Frontline News: We Kicked the Grim Reaper’s Butt Out of the Castro!

The network is launching a new series on our blog titled “Frontline News.” We hope to bring stories of tobacco control efforts done to help close the tobacco disparities gap.  Have a tale or event you want to share? Shoot us a line and lets get your success out there! But for now…take it away, Brian!

On November 19th, 2009, the day of the Great American Smokeout  (and the Gay American Smokeout), our project, BUTT OUT! held an event we called “Kick the Grim Reaper’s Butt Out of the Castro!”  48 people came out to participate as we thanked the 19 LGBT-serving organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area that have adopted tobacco-free funding policies for saying NO to Big Tobacco. We listened to a wonderful speech from State Senator Mark Leno, and pursued a ten foot tall stilt walker dressed as the Grim Reaper up and down the streets of the Castro and ultimately out of the neighborhood.

I have been asked to share some of the background of and planning for this event, in case people in other communities would like to have a “Grim Reaper event” of their own.
Project Components and Inspiration:
The Grim Reaper represents the lives lost to big tobacco

The most important components of our project’s work plan were (and continue to be) convincing LGBT-serving organizations to adopt written policies declaring that they will not accept funding from tobacco companies, and promoting those policy adoptions that say no to big tobacco so the community becomes aware that tobacco is an LGBT issue and that our leaders are doing something about it.  We didn’t want to just do a press release promoting an “awards dinner”.  For one thing, we were seriously concerned that we wouldn’t get anyone to show up, for another we wanted to spend as little money as possible, and lastly we wanted to do something different that would capture people’s attention.

Our inspiration came from a recent PSA in California that featured a Grim Reaper who removes the cloak to reveal a young woman who passes out free cigarettes for tobacco companies.  Our initial idea was for the five BUTT OUT! project advocates and I to dress as Grim Reapers and silently picket the Castro, but ultimately we decided we would be more likely to get media attention if we hired a professional stilt walker to dress as the Grim Reaper and recruited a crowd of at least 30 people to taunt him and chase him out of the neighborhood.

Publicity :
We hoped having the event on the day of the Great American Smokeout – a day when people all over the country quit smoking for a day – would inspire local media to look for local stories on that theme.  We ran small ads in the gay papers that came out the day of the event, paid for with additional media money provided by our funders – San Francisco Tobacco Free Project –– two of their staff also came to the event, and a few hours before the event began we passed out flyers in the neighborhood.We also knew that the news editor from one of the local gay papers always writes a short piece about what local LGBT tobacco projects are doing for the “Gay American Smokeout.” My husband, Ted Guggenheim, and I both have contacts at the other local gay paper that we often see at local events, so Ted and I began a campaign to convince them to come, which resulted in a great article in the Bay Times.

Brian Davis, Senator Mark Leno and event attendees rally to keep Big Tobacco out of the Castro

I also have  Ted to thank for recruiting Senator Leno to come to the event.  Since BUTT OUT! works with organizations and not elected officials, we chose not to make a concerted effort to recruit local LGBT elected officials  (all of whom have pledged not to accept tobacco donations).  However, Ted passed on the Evite I created for the event to his extensive Facebook friend list (which includes Mark Leno) and the next thing we knew Senator Leno’s office was contacting me asking if he could attend.  Needless to say I was thrilled!

The rest was just putting in the time to get people there and take care of all of the details. I begged everyone at BUTT OUT’s home organization, Breathe California (five total) to come, in addition to anyone I knew who cared about tobacco, including former project advocates and local staff of the American Cancer Society, which began the Great American Smokeout 22 years ago (two of whom came). I also reached out to my contacts at the organizations that had adopted tobacco-free funding policies, asking them to come and receive our thanks (five came), Lastly, the project advocates and I emailed and called each of our friends that we thought might come if we asked, letting them know that this was very important to us, and also a fun way to make a difference.  We called to remind the “yes’s and maybe’s” a week before and again two days before the day of the event.

The Big Day:
Through Craigslist, I found a stilt walker, who works for Boylesque, a local queer performance troupe.  We tried to make the event more festive with the decision to ask everyone to wear skull makeup or a mask, to represent those LGBT community members who have died from tobacco.  We got a few people to volunteer to do makeup and I picked up a few cheap masks before Halloween.  Because we feared that the stilt walker, masks and all might freak out the police, we contacted them to make sure they knew about it.  They were fine with everything as long as we didn’t block traffic and kept the volume low on our borrowed bullhorn.  We wrote chants (“Hey  Hey! Ho Ho! Big Tobacco’s Got to Go!”) and I scripted out virtually the entire evening, choosing speakers that could speak from personal experience about tobacco’s impact on their lives. Check out the great video an event participant from Breathe California produced!

We did have one scare.  A few days beforehand the weather reports predicted that our event would be drenched in rain and heavy wind (not good for a stilt walker or turnout).  Fortunately, the rain held off, but we did have a contingency plan, which was that we would move the rally underneath the broad overhang of the Castro Theatre and cut the marching though the streets short.  We are thinking that if we do this again in the future we might move it to late May (when it doesn’t rain in California) to coincide with World No Tobacco Day.

I’ve probably already written more than you wanted to know, but just in case I didn’t, feel free to contact me.

-Brian Davis
BUTT OUT Project Coordinator and
Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Specialis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: