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Marni Zimlin: A lesbian’s mission to support fight against AIDS

“I never thought I’d be coming to China. I’m loving it!” Marni told sino-us.com in the office of Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, where she was waiting to meet with a group of workers from a LGBT organization and teach them about community fundraising.

The story of Marni Zimlin may be ordinary, as it shares similarities with that of many in the LGBT community; at the same time it is also extraordinary because not many can say so proudly that “I am the change I wish to see in the world.”

Marni participating in the China AIDS Walk 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Marni

Passing on the wisdom

Marni is a senior cyclist representative of AIDS/LifeCycle, a 7-day bike ride activity from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money and awareness in the fight against HIV/AIDS and a staff member of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. She came to China to participate in the second China AIDS Walk in October 2013 and deliver in person the funds she raised in the US, which amounted to 30,000 yuan. During her short stay in Beijing, she has been busy meeting people from various LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations and sharing with them her knowledge and experience as a fund-raiser working for a non-profit organization.

“Oh I am on vocation,” Marni laughed. “It is cool. I am not that kind of vacationer. I love to be able to offer my experience and knowledge to help. If anything could be translated and used for the work here, I have served my purpose.”

Marni has been involved with work for the LGBT community and for AIDS/LifeCycle for five years. “The year I rode (2010), I raised over 21,000 dollars for the cause. I have never done anything like that before. It was a wonderful experience.” When a job opened at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, one of the two organizers of the ride where Marni has been volunteering, she immediately applied and was offered the job.

“I wanted to be able to share with other people the experience I had, support them and help them realize that they could also do this,” Marni said in a sincere voice, “I want to raise as much money and awareness around HIV/AIDS as possible, and help make a real difference in that way.”

At the Center, Marni volunteers on the social committee for the Emerging Leaders Program, which supports several groups of young LGBT activists from China to visit the US and do an internship. “Through the program, I get to meet interns from China regularly, accommodate their needs and share with them what we have done.”

“We only talked about what worked for us. We don’t know what’s going to work in China,” Marni said, “It’s delightful to see the motivation the interns get from the program. Through the Center and the movement in LA, they could see a future even though it is so hard to break through every little thing.”

“I never thought I’d come to China before I worked for the program. And when I come here, I am really happy to see that the LGBT community is taking shape, and people are getting together to raise awareness and support each other. That’s the only way to create change.”

The chance to come to China came through Xiaogang, initiator of China AIDS Walk who Marni met from the ride they did together in 2010 and became good friends. The success of the first China AIDS Walk in 2012 inspired her greatly and she wanted to help. “AIDS does not discriminate. It's a global issue. I have never known a world without AIDS and I would like to see that one day.”

Marni poses for photo in a small test room at Beijing Gender Health Education Institute. HIV test kits lie on the side. Photo: sino-us.com

Inspired by ‘Uncle Fred’

Marni’s inspiration to work for the AIDS cause came from her uncle, who died of the disease in 1994 when the AIDS epidemic, which was called GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome) at the time, exploded in the US. Because of the prejudice and discrimination, Marni’s uncle never came out about his disease. “It was the worst possible thing to tell somebody,” Marni recalled.

“The very first memory of my life that was positive is related to my uncle,” which she recounts beautifully in her webpage she created to raise money for the China AIDS Walk (check it here: http://www.gofundme.com/marniz): “It was 1982 in Saint Augustine, FL and my family went to see my uncle Fred conduct an orchestra at the ballet. I remember the breeze in the parking lot of the theater and the fresh ocean air. I remember the darkness inside the theater. I remember seeing a dim light from the stage area and then the back of my Uncle's arms moving and creating music. I remember the curtain coming up and white angels floating across the stage.”

Marni said the experience aroused her interest in dancing. And she danced for years before she found her career with AIDS/LifeCycle. She wrote on her website, “Every time I visited with my uncle Fred, there was a magical gift that he left behind for me. In many ways he gifted me the world of the arts by opening the doors.”

However, because of the illness, her uncle left her too soon. “They found him collapsed in his apartment in New York City and took him to the hospital. He got better and went back home. Then he got worse again. This time, he was sent to another hospital. The nurses were horrible to him. They did not want to treat him because of his disease. My uncle gave up. It was easier for him to die than to live,” Marni narrated the story in an unusually calm fashion.

And that is why Marni is so passionate about the cause to fight HIV/AIDS and why she decided to single-handedly raise the fund. “It means the world to me,” Marni said.

Marni (second from left) donating the funds she raised to China AIDS Walk and poses in this picture with Xiaogang (second from right) initiator of the Walk and director of  Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, Wei Tingting (first left) and Liushi, both project assistants at the institute. Photo: weibo.com

Coming full circle

Marni’s own journey of accepting herself as a lesbian has not been easy. “I first realized I was gay when I was 11. I didn’t come out. I had an internalized homophobia,” Marni recalled, “That is the way I was brought up. I was taught to think that gay people are wrong. And I didn’t want to be wrong.”

“Culturally, there was nothing there for me,” Marni continued, “In Florida there were no lesbian role models. Growing up as a dancer, I was around a lot of gay men and I knew how they lived. I knew there was a future for them. But not so much with lesbians, who were mostly butch flannel-wearing women that were like men. I told myself I am not like that and I don’t want to grow up to be that.”

Bullying was another big problem. “I faced a lot of bullying for being Jewish when I was growing up. So when I figured out I like girls, I thought, ‘No, I can’t be any more different’.”

So she remained closeted. When she was in high school, she was drawn to the HIV/AIDS cause because of the rampant discrimination and also because of her uncle. She helped to start an HIV/AIDS awareness club and volunteered with a local non-profit organization that helped people who were HIV positive get the treatment they needed, despite the fact that she was still terrified to let people know about her sexual orientation.

The bullying never stopped. Marni recounted an incident in her senior year in high school where some junior students painted her car with the word “dyke”. “I was so upset I didn’t even tell my parents about it.”

After high school, Marni went to a community college but didn’t finish. She started travelling the country. “I moved away from being gay; completely avoided it.” She was constantly on the road, driving and camping, and supported herself by making and selling jewelry along the way and occasionally taking part-time work.

For Marni, the process of acceptance really started at 22 when she gradually began to reveal her sexuality to people around her. “But I didn’t fully come out until I was 27.”

That was when she told her family. “My mom was supportive. But my dad was not,” Marni said in her usual composed manner. His reaction was shocking.

“He came at me with a knife. He got to me. When he touched me, he dropped his knife. I could see the shift in his eyes: dads don’t do this. He stepped back and started screaming and yelling.”

It took four years of therapy for Marni to come to terms with being a lesbian and to find forgiveness in herself for her father's reaction. “It was a really long time. But we are on great terms now. I am going to visit my parents and stay with them over the Thanksgiving holiday this year,” Marni said with a quiet smile.

After a long time on the road, Marni moved to LA. “I was living my life as a gay person. But I wasn’t in tune with the community. I did not even know the Center existed.”

But it all changed because of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative in 2008 that said "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." It was like a wake-up call to Marni. “I started to get back to working for LGBT issues and came into the community through the proposition campaign. I immediately found my passion.”

“It was something I was clearly interested in since I was in high school. All the books I’ve read and all the things I’ve done... But I was previously so afraid of myself that I didn’t go there.”

Through volunteering with the Center, Marni learnt about the AIDS/LifeCycle. She did the ride in memory of her uncle. “The more I got involved with the ride and the Center, the more I saw that this is the thing I should be doing the whole time. I look at it as a full circle. It’s a self-discovery journey to come all the way back to what I am really passionate about which was given to me by my uncle. So I don’t think I am going anywhere different. I am going to stick with it for a really long time.”

 Photo: Courtesy of Marni

Life is good

At the end of the interview, I asked Marni if she is at the best point of her life. Without hesitation, Marni answered, “I think so! I am really supported at the Center. And I am given a lot of opportunities to grow and develop my skills.”

“Plus I got this amazing experience coming to China,” Marni added, “To be able to be a part of the LGBT community getting off the ground here, even in the smallest way, is awesome. It’s exciting to see people finding themselves and building a community to support each other. That is something really powerful and special.”

“Life is pretty good. I am liking it. And there is more to come,” she said.


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