“It became really clear that what we were dealing with was just a small percentage that the vast majority of LGBT people have had to endure and struggle with their whole life.”
– Sandy Feldman
Larry and Sandy Feldman Exhibit Courage and Love Fighting Hate
As much courage and resolve as it takes to form a picket line, facing those picketers can be just as daunting. Especially so, if the person confronting them is a teenager. Sandy and Larry Feldman certainly thought so, and even though they are straight, they decided to stand with Benton Harbor’s OutCenter — an LGBTQ-oriented community center — as allies when they were the target of a bigoted protestor’s campaign.
“There’s an African-American man from Benton Harbor who has decided that the OutCenter is a threat to black youth. That the OutCenter is trying to convert young black men in Benton Harbor to homosexuality,” Larry Feldman said. “So, Mary Jo Schnell, who is the director, reached out to everyone (who is) supportive of the OutCenter and asked if we could come be a part of a gathering there. Not to convert this man, but to gather in the back of the building and for some of us to be in the front of the building to escort, especially the kids, the teenagers, who we thought might be a little wary of those who were picketing in front.”
And although the anti-gay conversion picketers didn’t end up rallying more than two people in the front of the center, the Feldmans were among the first to sign up to defend what they believe in — many protestors or not.
“Mary Jo was saying, ‘You and Larry were among the first people to be escorts, we didn’t know how many protestors would be there and you said you would walk side by side with some of our teens who feel scared,’” Sandy Feldman said. “I said to her, ‘You were surprised because you didn’t think a couple of little old Jewish people would be a formidable force to accompany people (laughs)?’”
“We’re small but mighty,” Larry Feldman laughed.
That resolve is just one of many reasons why the Feldman’s are receiving OutCenter’s 2018 Allies of the Year award. On Saturday, June 16, the couple will be honored at Lake Effect Pride. Sandy Feldman said that both she and her husband are thrilled to get the news.
“Larry and I were really touched to receive the email from Mary Jo,” she said. “And especially because there are so many good foot soldiers that are connected to the OutCenter that do so much to try to make their outreach successful and have the center be a resource for vulnerable people for Southwest Michigan. It’s really not an award for us, but it represents all the people who work together, gay and straight, for the LGBT people in this area.”
Being a Resource
And the small and mighty couple has spent their entire life in some way involved in social justice work. Originally based out of Chicago, the Feldmans first became involved in fighting social disparities when they began working as psychotherapists — Larry Feldman as a psychiatrist and Sandy Feldman as a clinical social worker.
“We were really aware of a lot of discrimination that people in the community were dealing with and we began seeing a number of people in psychotherapy who detailed their experiences,” Sandy Feldman said. “(That) really brought the struggle to light for us and we’re touched to be listed (today) in some centers as safe people to come to for therapy.”
And though they began to gain an understanding of the effects of racial bias on their clients, it was a familial connection that tied the Feldmans to the LGBTQ community.
“The underlying commitment came from loving my little sister who came out in mid-life as a lesbian and fell in love with my sister-in-law,” Sandy Feldman said. “We are very connected with them and their joys and their struggles. We’ve traveled with them and we’ve seen moments of discrimination and judgment, and it’s really strengthened our resolve to try to be a resource, not just for our family and friends, but to be a resource in the greater community.”
The couple eventually moved to Oak Park, Illinois, where they started to put that drive for social justice and equality to work. It was in that village that they were honored as Allies of the Year for the first time, when they helped pass an ordinance in favor of spousal benefits for LGBTQ partnerships.
“It feels strange looking back on this,” Larry Feldman said. “That was over 20 years ago.”
And though the couple moved 30 minutes south of Benton Harbor in an effort to gain some peace and quiet soon after they received their Illinois ally award, they never could keep themselves from getting involved in a cause they were passionate about.
“When we both moved here, we both had some books in progress that we were working on. Larry’s was actually a book highlighting discrimination and challenging some of the attacks on LGBT folks. We had this idea, we had this little house in the woods and we would complete our writing and consolidate some of the lessons we’ve learned,” Sandy Feldman said. “We saw a newspaper article saying that there was a meeting at Lake Michigan college area to see how they could address the racial divide. Larry saw that notice and said, ‘Well we could take some time out to go to one meeting and share what we learned in project unity in Oak Park.’ By the end of that meeting we had signed on for three committees and we have been really active for the 19 years since then.”
Still, their public involvement with movements for social change hasn’t been without repercussions. The Feldmans said that they’ve often been the target of disgruntled peoples’ attacks. For instance, they both often write letters to the editors of a variety of publications in hopes of bringing progressive perspectives to the fore and have received their share of blowback.
“We’ve gotten threatening letters, threatening emails, threatening phone calls, a virulent tape of a hostile anti-LGBT sermon that had been delivered by an anti-LGBT pastor that had been taped to our front door,” Sandy Feldman said.
However, she said that whenever she and her husband felt scared because of the work that they were doing, she worked to remind herself and her husband of the importance of their work.
“It became really clear that what we were dealing with was just a small percentage that the vast majority of LGBT people have had to endure and struggle with their whole life,” she said. “And we should certainly have enough courage to stay in the fray. We both enjoy white privilege and straight privilege that some of the people who we love and people who we work with do not have.”
That knowledge is what has helped the couple stand together — whether it comes to personal attacks or in the case of attacks against organizations like OutCenter. When asked how to deal with the often negative aspects of campaigning for LGBTQ and racial rights, the Feldmans said the answer was simple.
“We certainly sometimes feel disheartened, but the best antidote to that is to get back to work and ask, ‘What can we do to counter the hate’ and, ‘What can we do to bring more positive energy to the community?’” he said.
And lastly, Sandy Feldman emphasized that “action is the antidote to powerlessness.”
To get involved in the OutCenter or find out more about Larry and Sandy Feldman’s classes and groups, go online to outcenter.org.