Around about Birmingham, I decided this tour needed a little pit stop, so I decided to take one with Sarah Palin.
Okay, true it wasn’t a spontaneous pit stop. I didn’t see her at the Megabus stop in Montgomery, Alabama and say “Sarah, I’m going on this big queer tour, wanna hang out?” Although I am pretty sure I saw an adult movie with that plot once.
Nope, I signed up a few months ago to be a volunteer with the Extraordinary Women Conference, a fundamentalist Christian women’s gathering sponsored by the Million Moms. Our people usually know the Million Moms as the Million Moms against Ellen, but they’ve had their knickers in a knot over a lot of stuff: girl on girl kissing in the Urban Outfitter catalog, the Sports Illustrated Swimming Suit Issue and Mattel considering a Kardashian Barbie Doll line. I adore their campaign against a recent Liquid-Plumr ad which complains that Clorox is trying to sell “products with sex:” they are worried because “[the commercial shows] a man in produce is standing beside cucumbers with a price sign behind him reading 69 cents.” I agree someone is obsessed with sex here, but I’m not sure it’s Clorox.
But I’ve been captivated by the idea of the Million Moms since I heard about them. A Million Moms, at the standard statistical shorthand, would have 100,000 queer kids. If their emailing habits are any indication, they are not being nice to those kids. So I decided that someone needs to talk to these moms, on their turf. And I decided that someone should be me.
My friends and my therapist were all confused by this plan. Was I going to do some direct action? By myself, of course not, no. A demonstration of one is a lonely thing indeed. Was I trying to gather fundamentalist Christian trade secrets? What trade secrets? They point to the Bible and say “we believe that.” Was I going to create some kind of comical mass disruption? Nope.
I was just going to go, help out by volunteering, and if anyone engaged me in conversation, I’d answer honesty about why I was there.
What could go wrong?
Well, my wardrobe for one thing. What does a big ol’ queerbait wear to a fundamentalist Christian conference anyway? After a number of mishaps, I’ve finally learned the difficult lesson that the harder I try to look un-gay, the gayer I appear. This was brought home to me several years ago when I showed up for the trip to meet my girlfriend’s mom wearing an outfit I had picked out just for the occasion.
“Well, that’s an interesting choice” my tactful girlfriend said, as she looked down at my clothing: a light pink sweater, black jeans, and matching pink Vans. I explained “I was trying to look you know, less gay.”
This sent my normally reserved girlfriend into such guffaws that she stood in the middle of Port Authority with tears from laughter cascading down her face.
Trying to avoid just such a scene with hundreds of strangers, I went for an understated choice, an Old Navy American Flag Tee Shirt. I felt like the character in the Birdcage, defending his decision to place Playboy Magazines in the restrooms for the straight people: “What? It’s what they like.”
The second thing that could go wrong was my volunteer assignment. Heather, Extraordinary Women’s volunteer coordinator and also the perkiest woman alive, told me that she’d put me on the greeting committee, “those folks are the very first friendly faces people see when they walk in the door of the conference.”
I don’t blame Heather one bit when I arrived at the volunteer meeting and she looked at me and then nonchalantly reassigned me to the “floater” position. I wouldn’t want my face to be the first face people see at Christian women’s conference either. Unless it were a queer Christian’s women conference, which would probably not fill up the Birmingham Convention Center.
Unfortunately, my floater position was to staff the speaker sales table, which means I could have easily spent 16 hours taking people’s money and handing them one of Palin’s hardcover classics. That seemed to be over some philosophical line that even I could not cross. So I did what any mature, intelligent human would do on such an occasion. I ran behind a large artificial plant and hid until the volunteer meeting was over.
Although I hadn’t anticipated The Great Tree Hiding Incident of 2012 (I will say there is something about spending forty five minutes stooping down behind an artificial tree at the volunteer meeting for a Christian fundamentalist’s conference that gets you really thinking about where your life is going) I had anticipated potential problems with my volunteer position. Just to ensure entry, I had purchased a basic level ticket for the conference. Just the ticket that cost fifty bucks, mind you, not the 250 buck pass that allowed all access to the events, special seating, a meet and greet with Sarah Palin and the opportunity to wear a pink ID that said “Palin” on it at all times.
It was on entering the Birmingham Convention Center arena for the first time that I realized another problem with my plan: the math. First of all, there was 7,000 of them and one of me. I listened to that Dar Williams “I’m Not Afraid of Women” song on my iphone huddled in the bathroom (seeing a theme here?) for fifteen minutes and then mustered the courage to come out.
I found a seat and watched the women as they listened to this first speaker and so began my very long weekend.
There weren’t many surprises: I grew up evangelical Christian and know this culture. I have an underlined Bible and my real name is Kelli Sue. In fact, the attention paid to me by genuine loving Christians, first at church, then in a Christian high school and Bible College, gave me a stability to my childhood and teen years that was probably (no joke) lifesaving. So it’s hard to think of these people as the enemy.
I talked with lots of people, and did some listening as well. I’m not sure I changed anyone’s mind about anything but at least people could say they’d met a real live queer once if anyone asked them, for example, at a church potluck. No one was anything but nice, although this particular conversation illustrates the whole experience:
I was sitting with Church Lady X at a table in the lobby of the hotel attached to the convention center. We were both eating Subway because it was the only thing in the area that was not overcooked hot dogs. We chatted about the relative merits of different Subway sandwiches combinations and then the subject turned to (surprise surprise) God. She gave me her testimony (the story of how she found God) and then asked about me. I launched into a ten minute explanation of why I was there, my history, my plan and a little bit about the comedy tour I was on.
Her eyes glazed over and when I stopped talking she responded “so, you’re looking for Jesus then?”
I smiled and said “I guess we’re all looking for our own Jesus” and got up to throw our trash away.
The event ended with Sarah Palin’s much anticipated keynote speech. I couldn’t believe the welcome those women gave her. Picture a 90s Ani DeFranco concert times 10 and you’d be almost getting close to that female excitement level.
But what is it about Sarah Palin? Why does she have to be so…hot?
I had a seat just off the left side of the stage and the whole time she was spouting off her own special brand of paranoid political insanity I kept looking at her legs and thinking “that woman needs to have sex with me.”
Somehow I think that’s not what the other Million Moms were thinking.
On the way out, I ran into Church Lady X again. We greeted each other with a hug. As we walked out, she tapped the back of my Audre Lorde Project 25th anniversary sweatshirt. On the back it reads “We are strong because we have survived — Audre Lorde”.
“We are strong because of Jesus” Church Lady said, almost in a whisper, in my ear.
I stopped for a moment. Those were not quite fighting words, but they were close.
“Don’t mess with our Audre and I won’t mess with your Jesus” I said.
Her eyes glazed over again but she nodded yes.
And I put my arm around her shoulders and walked her to her car.