Guest Blogger

Groupthink, Climbing Mountains & Finding Peace

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 30, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Alan Bounville, walking for equality

Editors' Note: Editors' Note: Guest blogger Alan L. Bounville is a full time graduate student studying theatre for social change at New York University and is one of the founding members of Queer Rising New York City, a direct action group fighting for queer equality. He is currently walking across country to highlight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

As the sun began to set I asked myself, "Should I roll the cart off into the woods and do the usual roadside camping I've been doing in national forests during the first leg of this walk or should I push myself up the rest of the second mountain pass for the day and make it to the campground I see on my map? Oregon-mountain-Hood.jpgIf I stop now I can get up early tomorrow, rehearse the new play I'm memorizing so it is one step closer to being ready for its premier in Boise and finish getting up this second mountain pass with a fresh pair of legs."

Contemplating where my walking day should end, I continued climbing. The sun was setting behind me while and my eyes began adjusting to the surroundings which grew darker by the minute. "Just keep climbing," said the body.

This was the fourth or fifth mountain pass I've hit in the past couple of weeks as I've been traversing central Oregon on foot. The fear of what lurks in the dark had started to diminish. There was maybe one car on the road per hour - maybe. I was truly alone. The placid forest with its spires of pine and openness between them made me feel as if I were in some kind of sanctuary with plenty of room for me to settle in anywhere at any point. All of the forests before the Malheur National Forest were wetter and more populated with fauna below the towering trees. Overall, the Malheur was much more welcoming than the forests to the west!

"Keep climbing!" The cues from my body, pushing me harder and harder up this second mountain pass won me over. I decided to put matter over mind and sunk into the motion of my body that wasn't ready to give up for the day.

I made the decision - get to the campground.

And so I did, pushing up and up and up some more, knowing all the while that if I didn't make it to the campground at the top of the pass I could easily set up the tent anywhere because of all the space between the trees.

About an hour later and with sparse light left in the sky I arrived to the summit of the Blue Mountain Pass, elevation 5109 feet. It was all downhill from here, literally! I arrived at the campground just below the summit, pulled out my light, which is part of the bells and whistles in an American Red Cross emergency radio given to me by Marvin Davenport in New York City before I left to begin this trek (Thanks Marvin - the light comes in handy every day!) and quickly set up camp in what was now almost complete darkness.

As is per my nightly ritual, I tossed and turned on the hard ground in my tent trying to find a contour in the earth that suited my body for the evening's rest. While slowly settling in each night I hear critters outside my tent scurry about as I quiet down. That night I heard a swoop right above me followed by the light steps of what had to be a decent sized avian creature.

As the wind whipped up and down the mountains from the pressure gradient changes that come just after dark, I wondered if I was alone. The campground was on a slope and I was just at its entrance. I felt alone. The wilderness is vast. But I never know. Then, like most nights, I told my body "sleep" and it obeyed my command.

Around 3 AM, like clockwork I began to feel the pressure of a full bladder. The colder it gets the more the body wants to move fluids out of it so it has less to keep warm. I laid there for a few minutes contemplating whether the sensation will dissipate, which it didn't and zipped open the tent to empty the tank. Then I looked up and above the cathedral spire-like silhouettes I saw the majesty of a crystalline night sky. I swore I could see the stars slowly moving across the night dome. All now in me and around me was still. And in this stillness as I gazed heavenward I felt peacefully insignificant. The second half of my sleep was markedly better than the first.

Morning arrived and I engaged in my beginning of day ritual that keeps me feeling like I am still part of a civilized society, though I know by now I've stepped quite far outside much of what is seen as a normal existence. I ate raisin bran with water out of a collapsible bowl. I moved my bowels to get as much out of me as is possible so I'm not stuck below the privacy of the timberline with an urge to evacuate. I rinsed some of the previous day's salt build up off of my skin with some water and a wash cloth, brushed my teeth, packed up the tent and survival belongings back onto Equality Cart and began stretching per the recommendation of my sister, the physical therapist.

For this leg of the journey, I started rehearsing the new play. That day the road was just a few feet from my campsite. It was becoming active and I found it hard to concentrate. I was also quite achy from such a long haul the day prior. But I persevered.

About halfway through rehearsing and during a period of quiet on the road my eye caught a man on a pedal bike emerging from the campsites above me on the hill. I waved to him as he saw me talking to the trees. He noticed the "Full Equality NOW!" rainbow sign on the side of the cart and, as many do, asked me what I am doing. I shared with him that I am walking for gender and sexual orientation equality. (If you've been following this journey's posts you'll notice that seems to be the best opening line I've come up with so far.)

He approached me as I explained in more detail where I started the trek, where I'm headed in the near future and where the walk is scheduled to conclude. As he approached me I could see his silver hair under his biker helmet. I guessed that he was probably in his 50s or 60s. I asked him where he was travelling to and from. He shared that he was riding from western Oregon to Wisconsin where he will meet up with his family to celebrate his father-in-laws 90th birthday. I was amazed! I've met quite a few long distance bikers so far, but none braving the elements and terrain on cycle at his age!

Then, unexpectedly, he shared with me that his daughter is a lesbian. He said she and he like all the same things. But, he just couldn't understand how God could make a mistake. I asked him to expound upon this, which led into a discussion about what the Bible says about homosexuality. During this part of the conversation I kept telling myself, "Alan, keep quiet. Let him speak. Say just enough to maybe get him thinking, but don't overwhelm him with the plethora of information you have about what the Bible really says - or rather what it does not say about homosexuality."

I felt him pulling away from the conversation at one point, which caused me to move away from talk specifically about the Bible. I shared with him that much of what I'm doing while walking is holding vigils for people who have been murdered or who have taken their own lives due to gender or sexual orientation related hate. At the end of our conversation I'm not sure who benefited more, he or I.

Seeing his hesitation to delve too deep into his own feelings about his daughter's sexual orientation and the schism that seems to be there between he and she made me realize - regardless of why people believe what they believe - no matter how often I encounter people out here who can't expand the conversation about religion and sexuality beyond a couple of sound bites - I get it. There is a firmly rooted groupthink mentality, especially in communities such as many of the ones I've been walking through in Oregon. I shared some of this revelation with him, which led us to close the conversation in what seemed to be agreement about how, no matter what the groupthink mentality relates to, it can be dangerous to step outside of that place and stand in opposition to it, even if it means giving up closeness to family.

As he was preparing to leave I said to him that I hoped his relationship with his daughter continues to improve. He didn't seem to recognize this final statement of mine. Or maybe he didn't feel there really was a problem between them. Or maybe I overwhelmed him a bit. Who knows? In any case, I sensed we found common ground around the idea that no matter what the issue, it can be hard to go against the absolutist thinking of any consortium of people.

A moment later the biker walked away and then began riding down the mountain. As I resumed rehearsal I noticed him look back to me as he disappeared between the trees and the downward grade. As he rode out of view I thought (as I do most days) about the divide between me and some of my family because of our differences on the subject of sexual orientation equality. Maybe they are caught in a groupthink state.

Their born-again Christian faith that says I am going to hell for being a homosexual appears to be at the center of much of their lives. They attend church weekly, read the Bible on a frequent basis and surround themselves with like-thinkers. If they were to go against the teachings of their churches (the same style churches that promoted the disenfranchisement of non-whites in the past by the way) their whole concept of how the world works might have to change. And in that upheaval they would probably become distant to some of those who at present think as they do, which can be a painful experience.

I understand what it is like to go against groupthink. In 2008 some members of my family in Florida voted against my equal rights by voting for Amendment 2, Florida's anti-marriage equality ballot initiative, and others in my family who call themselves queer allies stayed silent when I asked them to voice their support for queer equality. When that happened I came unhinged. I never realized how easily it was for people who have known me since birth to discount me with a simple check at the ballot box.

I'm the only gay person many in my family know, or think they know. Am I such a vile person? Do I not deserve what they have? I'm not demanding special rights. I'm demanding equality. I stepped outside of the groupthink in 2008 when I no longer played the polite son role.

Don't discuss politics or religion in public 'they' say. 'They' are the people who hold power! I started saying do talk about politics and religion. Do talk about whatever is on your mind. And do demand through your own action what is your birthright - for me, full civil rights and full social equality - especially from those who have known you your entire existence on this planet. What are our families worth to us if we can't talk about our need for equality with them? That became my mantra.

When I went outside the groupthink of 'be polite' I was vilified and ostracized by some in my family. No matter how I tried to approach them on the subject of equality they stayed firmly rooted in their groupthink that says gay=sin=hell. My hope, while I'm out here having conversation after conversation with strangers on mountain tops who the night before I didn't think were there, is eventually I'll have enough conversations that will lead to those people having conversations with others and then those people will go out and do the same and before long enough conversations about the need for queer equality and the gross misrepresentation of the Bible among many believers in regard to issues of sexual orientation will have taken place that someone will then talk to each member of my family who does not support queer equality.

Maybe from someone else's experience they will hear what I've been saying all along.

If enough people are talking about what is really happening to queer people in America, how they are getting murdered, pushed into suicide by a system that treats them as second class, pressures them into staying silent as to not 'upset' people, then and only then can we build the momentum we need to have our watershed moments towards full equality for queer people.

I can see the comments now - "Alan, don't you think if people are to believe as you do about equality for queer people, then that as well is part of a groupthink mentality?" My response would be yes. A world where we believe equality for queer people is good for our society is a groupthink state of mind. But, that is not the point. The point here is that I want to live in a world where those who would step outside any groupthink state are heard and respected.

So, yes let's shift the paradigm through our conversations and other actions so that queer equality is ours. And then, once we enter the world of equality, let us stay open to hear those who become the minority voice on this subject. The worst thing we could do to our families or anyone else is to shut them out as they have done to us.

Taking from Christian ideology - what would Jesus do? He would open up conversations where differences of opinions flourish. At least that's the Jesus I've read about in the Bible growing up in a born again Christian household.

Maybe the Jesus being worshiped in contemporary Christian churches in the USA is a different Jesus. If so, I think that is highly unfortunate.

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I've been reading you for some time when you post Alan. I like how your vision is continuing to change. I'm proud of your efforts. You are very right. Communication is the key. However take a lesson from groupthink. In security and calmness comes unity. Your conversation with the biker showed that.

Safe and fruitful journey!