New nonprofit seeks to cure homophobia with helping hands
By Pat Sherman/GSD editor
A. Latham Staples was planting trees in a canyon last December when an 83-year-old woman noticed his wedding band and innocently inquired, “Where’s your wife?”
It was the moment of truth for the 33-year-old activist and one of the primary reasons he was there sweating and kneeling beside her in the dirt.
Staples chose to break the ice with a bit of levity, motioning to his husband, Brent Kostelecky, while explaining that they were one of the first same-sex couples from San Diego to get married during the state’s legal window of opportunity, in 2008.
“She said, ‘OK,’ but was a little standoffish,” Staples recalled. “The rest of the day we just worked alongside each other and didn’t discuss LGBT issues.”
A couple of months later, Staples received a package in the mail from the woman, containing her and her late husband’s wedding rings, along with an heartfelt letter of support for his marriage.
The tree planting was one of several community service projects completed by Staples and his nascent nonprofit group, the Empowering Spirits Foundation. Its mission is to change people’s hearts and minds on LGBT issues through service projects outside the gay community that give people a chance to become acquainted with LGBT individuals in a neutral, non-threatening environment. The events include everything from food distribution and brush-clearing to home construction in concert with Habitat for Humanity.
Travis Cleveland, the organization’s national events director and a former air traffic controller, moved to San Diego from North Texas to join the organization a few months ago.
Cleveland said Empowering Spirits’ work usually takes place well outside the “gay-borhood,” in rural, low-income areas or Republican strongholds where he believes the organization’s outreach is needed most.
“Our mission is to help foster dialogue and to educate people,” Cleveland said. “We want to go to these areas because these are the people who are voting against us, the people that only hear the stereotypes.
“They’re not going to go into Hillcrest to shop or to eat. They’re not having the opportunity to interact with gay individuals (so) we’re going to them.”
Cleveland, who served with an Empowering Spirits satellite group in Dallas, took part in service projects there, including the establishment of a shelter for people living with HIV and drug addictions. While working with heterosexual volunteers, commonalities inevitably arise, he said.
“They realize, well, this person has a similar interest as me or have their own family problems or financial struggles,” Cleveland said. “Everyone can relate to something about someone else.
“As a non-LGBT person, I may not agree with you … but when you can make that connection it breaks down one wall, and that wall will lead to the next wall,” he said. “That process has to start somewhere.”
Staples is working on a manual that will advise volunteers on how to effectively and respectfully engage with non-LGBT people on projects. Until then, his advice is to be as easygoing and non-confrontational as possible, letting the subject of LGBT rights arise organically.
“We tell everybody, ‘Don’t come out wearing your ‘No on 8’ shirts and flashy stuff and just immediately start talking about gay issues,” Staples said. “We don’t want to turn them off. Just come out there and be yourselves. When you’re [working] for eight hours next to someone, conversations come up.”
Staples founded Empowering Spirits in November 2008, debuting with a “kiss-in” staged outside the Mormon temple in University City last year—a politically-charged action he said his organization will leave to other groups in the future.
The event, which had a sizeable turnout and was repeated by groups across the country, was in response to the July 9, 2009 arrest of a gay couple who were kissing in a plaza in Salt Lake City owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We got a lot of negative response from the straight community that are members of ours,” Staples said. “In our bylaws now it stipulates that we’ll never get involved in political stuff again. We have great organizations like HRC (Human Rights Campaign) and Equality California that are doing all of that, and there is no need for us to compete with them.”
Staples background includes stints as a corporate sales manager with Dell Computers and a reporter in Waco, Texas. Most recently, he owned a healthcare recruitment firm. He sold that company to found Empowering Spirits, largely in response to his frustration with the passage of Proposition 8, which rescinded California’s law permitting same-sex marriage.
“I’ve never really been an activist,” said Staples, who lives in University City near the Mormon temple. “My husband and I were not into Hillcrest or coming out for [gay events].”
That changed after Staples and his partner wed on June 17, 2008. His witness, a former employee, Lidia Gomez, now serves as Empowering Spirits’ treasurer.
“We’re in the process of adopting … so we wanted to have those legal protections for our child,” Staples said.
Raised Methodist in the conservative Lone Star cities of Fort Worth and Albany, Staples first immersed himself in the fight against Proposition 8 by demonstrating outside a La Jolla church that was used as a polling site on election day.
Staples was not received well by the pastor.
“He came out and he was just screaming. I told him, ‘As long as I’m a 100 feet from this door, I’m allowed to be here.’ He pushed me and shoved me to the ground. As a Christian, I just couldn’t fathom this. I had never experience discrimination like that. … I told Brent, ‘This is something I have to do.'”
Today, the organization Staples started with $38,000 has chapters in more than 30 cities across the country, which participate in a wide-range of service projects.
The organization is gearing up for its first national outreach event, Oct. 9-10 in Los Angeles, which he says will be held at an as-of-yet undisclosed 90,000-seat venue. It will coincide with Empowering Spirits’ national day of service—a sort of LGBT version of Rotarians at Work Day.
“We have a major entertainer that has agreed to partner with us,” Staples said. “We’ll be announcing our partnership with her in August… . She’s paying for the entire thing—promotion, marketing, licensing, permits, everything.”
Until then, people can join Empowering Spirits for a deforestation project, 9 a.m. to noon, July 24 in Allied Gardens’ Navajo Canyon. Participants are asked to wear clothing appropriate for landscaping, plus sunscreen and closed-toe shoes.
Though Staples and his staff do not draw salaries, he hopes to have a fulltime paid staff and a permanent office in the near future.
Empowering Spirits Foundation recently secured a $60,000 grant from Echoing Green, an organization which supports emerging social entrepreneurs. The grant will be awarded monthly, over a two year period, beginning in September.
“It’s really just friends of mine and board members that are working out of their houses right now,” Staples said. “We’re kind of in this phase in between. People at least are starting to know who we are.”