For 2010, Jimmy Gruender and Meg Sneed are recognized as local activists who risk arrest while making a national impact for equal rights
By Glenn Gullickson
When the leaders of the local grassroots LGBT organization Human & Equal Rights Organizers were assembling a video featuring their top actions for 2010 they had a difficult time narrowing it down to just 20.
H.E.R.O.’s leaders had to select from about 50 activities touching on all of the year’s top LGBT issues — direct actions on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and in support of marriage equality and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
For taking the battle to the streets in actions that caused them to be arrested twice, H.E.R.O.’s leaders — Jimmy Gruender and Meg Sneed — are recognized as Echo Magazine’s Man and Woman of the Year for 2010.
In just two years since it was organized, H.E.R.O. has become the leading local voice fighting for LGBT rights and its members have carried the fight nationally by pressuring Arizona Sen. John McCain and President Barack Obama. Among other actions, they helped organize the community’s response to the bullying-suicide crisis, recording videos locally for the It Gets Better campaign.
“It’s the year we really stepped up,” Sneed said during an interview looking back over 2010. “We really became the organization that put talk into action. We were willing to go the extra mile. I think people noticed. The community knew H.E.R.O., and not just the gay community.”
Taking on McCain
H.E.R.O.’s signature issue for the year was its actions opposing McCain on his position resisting the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. It’s something Sneed and Gruender said was important for the local group to take on since McCain represents Arizona. “Our senator is standing in the way,” Gruender said.
They introduced their stance in April when Gruender, Sneed and three others staged a sit-in at McCain’s Phoenix office after they were denied a conference with the senator, resulting in their arrest when the management of the building made a trespassing complaint. (The charges were later dropped.)
Gruender remembered the day as “one of the scariest of my life.” But the sit-in got noticed. “It really showed that we could have an effect on people locally and nationally,” he said.
The actions against McCain continued during the summer when members of H.E.R.O. attended a campaign season town hall in Queen Creek and Gruender went head-to-head with the senator on DADT during a question and answer session.
The confrontation gave Gruender confidence. “It made me grow to confront someone of McCain’s stature and power,” he said. “It dawned on me, I can do this. It gave me the confidence I needed to fight. It solidified for me that it was something I wanted to do and something I needed to do.”
The fight continued to the halls of Congress when members of H.E.R.O. joined a GetEqual protest and attended a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where McCain is the ranking Republican. Sneed and Gruender said they were surprised they weren’t arrested that day when they violated committee rules and stood holding larger-than-regulation signs.
As the year drew to a close and McCain continued to lead the Senate Republican opposition to repealing DADT, Gruender concluded, “He will never back down on gays in the military. He doesn’t get it. It showed his true character.”
Working for collaborations
For Sneed, the most memorable day of the year came in October when she and other local activists joined a GetEqual DADT action in Miami and she exchanged glances with President Obama.
Sneed was put in charge of securing a position near the gate of the estate where the president would be speaking. Working with authorities, Sneed said she got the best spot possible, insuring that Obama would see the protestors and their signs just 10 feet away as his motorcade passed.
Explaining the secret to her success, Sneed said, “I’m not scared of the Secret Service. I do play the dumb blonde to my advantage.”
H.E.R.O.’s first collaboration with GetEqual came during he summer when the national LGBT rights group requested the Phoenix group’s help with a protest to pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to take action on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Sneed and Gruender said the sit-in at McCain’s office got GetEqual’s attention and since the ENDA protest was to be staged in Reid’s home state of Nevada, the proximity of the Arizona activists made them natural allies. The action — which literally stopped traffic when protestors held a banner across one of Las Vegas’ busiest intersections — resulted in their second arrest for the year.
Noting that Reid is a Democrat, Gruender and Sneed said it’s important to keep an eye on friends as well as foes. “That’s the hardest thing to do,” Gruender said. “It’s easy to pick on people you don’t like. But if you make promises to the gay community, we want you to keep your promises.” He’s frequently expressed disappointment with Obama.
Sneed said partnering with other organizations is one of her group’s success stories. In developing a collaboration, H.E.R.O. works to find common ground with other organizations. “We all want equality, we just differ on how to get there,” Gruender said.
Partnerships can range from the national GetEqual protests to co-sponsoring Shaken and Stirred networking events with the local Human Rights Campaign.
The HRC partnership has been particularly gratifying for H.E.R.O.’s leaders. “They really stepped up when we got arrested at McCain’s office” by providing Facebook and Twitter support that had to be approved by the national organization, Sneed said. Gruender said he was recruited to be on HRC’s local steering committee.
Another partnership had H.E.R.O. standing with Latino groups in opposition to SB1070, the state’s controversial immigration law. Sneed said she anticipates future collaborations with the Latino community in hopes that they will support LGBT rights. “It’s not OK to discriminate against any group of people,” she said.
He’s not her boyfriend
Gruender and Sneed spend so much time together that they’ve even got T-shirts denying that they’re a couple. But they haven’t known each other long, meeting for the first time at one of the sessions that gave birth to H.E.R.O.
When they met, “it was instantly like I knew her forever,” Gruender remembered. “Like long-lost best friends. She’s become one of my best friends, someone I love and admire to death.”
Gruender said that the seeds of H.E.R.O. were planted in late 2008 with the rallies before and after the vote on Proposition 102, which banned same-sex marriage in Arizona. Sneed said the concept was developed in a meeting of about a dozen people following the election when they organized a protest that attracted about 5,000 people to Phoenix’s Cesar Chavez Plaza.
At the time, the community was angry, Sneed remembered, and in response several new LGBT groups were organized.
“People were just waiting for H.E.R.O. to fail,” Sneed said. But she admitted that the group has had a bigger impact than she anticipated. “I don’t think people question how long H.E.R.O. will be around anymore,” she said.
The group has found its greatest success in the direct actions, leaving lobbying the Legislature and Congress to other groups, Sneed and Gruender said. They’ve also stayed true to the organization’s grassroots. The group’s policy is “come be who you are,” Sneed said. That can mean everyone from drag queens to leather daddies, Gruender said. “If we don’t fight for the smallest part of our community, we’re no different than the straight people who would not fight for us,” he said.
Gruender stressed that H.E.R.O. is more than a two-person operation. “There’s a ton of people who make us look good,” he said. But he acknowledged that he and Sneed have become the public face of the organization and they’re frequently called upon by local media to comment on LGBT issues of the day.
Flexible jobs and understanding partners allow the pair to work 20 to 30 hours a week on planning and executing H.E.R.O. activities.
Their personalities work well together. Gruender said they both have strong opinions — usually the same opinion.
“He’s very outspoken,” Sneed said. “I tend to be a little more politically correct,” something that showed up during the Queen Creek meeting with McCain where Gruender made a quick exit while Sneed posed for a photo with the senator.
The partnership also was on display in the U.S. Senate hearing room, where the two said they communicated with looks and nods in an atmosphere where they could not speak.
While H.E.R.O. has executed dozens of actions, many others that have been planned never happened. That’s because the group works on contingency plans for various scenarios. “We’re ready for anything,” Sneed said.
H.E.R.O. actions can be executed with a three-hour notice, Sneed said. Steering committee members are called and Facebook and e-mail accounts are activated to get the word out.
All of it is done with little money. Excluding expenses for the Right to Marry walk, Gruender and Sneed said that H.E.R.O. has spent only a couple of thousand dollars. One of their biggest expenses: A $279 sign used for a protest outside McCain’s Phoenix office. GetEqual pays expenses for the group’s out-of-town activities.
A few disappointments
If there’s any disappointment, Gruender and Sneed said it’s that more people aren’t involved. Unlike most other local organizations, H.E.R.O. meetings are open, and when the group first formed weekly sessions could draw a couple of hundred people.
With declining attendance, educational town halls are held once a month. Projects like cleaning up graffiti and Guerilla Gay Bar are going from monthly to quarterly events.
Rallies may draw just a few dozen people, but Gruender said it’s still important to conduct such events. He said he’s learned to measure success not by attendance, but by outcomes, like media coverage and Internet chatter. They’re proud to have gotten notice from traditional media like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and new media like Yahoo and dozens of other Web sites.
Still, Gruender said he’s worried that the community can become complacent. Sneed is more forgiving about low attendance. “People are busy,” she said, noting that the H.E.R.O. is working for a maximum impact with a minimum number of people.
But Gruender said he fears that the movement could slip backwards. “We’re fighting to keep the rights we have,” he said, citing state battles on adoption and domestic partner benefits. As the Legislature meets, he anticipates that H.E.R.O. will spend more time at the Capitol in the new year. “I think we’re going to become more vocal locally,” he said.
State lawmakers might consider themselves put on notice as the H.E.R.O. leaders look to follow up on a year that they describe with the same adjective. Sneed said 2010 gave her an “amazing feeling of accomplishment.” Gruender agreed. “It’s been one of the most amazing years of my life,” he said.
For more information on H.E.R.O., visit www.herophoenix.com.
Jimmy Gruender, 36, grew up splitting his time between his mother’s home in Missouri and his father’s in Austin, Texas. He graduated from high school in Prairie Home, Mo., near Columbia and attended a semester of college on Northwest Missouri State in Maryville.
When he decided it was time to come out, Gruender moved to Texas, but it was during a visit to Missouri in 1993 that he met Paul Roark in a bar. The men have been together ever since.
Gruender and Roark operated a gay bar and adult video store in Missouri, then got their first taste of Arizona when they took a vacation trip to Mexico and had a layover in Phoenix. They liked what they saw and moved here in 2002.
Gruender worked at a restaurant where the Phoenix Pride board would meet and became interested in the organization, eventually serving on the board for five and a half years. He continues his Pride work as the regional representative for the Southwest and Mexico on InterPride, an international board of Pride organizations.
Gruender said Pride was his path to activism. Besides his work with H.E.R.O., he’s also co-director of the Equality Walk. He’s taken the 90-plus mile walk the past two summers with Roark and at an event on the lawn of the state Capitol marking at the conclusion of the 2010 walk, Gruender asked Roark to marry him.
Gruender said the couple hopes to have a ceremony in 2011, but there’s one obstacle — first he needs to get a divorce. Since he’s estranged from his family, Gruender said Roark’s family has become his family. So, in an attempt to establish next-of-kin, three years ago Gruender married Roark’s sister Lisa, knowing that Lisa would defer to Roark should there ever be need to make a decision by proxy.
His relationship and what he’s done to sustain it are among the things that motivate his activism, Gruender said, yet he acknowledged that activism can intrude on life at home. “I’m the luckiest man alive to find the love of my life who allows me to do this,” he said.
Gruender manages the Sage Restaurant in the Comfort Inn on Union Hills and Interstate 17 in Phoenix. He opened the establishment this fall with Roark and another business partner.
Meg Sneed, 28, is a native of Phoenix and a graduate of North High School. She briefly attended Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven before returning to Arizona. For the past six years, she’s worked at New Leaf, a social services agency, where she’s a program manager.
Sneed’s LGBT activism started at the national level when she participated in the Soulforce Equality Ride in 2006. The Equality Ride, a two-month national tour, conducted direct actions confronting 19 schools where students could be expelled for being gay. While the protests were non-violent, they sometimes resulted in arrests.
Also in 2006, Sneed sought to bring attention to the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy by attempting to enlist in the Coast Guard.
Sneed remembered attending a human rights Lobby Day at the Arizona Capitol a couple of years ago and thinking that she should bring her activism to her home state. Right to Marry, the walk to promote marriage equality, is Sneed’s baby, first conducted in 2008 in metropolitan Phoenix.
Sneed said surviving cancer — a diagnosis that was a life-altering event at age 24 — is one of the things that made her an activist.
In a first person feature for Echo Magazine in 2009, Sneed wrote about her coming out. “In all the activism I do, coming out has been my greatest service. By being who I am, those who care about me reach acceptance. By being who I am, I encourage those who are still coming out with the hope of the end goal. Being out is important, it is the simplest and most important thing we can do for the movement.”
As a contributing columnist to Echo, Sneed has written about her activism and her struggles. In a column earlier this year, she described her participation in the It Gets Better campaign by recording a video with an ex-boyfriend-turned-bully-turned-ally.
It has been a year of awards for Sneed. She received the Richard L. Schlegal National Legion of Honor Award for Visionary Leader in Washington, D.C. In October, she was named to Echo Magazine’s Hall of Fame.
Sneed’s Facebook friends know that it’s also been a year that she has found happiness in a new relationship with Mandee Rowley, who was among the Right to Marry walkers last summer.
Sneed said she’s glad she broke her rule about not dating an activist to get together with Rowley. “I actually couldn’t find a better fit,” Sneed said. “She understands in a way no one else ever has.”
Right to Marry
Walk project makes plans for next two years
Echo profiled several of the walkers who participated in the 2010 Right to Marry project and followed their progress in August as they hiked 98 miles through towns in northern Arizona to bring attention to marriage equality.
In considering her favorite actions from the past year, Meg Sneed put the Right to Marry walk near the top of the list. She said the walk is a contrast to H.E.R.O.’s actions opposing Sen. John McCain on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
“We’re willing to go to any town, talk to anyone and tell our stories,” she said. The event “puts a face on LGBT equality,” Sneed said, noting that she’s seen change.
Right to Marry is seeking participants for its fourth annual walk. Sneed said the 2011 events will involve a greater number of walkers, increased from 10 to 15 people committed to hiking 99 miles in August in southern Arizona. The number of miles is equal to the number of years Arizona has been a state without offering marriage equality.
Sneed, Jimmy Gruender and five other walkers from last year will be back for the 2011 walk.
The group has big plans for the project for 2012. Sneed and Gruender hope to organize walks in central, northern and southern parts of the state when Arizona observes its centennial year.
For more information, visit www.righttomarryaz.org.