A manifesto can set you free

 

This past fall, my friend Lauren asked me to speak to an English class she teaches at a small alternative school in western Colorado. She was encouraging these juniors and seniors to write a personal manifesto, and after hearing that I had created one myself a few years ago, she thought I’d be a perfect guest lecturer.

But here’s the thing: My manifesto challenges assumptions of sexuality and gender and what passes for normal, and Lauren and I live in a rural town that, rumor has it, once had the world record for the highest number of churches per capita. It’s the kind of place where some people mine coal while others grow hay, and a lot of people hunt elk and wear cowboy boots.

I try not to stereotype people based on their appearance. I wear flannel and have a big beard and wear cowboy boots, too. But I know this community, and large segments of it are conservative and overwhelmingly Republican. One of the most prominent signs as you enter town is actually a trailer spray-painted with, “Frack Obama.”

The class consisted of six stone-faced teenage boys, some wearing camouflage, others cross-armed behind hoodies. I started the class with a writing prompt:

 

“Why are you angry? All the reasons big and small -- why are you angry? Make a list or not. Offer an explanation, or not. Why are you angry?”

After five minutes, during which they wrote furiously, I then asked:

“If you had total power -- superhero power -- choose one thing you are mad about and explain how you would change it, and why.”

After another five minutes, I stopped them and said: “This is a frustrating task, I know. You and I know that we don’t live in a world where we have total power. We never will. So what’s the point of thinking about the ‘if’? It seems pointless to even contemplate.

“But even though we will never be superheroes,” I went on, “we still have power to change the world. You can transform your anger into something that can convince people to make the change you wish to see. Convincing isn’t enough, though. You must also inspire people, too.

“That is your manifesto.”

We spent the next 15 minutes talking about two manifestos, with one being the collective works of Subcomandante Marcos, the public voice for the Zapatista indigenous rights movement of southern Mexico. For the last 20 years, Marcos has been informing the larger global audience about the struggles of the Zapatistas and the reasons why they continue to insist on autonomy from the Mexican government. The Zapatistas offer many lessons for largely peaceful social change movements, but Marcos, in particular, offers an example of someone writing from a place of immense anger in an elegant and even entertaining way. He convinces and inspires people who live far away as well as people already part of the Zapatista movement.

The second manifesto I offered as an example was Larry Kramer’s “1,112 and Counting.” Kramer was a gay man living in New York City during the height of the AIDS epidemic. He saw his friends and family die all around him, while the city, state and nation did nothing to halt the deaths. He transformed his anger into a biting critique published in a publication called the New York Native on March 14, 1983. It helped inspire the gay community to organize and fight back against the disease and a medical and political establishment that wasn’t taking action fast enough.

With a few minutes left of class, I finally told the high school boys why I was angry. As an “out” gay man, I was angry that people claimed gay people were “unnatural.” I stood at the center of the room and read my manifesto, “How to queer ecology,” to the class. It talked about same-sex pair-bonded geese and the fluid sexual behavior of dolphins. And it also described how natural it feels for me to love another man. Despite being out for the last 12 years, and married for the last two, it's still just a little bit terrifying to say these things out loud.

At the end of the hour, I thanked them for letting me join them for the day. That’s when Lauren and the boys began clapping. They clapped! And so, here’s another thing about writing your manifesto: If you can muster the courage to look into the face of your anger and own it, and if you can then transform that anger into a story that can move other people, you will have found your voice, and you will know what you need to do.

Alex Carr Johnson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a freelance writer in western Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.