Making Change

A while back I spoke with a group of young men and women from San Francisco International High School as part of Changemakers project organized by their teachers. How I wish I had been given a chance to learn the same lessons at fifteen: that making change in our communities starts with someone unafraid to speak out.

Our meeting was extraordinary not just because it happened in my lifetime, but because it took place at all.

Right now, in my hometown of Uralsk, Kazakhstan, an outraged mob is calling for school board sanctions for the ‘crime’ of educators letting students seek out a modern fairytale about a prince in love with a knight as part of school curriculum. In Russia, a neighboring country whose language I grew up speaking, the ‘crime’ of being gay and speaking openly about our families in front of young adults - just like the ones I met with - comes with a danger of arrest, a heavy fine and a crippling social stigma.

And yet, halfway across the world from a place of my origin, I walked the steep hills of South San Francisco, to speak with a group of young adults. Our varied accents mixed in a room with a poster of a butterfly and the caption: ‘Migration is beautiful’. (I told them I had a shirt with that same iconic butterfly by the wonderful artist Favianna.)

Like myself at fifteen, these students were learning - while still learning English - and the topic of their study was LGBTQ rights.

So I told them my story of volunteering with The DOMA Project in the simplest way I could. I am from Kazakhstan and my wife is American. We fought to have our marriage recognized despite the unjust law (DOMA) that said we were to be treated like strangers. We fought so I could stay here in the U.S. with my wife, and our first step to that victory began with an immigration judge recognizing my married name on the order granting me asylum.

I spoke about the time in my life when I was afraid to make a stand, and how I found the courage to speak out. I told them about my family: my wife Andi and the support of a wonderful community of binational couples who stood up to DOMA in immigration courts and USCIS offices, one story, one step at a time, and I saw the smiles on their faces at the mention of last summer’s wave of victories.

I wanted them to know that voices matter, that community support matters, that no matter how old you are, the stories you find courage to tell make a difference. A story told at the right time can change the world - after all, it was how I was able to be with them today and to share a conversation.

In return they’ve completed their school project, published in Mission Local. It’s up to their generation now to do amazing things, and they’re just getting started.

They wrote about starting a Gay-Straight Alliance.

It’s always an inspiration to hear stories that successfully reach across generations and across language barriers. It was unforgettable to watch that happen - as I spoke - to my own story. Having a chance to speak of DOMA passing into history so soon in front of the next generation learning how to make change happen was an extraordinary moment of fierce, frantic transformation, happening as we live it.

Here’s to the future ahead. May it always change for the better.

Originally posted on Cowbird.

Photo original: South San Francisco Bay seen from Mission Peak by Oleg Alexandrov on Wikimedia