GA Voice - - Activist In Action -

If you want to know how ded­i­cated Hol­i­day Sim­mons is to some­thing he be­lieves in, take this as an ex­am­ple—in 2004, sev­eral big-name ac­tors swore they would move out of the coun­try if Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush were re­elected. They didn’t, of course. But Sim­mons did, mov­ing to Toronto for a year be­cause he “was just re­ally up­set with the U.S.” over the out­come.

It’s that kind of per­sis­tence that has fu­eled him in his over 20 years of ac­tivism, in­clud­ing his cur­rent role as Di­rec­tor of Com­mu­nity Ed­u­ca­tion and Ad­vo­cacy for the South­ern Re­gional Of­fice of Lambda Le­gal.

Sim­mons talked with Ge­or­gia Voice about what led him to be­come an ac­tivist, what state rep­re­sen­ta­tive con­vinced him to ap­ply for a job at Lambda Le­gal, his role in the Black Trans Lives Mat­ter Move­ment and more.

Was there one event in par­tic­u­lar that led you to be­come an ac­tivist?

I think I started be­com­ing an ac­tivist in high school with stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties and a lit­tle bit around race is­sues. But I didn’t start pri­or­i­tiz­ing that point of my life un­til I quit play­ing soc­cer in my ju­nior year at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia.

[The Univer­sity of Vir­ginia is] def­i­nitely sort of old money, old South, a type of South that I had not ex­pe­ri­enced yet. So there was al­ways some racist frat party that was hap­pen­ing, like gang­ster-themed. There was al­ways sex­ual as­sault that was hap­pen­ing on cam­pus that I could or­ga­nize around. The LGBT stu­dent group was pretty ac­tive. We ac­tu­ally started the Day of Si­lence that is now more of a high school-led event, but it started at UVA’s cam­pus while I was there.

So then you get your master’s from Washington Univer­sity, move to Toronto then New York. How did you get to At­lanta from there?

I was there for six years mostly work­ing at GLSEN do­ing schools or­ga­niz­ing. Part of that work is how I got to know the At­lanta LGBT com­mu­nity be­cause I ran a week­end­long re­treat for queer stu­dents of color that hap­pened in At­lanta dur­ing Martin Luther King Week­end.

It was about the in­ter­sec­tions of racial jus­tice and LGBT jus­tice and one of the events for that week­end was to have an in­ter­gen­er­a­tional con­ver­sa­tion with these young peo­ple com­ing from all over the coun­try and lo­cal At­lanta or­ga­niz­ers. So I or­ga­nized that with [then Lambda Le­gal Com­mu­nity Ed­u­ca­tor] Si­mone Bell and that hap­pened for about three years in a row.

And when I moved to At­lanta, be­cause I wanted more space and warmer weather and just slightly nicer peo­ple, all the things that New York doesn’t have [laughs], I was look­ing for work. She was just start­ing her cam­paign to be, ul­ti­mately, a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive and she was say­ing, ‘Hey, I’m leav­ing my job to go into pol­i­tics so you should ap­ply for it.’

Oc­to­ber 16, 2015

Hol­i­day Sim­mons grew up in what was then the ‘gay­bor­hood’ in St. Louis, giv­ing him early ex­po­sure to the LGBT com­mu­nity. (File photo)

So that’s what brought me to Lambda.

What do you say to peo­ple who re­spond to the Black Lives Mat­ter and Black Trans Lives Mat­ter move­ments by say­ing “All Lives Mat­ter”?

[Laughs] For­tu­nately I haven’t had to re­spond to that but if I had to, I would say that’s very true. All lives do mat­ter, and there are par­tic­u­lar lives that are dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­geted and killed and not pros­e­cuted fairly and ac­tu­ally don’t even have mass public sym­pa­thy and so that’s why we’re high­light­ing that those lives mat­ter. Public ap­peal says they don’t, so through ac­tions and hash­tags and T-shirts we have to re­mind peo­ple that we ac­tu­ally do.

The mean­ing of the word “ac­tivist” has evolved over time. You used to think of an ac­tivist as some­one who’s march­ing with a bull­horn or ly­ing down in the street. Now there are dig­i­tal ac­tivists, which some peo­ple would say is not ac­tivism. What is your def­i­ni­tion of an ac­tivist?

I’m so glad you asked this ques­tion and it’s one that I’ve been speak­ing about since the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment started be­cause there’s been such a height­ened pres­ence of a par­tic­u­lar kind of ac­tivism which is the one you de­scribed about be­ing in the streets with the bull­horn.

I’ve had a lot of folks come to me and say, ‘Hey, I got a new­born, I can’t be in the streets’ or ‘Hey, I have a dis­abil­ity, I can’t be in the streets’ or ‘I have a prior record so I can’t get ar­rested.’ All of the rea­sons why not ev­ery­one can do that type of ac­tivism I’ve been re­ally sen­si­tive to, and I’ve been re­ally en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to lo­cate their skill set and as­sert them­selves there and also their com­fort level and also the amount of risk that they’re will­ing and able to take.

Even if, say, ev­ery­one could do that tra­di­tional in-the-streets-with-the-bull­horn, I don’t think that’s the only ef­fec­tive way, and it cer­tainly can’t be the only way. There is the loud in-your-face, there is the quiet be­hind the scenes in meet­ings, there’s art—I re­ally re­ally want to up­lift art as ac­tivism.

So for all of those rea­sons, in or­der to have a wider au­di­ence and a deeper mes­sage, I think that we need more tac­tics in or­der to in­cor­po­rate more peo­ple and be in­clu­sive of more peo­ple. I re­ally want us to have a more di­verse port­fo­lio around change that we make in gen­eral and def­i­nitely in At­lanta, be­cause we’re a city that was built on the civil rights move­ment. [U.S. Con­gress­man] John Lewis is still here to tell those sto­ries. We def­i­nitely need to be cre­ative in our ap­proach.

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