“I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”
-Rep. John Lewis
One of the most powerful moments of my younger life was seeing Rep. John Lewis address a national convention of LGBT student organizers, teachers, and their allies back in 2000—twenty years ago. I was 18. At the time, I knew of him. After the speech—I would be forever inspired and changed by him.
I came out of the closet at the age of 16 in 1998. It wasn’t an easy age, or time, to be openly gay. I spent much of my younger life as a grassroots organizer, helping start a Gay-Straight Alliance at my school and training other students to do the same. Together with our allies, we achieved so much change in schools and school systems across the country. I was part of an organization called the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which launched national campaigns for inclusive schools and trained organizers like me all over the country. Every year, GLSEN used to have an annual summit that brought its state chapters, student organizers, and teachers together to learn and empower one another.
When Lewis addressed the room, many of the younger people knew relatively little about who he was and the life he led. By the end, I know they were affected as I was.
In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it was rare for national elected officials to say much publicly about our community, let alone address an audience like this. It was especially powerful at the time to have a Black leader of faith doing so, as many congregations in the Black community were part of religious coalitions working against LGBT causes.
We have always referred to friends who are outside of our communities, but support who we are and the causes we care about, as “allies.” But John Lewis transcended allyship. He didn’t just lead with his values, he lived and breathed them. He was born of them. Rather than simply being an ally in that room, he felt like one of us.
While I cut my teeth as a queer organizer when I was younger, I’ve also committed my life to my ancestors’ work—the fight for tribal sovereignty and strong Native Nations and communities. There too, John Lewis has been part of our struggle. Suzan Shown Harjo, former Executive Director of the National Congress of Americans Indians (where I used to work) told Native News Online, “I never had to convince him to sign on a letter, sponsor legislation, lend his name, make remarks—he always said yes before I completed the request. If asked, but only if asked, he would share his ideas for reaching the righteous goal, for gaining others’ support, for conducting the campaign, for working with energy, strength and in honorable ways.” While he sponsored 20 bills supporting tribes and tribal communities, the contribution of his insight, his perseverance, and his leadership alongside us was just as important.
As I reflect on his passing, I keep coming back to his belief in young people. As a young man, he led by example and empowered other young people to live their values in protest to oppression. This never changed as he became older. As youth-led movements once again take to the streets in our nation to demand a just system, I know that John Lewis had a direct impact on their belief in themselves.
When asked for her reflection on John Lewis, Yvette Joseph of the Colville Confederated Tribes put it beautifully, “While John Lewis is a legendary civil rights icon and one of the greatest politicians of all time, I think he was a deeply spiritual man with divine gifts. Our commonality was in raising chickens as children.”