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    Taking Inspiration from Diana Nyad

    Zoe Dunning

    Zoe Dunning

    Happy Pride Month, everyone! This is a month to celebrate our community, our families and our allies. It is also a month for reflection on what we have accomplished and what we have left to do. For me, it is also a month for personal reflection in the wake of our California primary election results.

    The story of the horrific shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando has captured the attention of our nation and the world. The worst mass shooting in the history of the United States forever changed the lives of so many that night—the 49 innocent lives lost, the 53 injured (some quite severely), those who were there but managed to escape, and the friends and families of these victims. It has impacted the rest of us as well, as we face renewed concerns for our safety—for our LGBTQ community, for people of color, and for all of us in this day and age of asymmetric threats and terror.

    This was a hate crime, perpetrated against the LGBTQ and Latino communities, by a Muslim man who claimed to do it in the name of ISIL. This generates multi-layered debates on how we respond to hate crimes, eradicate homophobia, racism and Islamophobia, identify and thwart terrorism, eliminate gun violence, and even reexamine our country’s blood donation policies. All of these are important topics that are getting much needed attention as a result of this tragedy. It is an opportunity to make something positive happen out of a soul-shaking hate crime. My hope is we leverage this moment to make real meaningful change in addressing these issues

    Beyond the public policy implications, the Pulse shooting has had an emotional impact on all of us. At this past weekend’s California Democratic Party LGBT Caucus meeting, former CA Assembly Speaker John Perez read aloud the name of each person killed in Orlando, as well as their age and a one-sentence description—a life cut short, summarized in one short sentence. I am struck by how young most of the victims were. They were aspiring actors, dancers, students and cooks. Many held entry-level jobs: a retail clerk at a convenience store, a ride operator at a theme park, or a bank teller. Some were locals, many were immigrants from Puerto Rico and elsewhere starting their new lives, others were on vacation visiting friends or family. The descriptions conveyed more than just their jobs or circumstances; many were remembered as sweet, fun, loving, supportive, and joyful. In just one sentence we were able to get a small insight as to who they were and what we lost that night. It was incredibly powerful, and to me, more meaningful than the usual “moment of silence.” It is speaking out, not being silent, that will help us move past this horrific incident and work to prevent this from ever happening again.

    Public service is one way of speaking out. I became involved in local politics following the successful repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2011; I wanted to continue to make a difference in some way. At the encouragement of many, including the then Co-Chairs of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, Reese Isbell and Martha Knutzen, I decided to run for the most “entry level” of elected offices, the Democratic County Central Committee. I campaigned hard and was fortunate to run and win by a whisker in 2012. I served for the past four years and appreciated and enjoyed the opportunity to help strengthen the party and have some influence in improving the lives of San Franciscans.

    Earlier this month I was on the ballot for reelection to the DCCC. Even though it is the most “down ticket” of races, it ballooned into something much bigger. This DCCC campaign season will go down in San Francisco history as one of the most expensive, most competitive and most ruthless elections—sixty candidates, over a million dollars spent, and dozens upon dozens of glossy mailers landing in your mailbox. In the end it became all about name recognition and a demand for change: 17 of the 24 seats went to current and former elected officials, including nine of our eleven sitting Supervisors. On the east side, only one incumbent that was not an elected official retained their seat; six incumbents, including myself, lost our seats. As a result of this record-breaking race, look for some reform measures to come forward around DCCC campaign funding and certain limitations on allowing elected officials to run for party committee seats.


    Reflecting on my experience in this campaign, I recognize that running for office is a contradiction. Most people, (including myself) do it to benefit others, make a difference, help your community, your schools, your city, or your state. It is not for the faint of heart, though. The motivations may be altruistic, but the reality is the process of running for elected office is deeply selfish. To campaign is to make yourself extremely vulnerable, constantly asking friends, families, acquaintances, and strangers to help you. “Please endorse me. Please donate to my campaign. Please volunteer for me. Please like my Facebook page. Please come to my event. Please take this flyer. Please talk to me. Please vote for me.” It leads to complete self-absorption. Your job, your friendships, your family, your health—everything takes a back seat as you devote all your free time running for office. I am extremely grateful for all those who responded and helped.


    Throughout the campaign, I carried a bag on my shoulder, full of campaign literature, precinct walk lists, water bottles, energy bars and sunscreen. It has the flag of Cuba on it, and is from Cuba. I obtained the bag at a house party four years ago, in exchange for a donation to Diana Nyad to support her attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. On her fifth attempt, at the age of 64, after swimming 110 miles over 53 hours in the open ocean, she made it to shore in Key West, exhausted, dehydrated and swollen from hundreds of jellyfish stings.


    During these past three months, whenever I have been tired, or frustrated, or felt the odds against me were insurmountable, I would look down at this bag, think of Diana, and move forward—knock on one more door, call one more voter, hand out one more piece of lit. It is Diana’s perseverance and her commitment that we must all tap into to fight racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, gun violence and everything Orlando has reminded us requires our constant vigilance.


    I hope to see you at Pride, as we march forward for those that are no longer with us. Let’s celebrate our accomplishments, and get inspired to continue the work that remains, so we never have another Orlando.


    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She served as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club. She currently serves as the First Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party and as a San Francisco Library Commissioner.