The Empowering Spirits Foundation is a national gay rights organization dedicated to fostering non-confrontational dialogue with our non lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) neighbors. It was formed by A. Latham Staples on the idea that by bringing people together with differing opinions ESF could help promote an understanding of the LGBT community. Changing minds and hearts is important to Staples, having experienced discrimination in the community, and at work.
Though Staples was a top-ranked sales representative for a Fortune 50 company in Nashville, Tennessee, he accepted a job-transfer opportunity to Oklahoma City due to ongoing harassment by his boss and other company employees for being gay. At the time, Staples felt that by removing himself from the environment he could better his situation. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Though he was promoted to a position of being an integral part in the training and development of new-hires, the harassment continued. Feeling the attacks would fail to cease, Staples ultimately resigned and relocated to Texas to be near his family.
"I moved home and was ready to put everything behind me and start over,” said Staples. “All I wanted to do was to go to work, do my best, then go home. I loved my new job and was very successful, but I soon realized that the same culture of intolerance that had reared its ugly head at my previous employer was festering at my present one."
After his new employer in Texas asked him about his sexuality publicly (in front of a large group of his co-workers and peers), Staples again moved, this time to California where he felt he could live in an area considered more 'liberal in nature.'
On June 17, 2008 Staples and his partner of two years became one of the first same-sex couples to wed in California.
"Things seemed to have improved - I married the person that I loved, and had many friends in the community who could have cared less that I was gay," he added.
As the November, 2008 election neared Staples was among those who volunteered his time to assist with the “No on Proposition 8” campaign, which opposed a ballot measure which, if approved, would nullify the decision of the California State Supreme Court which allowed same-sex couples to marry.
"On election day I volunteered to work all day at the polling location near my home," said Staples. "Our goal was to make sure voters understood what a yes or no vote meant on Prop. 8 since there was so much misinformation being spread. The events of that day transformed me forever."
The day itself was tumultuous. Staples had a drink poured on him, was told numerous times that he would 'burn in hell,' was spit on, and had a pastor shove him after unsuccessfully trying to have him removed from the polling location.
"I couldn't believe the way people were acting," he continued. "As a Christian I believe in tolerance, love for one another, acceptance – and the manner in which these people were acting was abhorrent. I consistently found myself thinking 'Ok you don’t agree with my viewpoint, but is it really necessary to degrade a person because of their sexual orientation?'"
That night Proposition 8 passed by a margin of 52% to 48%, making same-sex marriage illegal in the state of California. Since that time Staples became more committed than ever to promote equality.
"I used to be a pretty private person, and still am to some degree. But I realized after five years of being persecuted that I couldn't sit back and wait for things to change anymore," he added. "This was and still is about being treated as an equal, love for your fellow man. It was time that I took action."
Staples shut down his recently formed healthcare recruitment firm with the goal of working for the same civil rights organization he had volunteered with; but after the organization publicly criticized Mormons who were touted as having bankrolled the "Yes on 8" Campaign, he realized his perspective of how to seek change was different.
"Minority groups were being attacked as well, and I thought to myself, 'The bitterness must end – we aren’t granting to others the same respect for a differing opinion we are seeking,'" added Staples.
Staples, who has been involved with numerous charitable organizations throughout his life, decided the best way to proceed was by approaching individuals in a non-divisive and positive manner to further understanding of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
"Gay rights marches, protests and parades are wonderful tools to celebrate your differences and rally the base," added Staples. "But they do little to change the mindset of those who are against us or those who just don't understand the differences. Differing sides may not always agree, but we must not focus on pious trivialities as this corrupts our society. Only through social dialogue and shared sacrifices will humanity progress, and only through understanding can equality advance."
And with that, on November 11, 2008 the Empowering Spirits Foundation (ESF) was formed as a way to give back to society, and as a tool to promote dialogue in areas traditionally opposed to gay rights through non-confrontational means.
"I am amazed at the number of people who come up to me after an event and say that they are sorry for their previous vote against us, or that they never knew a gay person but that we dispelled any stereotypes they may have had," stated Staples. "This is the whole point of ESF, to engage people in a method that allows for them to get to know us as typical people in society – their neighbors, co-workers, friends."
The greatest example of the power of ESF's message is displayed through a gift the foundation received as a donation.
"During an ESF tree-planting event an 84-year-old volunteer from a partnering church saw my wedding ring and asked where my wife was. I pointed jokingly to my husband, she was confused. I explained that we were one of the first couples to legally wed in California. The rest of the day we merely worked together discussing other issues."
Months later Staples received a package from the same woman whose husband had passed away. The note included stated, "After seeing your love for your husband I want to donate our wedding rings. I voted to take away your right to wed, with these rings I want to help give it back."
To date ESF has held over 150 events across 42 cities nationwide. ESF members engage in service-oriented activities in communities typically opposed to equal rights. In working side-by-side with these individuals, ESF hopes many may come to see similarities rather than differences, and that they can engage in dialogue through non-confrontational means to promote an understanding of the LGBT community.