopping first in Ann Arbor to grab a sandwich from Zingerman's Deli.

For more information about the hunger strike, including how to sign up to be a striker or strike supporter, go to the movement's website at http://www.hunger4equality.org.

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