Aaron Jackson has made quite a statement without even saying a word, just with a little paint.
Jackson, 31, had been hearing about the Westboro Baptist Church and its staunch anti-gay ways for some time, so last year he went online to research the group, starting with where it is based.
He found it in Topeka, Kan., and then just continued his online research with Google Earthand saw that the house right across the street from the church was for sale.
"My first response was, 'No way; that's too good to be true,'" said Jackson, who is straight.
He called the realtor and learned the house was no longer for sale, but the house next to that was for sale.
Jackson's charityPlanting Peace, which has concentrated on rainforest conservation, opening orphanages and deworming programspurchased the home for about $83,000 "with the full intent of painting it the colors of the [gay] pride flag," he said.
The multi-colored painting was done in mid-March.
Jackson will be in Chicago on Friday, May 10 as the keynote speaker for the Legacy Project Gala Luncheon at the Palmer House, starting at noon.
The luncheon's themeTHE LEGACY PROJECT: Making a Difference for LGBT Youthwill celebrate the arrival of the Legacy Walk along Halsted Street in Lakeview last October and the April launch of the Legacy Project Education Initiative (LPEI) for LGBT youth. The luncheon also will feature the first reveal of the 2013 candidates for induction to the Legacy Walk.
Jackson said of his rainbow house: "We knew we would get some publicity for this, but never realized it would become what it has, with so much publicity and so well received worldwide. It's really been a humbling experience to receive support from so many people."
The project, dubbed Equality House, is the first in a new campaign Jackson's Planting Peace plans against Westboro. The house gets about 200 visitors daily, just to have their photo taken in front of it, and about 500 on weekends.
"I never thought it'd become that popular," said Jackson, who lives in the house with two other staff members.
Equality House has not endured any vandalism, and Jackson isn't worried if it ever does. "We have [extra] paint; we'll just re-paint it. We're not leaving, and I'm not too worried about it," he said.
"I've been trying to get my charity into supporting the equality initiative, but I didn't necessarily know what to do, or how to go about doing that. The gay [debate] is so silly to me that we haven't made a lot of progress [going forward]. I keep thinking, 'When are we going to catch up with the times, more or less.'"
The Westboro Baptist Church has made multiple comments, and posted pictures and videos about Equality House and the evils of gay life. The church and Jackson's charity have even tweeted back and forth, he said, "and for the most part, it's been pretty civil."
Jackson has met several church members, including Shirley Phelps-Roper, church spokesperson, and she was "very pleasant," he said. "On a one-to-one basis, they actually are very kind, which is very surprising to some. But when they get in front of a camera, that's when their message changes.
"Our original goal was, there are LGBTQ youth who commit suicide annually, and others who are thinking about it, and part of the reason why is, there's this message out there that, because they are gay, they are less-than. Our goal is simple, to counter that messageand we thought no better place to start than [near] the Westboro Baptist Church. If we help one person, then I think it will be worth it. And I think we have."
Jackson has received letters, emails and calls from young LGBTQ from all over the world, he said, claiming their support and stating how much the Equality House means to them. "We're appreciative and humbled by their support," Jackson said.
Planting Peace soon will launch a national anti-bullying program, one that goes into schools and discusses the topic, Jackson said.
"When I read about what Aaron Jackson had achieved in Topeka, I couldn't help but break into a broad smile. The pictures just tickled me," said Victor Salvo, founder and executive director for The Legacy Project. "The idea to pursue him to be our speaker at this year's luncheon was a lark, really. After a couple of false leads I finally found Planting Peace's website. I was stunned by the success he has achieved in his work on behalf of the children of the world, particularly in Guatemala and Haiti, and on behalf of the environment by addressing the effects of deforestation.
"The sheer audacity of taking on the Westboro Baptist [Church,] right in [its] own back yard, was the icing on the cake. Aaron is such a cool guy. I am thrilled and so very grateful that he will be lending his voice to support our mission to give LGBT kids, who endure taunts and bullying every day, sometimes [even] by their own families, a cultural and historic context for people like themselves. Kids need role models. They need to know that people care."
Jackson said it's "pretty humbling" that The Legacy Project reached out to invite him to speakand he truly admires the mission of The Legacy Project.
"I think it's a phenomenal idea," he said. "Helping to secure the legacy of gay-rights activists, and letting people know what they were able to accomplish, is extremely important for the history of the LGBTQ community."
Jackson was in Chicago in April, speaking in suburban Hinsdale.
"I love Chicago, though unfortunately I don't get to spend much time truly enjoying the city, and I've never been to a Cubs game, yet," he said.
For Legacy Project tickets go to: www.legacyprojectchicago.org/Luncheon_2013_Tickets.html . The May 10 luncheon is hosted by Sean Lewis of WGN TV.