Online Extra: Political Notes: Lesbian climbs African peak to raise funds for LGBT youth
by Matthew S. Bajko
It was a climb she initially resisted but turned into a journey aimed at improving the lives of LGBT youth who are struggling with their sexual orientation.
With each step Jody Cole, an out lesbian and former San Francisco resident who now lives in Ukiah in Mendocino County, took up the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa earlier this month another dollar was raised for the statewide LGBT lobbying group Equality California.
Returning home from Kenya last September, where she had spent the month, Cole learned about the American LGBT youth who were committing suicide due to being bullied about their sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation. Each new report about another teenager taking their life devastated Cole, 48, who has long been an LGBT activist.
"It makes me sick. I can't believe this has happened," Cole told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview from London last week before taking a flight back to California. "It hit me in the gut. I couldn't believe our movement, which experienced AIDS and millions of people dying, it was never supposed to include children. They are not supposed to be killing themselves. Our work should be way ahead of this by now."
Cole decided she would try to raise $1 for every foot she climbed on Kilimanjaro. Having ascended the notoriously dangerous inactive stratovolcano in 1998, she was fully aware of how difficult the journey would be. Turning it into a fundraiser, Cole felt it would provide her the motivation needed not to quit.
"Climbing the mountain was fucking hard and I knew it was going to be hard but I knew there was no way the pain I felt climbing that mountain was anywhere near the pain these kids felt to turn to suicide," said Cole. "On summit day I was in unbelievable pain. But I said to myself you got to keep putting one foot in front of the other because my life is so charmed compared to these kids."
January is normally considered an ideal month to make the trek, as weather conditions are usually favorable for climbing. But this year Mother Nature didn't cooperate.
Cole and her seven hiking companions – as well as a crew of 30 from guide company Summit Expeditions and Nomadic Experience – faced severe weather conditions the nine days they spent on the mountain.
"Murphy's law was alive and well on this particular climb. The very first day we started in rain and it came down in buckets. We were hiking in mud ankle deep," recalled Cole. "The higher we got, we had snow, hail, sleet, or rain depending on the altitude. The only day that was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful was summit day."
By the time Cole reached the peak of Africa's highest mountain at 19,340 feet above sea level, Saturday, January 15 she had raised close to $14,000.
"I don't know if people are going to believe me or not, but I really did think about the kids," said Cole, who became sick from the altitude change. "I got light headed but I thought I did not come all this way to quit because I don't feel good. I thought of the kids and if I was being harassed or whatever so that I literally would put one foot in front of the other."
At the summit, Cole issued a video message that can be seen online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXF43eAgpYE. In it an out-of-breath Cole expresses her gratitude to the people who donated to her fundraiser.
"I climbed this mountain to raise money to end bullying and to help Equality California pass legislation. ... I did it!" exclaimed Cole in the video.
The money Cole has raised will fund EQCA's lobbying efforts in Sacramento where it is pushing for passage of the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act. The legislation would require the state's schools to include LGBT people and issues in their curriculums.
Openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced the bill, which is co-sponsored by the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, in December. It would also prohibit the state Board of Education from adopting instructional materials that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
"Given the number of young people who tragically took their own lives after being bullied for being LGBT – or perceived as being LGBT, it is imperative that we do more to ensure that all children feel fully welcomed, and this legislation is an important step toward that goal," stated Geoff Kors, Equality California executive director. "LGBT people should not be pushed into the closet when it comes to what students learn about history. Educating youth about the contributions of LGBT Californians and our state's rich diversity will help foster true acceptance of LGBT students and will ultimately create a safe school environment for all students."
Cole has served on EQCA's board for six years and served as president of the Equality California Institute's board for two years. She will leave the board at the end of 2011 as EQCA limits board members to serving only two terms.
She and her wife, Katherine Cole, have been together nine years and married twice, once in 2004 and again in 2008. They don't have any children of their own.
Having organized trips for LGBT travelers in Africa since 2004, Cole and a travel agent friend, Alison Hawthorne, launched Wild Rainbow African Safaris in 2007. Hawthorne has since left the business, while Cole continues to bring LGBT people on trips to the African continent.
Despite the hostile environment LGBT Africans face in many countries – just last week a leader of the fledgling Ugandan gay rights movement was beaten to death – Cole maintains that for foreigners Africa remains a safe place to visit.
"I do believe that it is safe to travel over there," said Cole, who was elected this month to the board of the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission in order so she "can sink my teeth in a little more on this international stuff."
Last February, Cole partnered with lesbian travel company Sweet to lead groups on tours of South Africa and Kenya, where they met with local lesbian activists.
Three months out of the year Cole is on the ground in Africa. She specializes in sub-Saharan Africa and has brought LGBT visitors on safari in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. This April she is leading tours to the southern part of the continent, including trips to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana.
She said she informs her African partners in advance that the groups include LGBT people. She said it has hardly been an issue.
"Sometimes they don't even notice. They are more focused on doing their jobs well and getting tips. They could care less about who is sitting in the van with them," said Cole. "People may think this is naive but tourism puts you in a whole different world. If I went to live there and became a lesbian activist, the game would completely change.
"Because I am a tourist and bringing money to the country and helping people maintain their jobs, it is an entirely different game," added Cole.
She said most LGBT people in Africa remain closeted in order to protect themselves from homophobic attacks.
"Their traditions, culturally speaking, in all cultures I have met in Africa are very family centric. It is about getting married and about having babies," said Cole, who is thinking about moving back to the city this year. "If someone is going to be gay, it is best not to tell anybody. It is a shame but it is kind of the way it is."
Two welcome home receptions are planned to help Cole continue her fundraising drive to reach her goal of $19,340. The first will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. this Thursday, February 3 at Branches Restaurant, 1180 Airport Park Boulevard, in Ukiah.
The second will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. next Monday, February 7, at the newly opened Citizen Cake, 2125 Fillmore Street in San Francisco.
The public is invited to attend both events.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column looks at how gay GOPers in California are seeking more political clout.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.