By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly
As a proud “Portland Unicorn,” someone born and raised in our fair city, Shaley Howard works tirelessly to make it a better place for everyone. A nationally-recognized activist for HRC and Habitat for Humanity, for starters, Howard’s activist resume is a long and storied one. When PQ Monthly launched a few years ago, Howard added writer and blogger to her already-impressive list of credentials. (Watch for her on Portland Timbers billboards.)
Howard is the owner and operator of Scratch N’ Sniff Pet Care, a relentless sports enthusiast, and she’ll happily lend you her smile when you need it (and even if you don’t). Says Howard: “I’ve always had a lot of energy and enthusiasm for life. I typically wake up ready to go and excited for another day. So that natural inherent glowing energy combined with the outrageous idea that everyone deserves equality and basic rights—those things lead me and keep me on the path of action.” Learn a little more about the face you see all around town:
PQ Monthly: Why do you think Portland is such a special city to live in?
Shaley Howard: There’s an energy in Portland that is different from many cities I’ve visited. It’s a young energy, active and outdoorsy along with tolerant, accepting and inviting of new ideas and new ways of living. We don’t have a lot of religious dogma compared to many other states and cities but instead seem to have a population of people who are spiritually oriented which I think adds to open and more laid back way of life. There’s also a huge lesbian population here so for us lezzies it’s fabulous.
PQ: What’s it been like watching equality slowly unfold in a progressive city like ours? You’ve been able to see the OCA days all the way to marriage equality?
SH: Unbelievable. I do remember the Lon Mabon OCA days back in college. But even before that I had spent years in the closet not exactly knowing why it was bad to be gay, but everything around me gave me a clear understanding it was not accepted. So a lifetime of being told that there was something wrong and abnormal with me led me to be closeted till my 20’s. Then in college I met the true love of my life, Amy, and came out. That was right about the time the OCA started their No on 9 campaign. It was a rude awakening. Up until that point I knew on some internal level being gay was not at all acceptable but it was the No on 9 campaign where I saw blind hatred in people who blatantly would tell me I was a sinner and I should be ashamed and more. ‘Welcome to the party, Shaley, the water’s warm, so jump on in.’ So the years of fighting for equality up to the present is just phenomenal. What brings me to tears sometimes beyond the actual legal progress is witnessing the transformation of people. We are all fed a bunch of lies when we’re born and so of course we believe them – be it sexism, homophobia, racism. To be able to live long enough to actually witness people change and see them wake up realizing the lies of homophobia are just that – lies, is heartwarming and gives me such hope for humankind.
PQ: Tell me a little about how you define community and what community means to you.
SH: Community to me is my neighbors, the people at the local stores where I shop, it’s the people I meet on the streets – it’s everyone. It has to be. That is my community. We may not all share the same ideas about what we want in life, how we should live or share the same goals and interests, but we all live together. We make the mistake of setting up artificial boundaries in our communities all the time, whether we acknowledge them or not, be it class boundaries, racial division, gays and straights, and so on. But my community is everyone. I refuse to see boundaries and always strive to include everyone, from every walk of life into what I call community. We all sometimes shrink from reaching out or having that challenging conversation because we’re scared. We don’t want to offend; it’s new to us so we’re unsure of someone else’s lifestyle or how they’ll respond, so we remain silent. But in order to really have true community everyone needs to be included. If we want to create that utopian world of equality we have to start with each community individual that makes the whole.
PQ: What inspires your work for HRC? What are your proudest accomplishments with that organization? What have you learned during your activism?
SH: I was inspired to work for HRC but I’m super gay. There are many amazing organizations out there that I do support but for very obvious and personal reasons, and being that HRC is the biggest LGBTQ organization in the US, my passion is for my own personal rights and equality along with my queer sisters and brothers.
I’m very proud of the events that I’ve created, especially the Portland Women’s 3×3 Basketball Tournament which over the last 6 years has brought in almost $30,000 for HRC, not to mention countless memberships and bringing the LGBTQ and straight ally community together.
I’ve learned to stick to your guns. Volunteering, as they say, is often a thankless job. And it does sometimes feel that way. But if you stick to your beliefs, show up continually and remind yourself of the bigger picture that what you are doing is for a much bigger cause, in the end you will feel satisfied and even happy. Fighting for equality of any cause, not just LGBTQ rights, is a long, sometimes arduous path. The key is to always check in with yourself, not the outside critics or supporters, but yourself as to why you want to fight the fight. It’s your internal activism compass. We all have it and it will guide you. But it is a long road so I’ve learned patience and to never, ever give up. My Mom always used to gently remind me as a kid when I was outraged at some travesty of inequality and injustice that change does happen. It may not happen overnight be it will happen so get comfortable and work on being just a tad bit more patient.