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21 January 2002

torch.gif (2160 bytes)The 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.

ro-stevesnow5295.jpg (11492 bytes)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 rainbow flags.

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 2003.

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 reception.

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.

This morning, I received the following note from Kathleen:

Ken is still higher than a kite. He said that at the beginning of the run,
there was quite a crowd and that as they continued along the route (Ken was on the bus of runners until they let him off), the numbers got smaller and smaller. Then the bus went over the railroad tracks by us and up a small rise. When they got to the crest, the driver said "Oh shit! Look at all those people!" Ken says he (Ken) jumped up and said - "That's my family!"   and all the others on the bus applauded.

Another cool story I heard this morning - At one point during Ken's walk, he handed the torch to this guy walking next to him who carried it for about ten feet and then handed it back to Ken. I asked Ken who that was. He said that there were designated escorts for all the torch bearers. One escort would be assigned to about 20 folks. Their job is just to walk next to each torch bearer. Ken handed the torch to this guy so he could share the thrill of what it feels like to carry the Olympic torch. I understand from my sources that very few torch bearers have been that thoughtful. That is the kind of guy Ken is.


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