While hundreds of drunk Santas milled around unsteadily in Manhattan on Saturday, one young man prepared for a far more purposeful jaunt — a run across the Brooklyn Bridge to benefit homeless LGBTQ youth — by donning a different costume: a pair of 5-inch Jeffrey Campbell lace-up high heels.
"The reason that they're good for running — and granted, no high heels are good for running, let me clarify," said Jacob Tobia. "But the reason that they are better for running than other high heels is that their heels are pretty thick, so they're stable. And also, on the Brooklyn Bridge, there are slats of wood with cracks between them, and I didn't want to fall through them by wearing stilettos."
Tobia's eight minute run across the bridge was part of the campaign that the Duke University junior planned to benefit the Ali Forney Center. The Center was started in June of 2002 to respond to the lack of safe shelter for LGBTQ youth in the New York City area, as homeless LGBTQ teens are often subject to more violence both on the streets and in the shelter system. After Hurricane Sandy, the center's shelter facilities in Chelsea were devastated, flooded with four feet of water which ruined the floors, food, and medical supplies.
And that's where Tobia and his "gender-bending style and fabulous high-heels" stepped in.
As Tobia relayed to me in our phone conversation, although he is currently studying Human Rights Advocacy and Leadership in his home state of North Carolina, he has spent the past semester studying here in New York. Thus, he experienced Sandy's destruction first hand. In following the news after the hurricane, he heard about what had happened to the Ali Forney Center, and felt the need to do something about it.
Tobia notes that he's been lucky enough never to be homeless as a result of his own LGBT identity, but his own luck has simply intensified his obligation to give back. In his Huffington Post piece seeking support for the run, Tobia writes, "Dec. 15 marks the five-year anniversary of my coming out to my parents ... When I told my parents that I was gay, I didn't know what would come of it. I didn't know that, five years later, I would be studying at an amazing school, surrounded by a supportive community and filled to the top with love. On that December night my life could have taken a turn for the worse; my parents could have kicked me out of the house."
"The reality is that for LGBT youth across the country, having a home makes all the difference. And in New York City thousands of LGBT youth still don't have one."
The Run for Shelter 2012 fundraising campaign began as an idea for a class project in which students had to do something to better the city. Tobia came up with the idea for the Run for Shelter, though he notes that he had to confirm with his professors that he wouldn't be graded on the success or failure of the run. From there ... well ... he ran with it.
"I was just standing in my room one day, and looked out at the Brooklyn Bridge, and then looked over to my closet and saw my high heels, and looked back at the bridge, and thought: Well, huh." Tobia remembers. "Maybe I could run across the Brooklyn Bridge in high heels. That just might be stupid enough to work."
Stupid or inspired, Tobia's idea has clearly worked. His run was featured on NBC News, and he was honored as New Yorker of the week last week on NY1. Even he has been surprised by the response he's gotten to a project which seems so simple but which nonetheless addresses complex issues in LGBT communities, including issues of gender presentation.
"The thing that was really wonderful about the run for me was it was a really unique way for me to express my own gender identity," Tobia told me. "I very much identify as gender nonconforming. Some days I dress more masculine and some days I dress more feminine. Some days I wear flat shoes, some days I wear heels. Some days I wear lipstick, and some days I wear hoodies."
"But I know that gender nonconforming people have a really bad rap in popular culture and the media. We're always depicted as hypersexualized, or freaks, or deviants — you know, Clockwork Orange or Dr. Franke-N-Furter. While Dr. Franke-N-Furter is fabulous, one of the things I wanted to do with this run was really work to change the image of gender nonconforming people, because I know that gender nonconforming kids especially ... don't have role models to look up to."
With the success of Tobia's run, they have at least one role model to look up to. In his new video, Tobia expresses his gratitude for those who have supported his campaign and the Ali Forney Center, which he calls a "holiday gift."
Perhaps most importantly, as of 10:45 a.m. on Friday, December 14, the Run for Shelter 2012 campaign had raised $10,000, an amount which has increased to $10,700 in the past few days. The Ali Forney Center will be opening a new drop-in center in Harlem next week — and donations are still being accepted to benefit their efforts.
What's crucial to Tobia, though, is that his actions emphasize the wide variety of issues which full, true equality for LGBTQ people entails.
He explains, "As an LGBT activist, so often people think of the LGBT group and they think of marriage equality, they think of the military, they think of employment non-discrimination law, if they think of that. While all the legal changes are important, those aren't going to gain full equality for everyone. Even if after the Supreme Court issues its decision on DOMA, we decide we have full legal equality, there will still be homeless LGBT kids on the street. Kids in rural areas will still face inordinate discrimination. There will still be violence against LGBT people. And there will still be people who do not have the right to be themselves and live their lives openly."
"The thing that I think is really important about this run is that it helps to remind everyone within the LGBT community and outside the LGBT community that our community is so much broader than it's become represented by. This is a way to reach out to a part of the LGBT community which is very often forgotten, which is very often not given the credit it deserves, or the resources it deserves, or the advocacy it deserves."