August 9th, 2009

Candle In Hand

For Allen, With Love.

Allen Thornell
This is my friend Allen.

He flew from this Earth last Tuesday after suffering a stroke the night before, at the age of 38. Allen was only 6 days older than I am.

I've only just been brave enough to write about him. Because I love him. Because I miss him. Because I'm not ready to speak of him in a past tense. Because I'm not done crying. Mostly because I want his death to be the most insignificant thing about him - I want his life and what extraordinary things he did to define him, and I want you all to know that while we must find a way to accept the Allen-shaped hole in our lives and in our movement for change, we must not give in and we must not stop. We cannot honor him by spending too much time mourning him, we have to pick up the proverbial torch that he can no longer carry for us and try to do it at least as well as he did. We owe him that, because he didn't set out to do what he did in his too-short life because he had to - he did it because he CHOSE to. That is how character is made.

Allen taught me more about activism, selflessness, and indefatigable perseverance for a greater good than anyone else, except for perhaps my greatest model for activism - Harvey Milk. In many ways Allen has been the living embodiment of Harvey, Atlanta Georgia's own incarnation of the man we have seen as a beacon of hope for the entire queer community, such as it is. Meeting him in person for the first time back in 2004 after countless phone calls and emails back and forth getting organized for a push back against Senate Resolution 595, the Georgia marriage amendment, I was greeted with such joy and genuine happiness that I think for a moment I forgot it was our first time in one anothers physical presence. Allen was then the director of Georgia Equality, a civil rights group based in Atlanta. I recall thinking he was adorably cute and much smaller framed than I imagined he would be, which provoked the suggestion of lightning sometimes coming in the most unassuming of packages. This was proved time and again by his tireless efforts to think bigger, get organized, and never give in, even when it was really hard not to. It was also proved when Allen would go toe to toe with people in positions of power, never breaking a sweat, never losing his cool, and making it look so calculated and with such ease. It's just the way Allen always was and you got hip to that early on. Away from the public eye was one thing, but he always managed to pull off playing it cool when it mattered most in those days.

After the time, energy, and passion invested by us in writing letters to elected officials, calling them repeatedly, sending endless streams of personalized emails, getting people registered to vote on behalf of Georgia Equality at Pride, we were getting down to the wire for the passage or failure of SR 595. All hope resided for us in the desire for the bill to die in committee, which would have been the best message the state could send, and consequently a huge pipe dream. I remember feeling incredibly anxious when it looked like we were going to lose and lose big, and I called Allen at home one evening thinking that I needed to either reassure him or have him reassure me and strengthen one another's resolve that no matter what happened, we had to press on - it mattered too much not to. When it died, the first person I called was Allen. He was out and I could hear the revellers screaming and whistling excitedly in the background as he answered his cellphone. I'll never forget hearing him say to me "You should be here right now, you helped make this happen and you're part of it."

Allen as Atlanta Pride Grand Marshal, 2004
We knew that it was going to come up immediately for reconsideration - the fundamentalists that own the conservatives had way too much invested in this thing to let it go. It was that night that we (Maggie & I) made the decision to go to the Capitol to sit in on the House Rules Committee meeting when it came back up for a floor vote. I met Allen across the street from the Capitol and he immediately hugged us and put us to work, writing letters to be delivered to the reps in the legislative office building next door and phone banking. It was an amazing day and one of the best days I've ever spent doing something that was bigger than me.

I remember him emailing me after I wrote "That's MISTER Faggot to you", reminding me about that day in the Capitol when we saw Sen. Nancy Schaefer, a woman who has spat more hateful, homophobic vitriol at nonheterosexuals than almost anyone in Georgia politics. I saw her first and mentioned to him that she was walking our way, and he got on his tip toes to whisper in my ear "...don't make eye contact with her, I need you here today" and we laughed out loud. It was also when he told me he was planning a run for the state House District 58 seat, and I offered to help in any way I could. We talked about his hopes and the issues he wanted his candidacy to be based around, and he told me he would let me know if and when he needed me. He ended up losing to state Rep. Robbin Shipp in the Democratic primary runoff. Had he won, he would have been the first openly gay man elected to the General Assembly.

He wasn't afraid of talking about being HIV-positive, either - but never let that fact alone define him. Allen knew there was always that clock ticking, the one a lot of people ignore, and perhaps that ticking was part of what motivated him to be who he was. His work wasn't just about the gay community, or those living with HIV/AIDS. He worked for global fairness and the rights of laborers. He worked to end poverty worldwide. He sat on the Board of Directors for the Atlanta Stonewall Democrats and the Victory Fund.

And he was my sweet, compassionate, and lovely friend. I never got to see him as much as I wanted and usually time with Allen meant time shared with a lot of other people, and I accepted that because it was part of the deal, part of the sacrifice necessary to be bigger than yourself. If I had known that the last time I saw him would be the last time I saw him, I wouldn't have let him out of my arms so fast when he came up for a hug. I'd have also kissed him on his temple, conveniently at the level of my lips, and told him again that because of him, I can never be the same man I was before he became my friend - and it has made all the difference in how I see life, love, fairness, justice, and the responsibility to do what you can - when you can - and for as long as you can.

Find the people you love right now. Love them as hard as you can, love them until you ache through and through, until you cannot love them more, and then find a way to love them more with all that you have. Clocks are ticking everywhere and that isn't what matters. It is true that everyone dies but not everyone truly lives. It makes me happy to know that Allen really, truly did.

May you all be so lucky, and may someone love you as much as Allen loved all.