THE TORCH IS PASSED
21 January 2002
Olympic Torch has wended its way through California and spent last night in
Sacramento. Approximately forty people carried the torch through the streets of
the city, ending up at a reception in Old Sacramento. Members of the community turned out
in force to cheer the runners and walkers on.
I was there with my friends Ellen and Shelly. They had received news from PFLAG that
there would be a gay man (Ken Piercy) who was carrying the torch for part of the run and
they thought we should go down and cheer him on.
The invitation for all of us to go to the Torch Relay told a little bit about Ken:
Ken has been a source of inspiration, strength and joy for many people for a very
long time. He has an unfailing servant's heart and demonstrates what true courage and
compassion look like. It seems only fitting that Ken would be chosen for this honor as he
exemplifies the Olympic values of giving his very best, going the distance, supporting
those around him and celebrating the lives of others as well as his own.
As we have all learned by now, I have little common sense, so I
said that--sure, I'd go. I didn't realize it would end up being a good orientation to
chill exposure in Rochester. I'm sure it was mid-30s by the time we got back into the car
again...and that is the high temperature in Rochester these days.
There were four of us--Ellen, Shelly, their friend Jess, and myself. We managed to find
Florin Rd., where Ken was supposed to be running. We were supposed to congregate "by
the first fire hydrant after the railroad tracks." On the way down Florin Rd., we
passed car dealerships with red, white and blue balloons, and crowds of people carrying
American flags, all waiting for the Olympic torch runners.
As we were paking the car, my friend Kathleen, who is president of PFLAG in Sacramento,
was getting out of her car with her son, daughter, son's partner, daughter's
husband, and new baby Tommy (3 mos), who was bundled up against the cold night air and
snuggled first inside Daddy's jacket and later inside Grandma's. Kathleen was carrying a
stack of flag-shaped rainbow-patterned fabric swatches. Ellen, Shelly, Jess and I had
As we rounded toward the corner, headed to the fire hydrant, we knew we'd found
"our people." There was a crowd, a block long, all standing together in various
forms of rainbow attire, carrying rainbow flags or waving rainbow banners.
We were all out there to cheer a gay guy few of us knew because he had been chosen to
carry the Olympic torch for two-tenths of a mile.
Runners are chosen by nominations submitted by locals, who feel that one of their own
should receive the honor of carrying the torch. Ken had been nominated by his church,
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Kathleen filled me in on some of his background.
Ken has been living with AIDS for over 10 years. He is very ill, but it doesn't
stop him from always being there for others. He ministers to those who are terminally ill
- regardless of the illness. When anyone needs help, Ken is the first in line.
He was quite active in the AIDS Interfaith Network when it was in operation. He
regularly speaks at events like World AIDS Day things and especially likes to take speak
to youth about AIDS, how we treat terminally ill people and how we protect ourselves. He
often says, "Get drunk, get stupid, get AIDS". That is his story and he is
brutally honest about it.
He has a beautiful voice and adores to sing and does so with our Cathedral Choir
and has toured with the choir twice to England and has sung in several of the great
cathedrals including Wells and Norwich. He is looking forward to Canterbury Cathedral in
Ken was nominated by another member of the choir, who felt that felt that Ken was an
"everyman" who never gets the big press, but without whom we couldn't get along
and who needed recognition too.
And so we were there to cheer him on. We all shivered in the cold as the sun began to
set. And the wind began to pick up. And the temperatures dropped. And the time passed.
He was scheduled to have the Olympic flame passed to him at 5 p.m., but 5 p.m. came and
went with no sign of any activity whatsoever. We all stood there, shivering, and waving
our rainbow flags. It was amazing how many people honked and gave us "thumbs up"
as they passed. Judging by the neighborhood in which we were standing and the look of the
people in the cars, there was not a lot of understanding of what the meaning of a rainbow
flag was for all of us! But there wasn't a single negative incident. Kathleen's son said
he feared that we would have bottles thrown at us by the gangs in the neighborhood, but
there was nothing like that, and only good spirit all around.
Kathleen says, There was this little lady with a small, hand lettered sign that
said "Welcome to Sacramento". I don't know if that message was directed to the
torch itself or if she was under the impression that the torch was being carried by folks
from out of town. Anyway, she was just a sweet middle-aged woman from the neighborhood who
wanted to see the torch. While I was passing out my "hankies" she turned to a
man standing next to her, Bill (a friend of mine from church) and said, 'With all these
rainbows, people are going to think we are gay.' Bill smiled and gently said, 'Most of us
are.' The lady got a very perplexed look and said 'But I'm here to see the Olympic torch.'
Bill assured her that he was also. Then she looked very, very confused. Bill said he was
sure she thought she had gotten off at the wrong stop and had gotten in the middle of a
gay pride parade or something. He very sweetly explained to her about Ken and why we were
so excited. Well, that was fine with her and she was just glad she was in the right place.
It was after 6 before the entourage finally started arriving. What a commercial thing
this is. The runners were preceded by a big Coca Cola truck, and then came a car passing
out sticks with cardboard rectangles attached to them, the American flag on one side and
an ad for Chevrolet on the other. (Lots of people in our group took them, so they could
use the sticks for their rainbow swatches of material!)
We were turning blue before the van finally pulled up and let Ken out to stand on the
street near the fire hydrant to receive the Olympic flame. I had gone to this thing on a
lark, thinking how silly it was, and I was surprised that I was actually moved by the
event. The runner who preceded Ken was an older gentleman who also looked like he might
not be in very good health. He got to Ken (who was standing directly in front of us), lit
Ken's torch and Ken took off to the cheers of the crowd.
We all returned to our cars and turned the heat up full blast, trying to get some
circulation back into chilled limbs. Then we drove to Trinity Cathedral where a big
reception was waiting. Tables lined this long room, draped with rainbow cloth and topped
by floral arrangements with American flags in them and rainbow balloons attached. The
ladies of the church community brought lots and lots of food (and I stayed on
my diet! Passed up all those cookies and brownies and peanuts and ate
veggies, a meatball and some of the sliced turkey Shelly had in her pocket. [Don't ask])
and a small crowd turned out to cheer Ken's arrival.
I was sorry I didn't have the camera with me, but a man let us use his digital so Ellen
could take my photo with Ken, who was a very sweet, huggy-type gentleman. (The photo will
be e-mailed to me eventually, and I'll post here--it hadn't arrived as of this writing.)
We learned that torch runners have the option of buying their torches, which Ken said was
out of his price range ($330 for the torch and another $40 for the engraved stand in which
to put it), but the cathedral had purchased it for him, so it was on display at the
This was a bigger deal than we realized, because Ken said that he was the only openly
gay person in the country who was chosen to be a torch runner.
So it's understandable that so many LGBT and LGBT-friendly folks showed up to cheer
him on and to honor him at the reception afterwards.
I had gone there on a lark, but in the end, it turns out I was part of something that
was really very special, honoring a man who is obviously very important to his church
community and to the community at large.