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    Shining a Light on Our Neighbors

    By Joanie Juster–

    Happy Holidays!

    As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, I find myself giving thanks for every holiday lights display that I see. No matter whether they are humble or over-the-top flamboyant, each one says that someone cares enough to share a bit of joy with all of us.

    Here’s to everyone who hangs a string of lights, wears a Santa hat or a wacky Christmas sweater, or just takes a moment to wish you happy holidays. It necessitates all of us to create good cheer in the world—every single gesture counts.

    Shining a Light on Our Neighbors

    I wasn’t prepared for the sheer joy I felt as I walked down Castro Street on November 29 en route to the lighting of the Castro Christmas Tree. As I headed down the street, I could hear Donna Sachet leading a chorus of children in singing “Jingle Bells,” and I suddenly realized how much I had missed such simple holiday joys during the pandemic. Castro Street was overflowing with friends and neighbors in holiday gear, eager for the return of a beloved holiday tradition we could all share.

    Elected officials and community leaders spoke, but it was Donna Sachet who delivered a message that we all received loud and clear: this holiday season, your community needs your support. If you’re going to shop, shop locally, and support local businesses. The Castro, like the rest of the city, has struggled during the pandemic, and needs all of us to support local businesses if they are to survive and thrive. So as Donna suggested, put your phone down, forget Amazon, and shop your neighborhood!

    And here’s one more suggestion: support local artists. You may have friends who are performers, writers, visual artists, filmmakers, podcasters—and chances are also that this long pandemic period has been tough on them. Show them some love: buy their books/CDs/films/tickets to their shows. Amplify their voices by talking them up to your friends and on social media. And not only buy their work, but also let them know how much you appreciate their creations (because buying a friend’s book then not reading it is only half a gesture). Shining a light on our neighbors will brighten the holidays for everyone.

    Creating Change from Within

    Oral Roberts University is a small evangelical college of about 4,000 students, but it plays an outsized role in the history of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. ORU’s founder, televangelist Oral Roberts, was notoriously homophobic, and made sure his university reflected his beliefs. To this day, 12 years after Roberts’ death, all incoming students are forced to pledge that they won’t engage in what the administration deems “unscriptural sexual acts”—which the school says includes “homosexual activity.”

    However, some students are fighting to change that legacy. Last week, four students from ORU signed onto a class-action lawsuit demanding protection for LGBTQ students at religious universities, and now, they’re organizing to change the school’s discriminatory “honor code.”

    One alumnus of ORU shared the negative effects of the discriminatory policy as a student there: “I was closeted my entire time at ORU because the policies essentially banned my existence, putting me in a constant state of fear and hyper-vigilance. I was taught to hate the core of who I am, and I did just that. I’m lucky to be alive. I pray no student ever has to experience the torture that I did as a queer student on campus.”—Jane Doe, ORU Alumni  

    Faithful America is teaming up with the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP)—an organization that empowers LGBTQ students at Christian universities to fight against discrimination—for this effort. Want to show your support? Here’s a link to their petition:

    Jeopardy! Update: Amy Schneider Just Keeps on Winning

    Amy Schneider is on a roll, and shows no signs of slowing down. Her string of powerhouse victories on Jeopardy! is making history.

    As of press time, the Oakland-based computer scientist has won an impressive thirteen games in a row, and won more than $536,000. This winning streak has qualified her for Jeopardy!’s Tournament of Champions, and also moved her into the rarified rankings of all-time Jeopardy! greats.

    Not only is Schneider decisively winning games against worthy opponents, but she is also breaking barriers, becoming the first openly transgender player to qualify for Jeopardy!’s Tournament of Champions, and winning over countless fans both through her performances on Jeopardy! itself, and also through her engaging, open tone on social media. Almost every night after the show, Schneider takes to Twitter to talk about the game, praise her opponents, share her feelings, and talk openly about her personal life. Just this week, she revealed her tattoo of Ozma of Oz, a fictional character enchanted to be a boy. “Eventually, the enchantment is lifted, and she is revealed to be the beautiful princess she always was,” Schneider wrote. “So it seemed like the perfect image to commemorate my transition!”

    On Thanksgiving she chose to use her growing platform to make another meaningful gesture. She wore a trans pride pin to honor the transgender community, then took to Twitter to explain why. “I wanted to explain a bit about why I chose to wear it,” she wrote. “Thanksgiving is a holiday that is all about family. And that can be hard for anybody who has been ostracized or otherwise cut off from their family, a group which, sadly, still includes a disproportionately high number of trans people, especially trans youth and trans people of color.” Schneider then added that she felt it was therefore a good day for her to “show my membership in, and support of, a community that might be having a hard time right now.” She concluded by encouraging her followers to donate to organizations that help LGBTQ causes, particularly Trans Lifeline and Transgender Law Center.

    Schneider also civilly but firmly responded to criticism after encouraging Ohio viewers not to vote for any Republican candidate, as “one of their goals in office will be to make life harder for me personally.” She replied, “I would be ‘delighted’ for my existence to not be a political issue. But as the GOP won’t give me that option, please direct your complaints to them. Thanks!’” Keep on rolling, Amy.

    Giving Beyond Gifts

    I have been an Auntie since my first niece was born when I was 7 years old. Now with over two dozen nieces and nephews, I wear my Auntie badge proudly. But as their numbers grew, I simply couldn’t do Christmas gifts for all of them. (Except for cookies. They will ALWAYS get Christmas cookies.)

    A few years ago, I offered them an option: instead of gifts, I would make a modest donation to the charity of their choice. I sent out the offer, not knowing how it would be received.

    The response bowled me over, and left me kvelling with pride. Their requests reflected a broad range of thoughtful and compassionate choices. Some were large national organizations that fight for our rights and the environment (ACLU, Planned Parenthood, NRDC). But others were small organizations that support very specific and underserved communities: the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identify and expression; Undocufund, which provides direct assistance to undocumented families impacted first by California fires, then by the COVID pandemic; Black Girls Surf; and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

    What started as an experiment has become a cherished family tradition. They love knowing I will support their favorite causes; I love watching them become engaged, thoughtful citizens who care for the world around them. 

    Many of us are still short on funds after nearly two years of pandemic economy, but we can all find a way to do some good in the world with whatever resources we have. Open your eyes and your heart, and you will find a way to make a difference.

    Christmas Joy: The Tree Twins Are Back!

    And finally, need a booster shot of holiday spirit? We have great news—the Tree Twins are back! The fabulously illuminated pair have returned from the North Pole just in time to dance, smile, and twirl their way into the hearts of San Franciscans this holiday season. Follow them on Instagram (@TreeTwins) for clues where to find them each evening throughout December. And for a dose of pure joy, listen to the interview they gave on December 9 on San Francisco’s most positive radio show, Roll Over Easy; you can listen here:

    Happy Holidays, everyone!

    Joanie Juster is a long-time community volunteer, activist, and ally.

    Published on December 16, 2021