Aaron Jackson, a well-known activist who runs a nonprofit organization called Planting Peace, has just declared Antarctica "the first LGBT-friendly continent." He visited the freezing land the first week of March and unfurled both a rainbow gay-pride flag and a pink-and-blue transgender pride flag.
He explained to New Times: "I was just watching a documentary on Antarctica and thought, 'Aw, man, 'I'd like to visit Antarctica — that would be real interesting. Maybe I should bring a pride flag.' It's not governed by any one country — just international treaties. No government is in charge of Antarctica. That would be interesting if we declared it the first gay-friendly continent. The reality is, no one will be able to tell me it's not."
Jackson flew to Argentina, then joined a cruise on a research vessel. He said the purpose of the trip was to spread "visibility for the need for basic human rights for the LGBT community. It was an honor to carry the pride flag throughout Antarctica, and Planting Peace will not stop fighting for LGBT rights until all sexual minorities experience full, fundamental rights in every corner of the world."
Jackson was deemed a CNN Hero in 2007 after he was featured in a New Times cover story for leading a campaign to deworm children in Haiti who suffer from pinworms. He later opened several orphanages there through Planting Peace. He then expanded his activism, countering the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church's antigay message by painting a house next door in the rainbow colors of the gay-pride flag. It came to be known as the Equality House and is now a top tourist attraction in Topeka.
In addition to these long-term projects, Jackson and his charity have occasionally led other publicity stunts that promote peace and equality. In Fort Lauderdale, he passed out food in support of Arnold Abbott, who was arrested for feeding the homeless, and in Kentucky, he put up a billboard to counter Kim Davis, the clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. "We take these hate messages and we switch them into something positive," Jackson says.
Just before his Antarctica trip, Jackson visited the New Times office.
Jackson, who described himself as "as straight as they come," said he initially thought of gay rights as a minor issue. He thought, "Let them get married so we can work on real issues like climate change and famine."
Planting Peace had not been active in gay rights until Jackson read a news story about a 9-year-old boy, Josef Miles, who in 2012 counterprotested Westboro's "God hates fags" message by holding a sign reading "God hates no one."
Inspired, Jackson logged on to Google Street view and noticed the church was located in a "very quaint quiet, cute-looking neighborhood." He noticed a "for sale" sign on a neighboring house. "I got the idea right away – I thought, 'Wow, that'd be funny to buy it and paint it the color of the pride flag.' I spent probably an hour trying to pull the phone number off the sign." He called a gay realtor in Kansas City who told him, "Son, if you're gay, the last place you want to move in this world is Topeka, Kansas." But the realtor eventually helped execute the plan.
Jackson needed permission from Planting Peace's board of trustees and suggested that "three months [after the publicity stunt] everyone would forget, so a year later we'd get the investment back of $80,000 spent on the house." But instead, "the house became more famous than I could have ever imagined. Three years later, it gets 150 visitors a day." According to the organization's 2013 IRS records, it drew $228,000 in donations that year. Jackson has never drawn a salary from his nonprofit and lives with friends and family between Destin, in the Florida Panhandle, and Weston, in Broward County, when he is not traveling.
Jackson says his understanding of gay rights changed radically in the intervening years after painting the house. He saw firsthand that children are tremendously affected by antigay messaging. "We had children coming forth, saying, 'I'm suicidal.' Gay kids are four to six times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. I wanted kids that drive by to see that someone's sticking up for them."
The activist grew up on a resort in Destin that his grandfather had developed and was groomed for a career in pro golf. He attended Valencia Community College but mostly "sat at home and smoked marijuana all day," he recalls. "But my parents kept enrolling me. I was good at golf, so they let a lot of stuff slide."
At nights, "I'd go to clubs and see all these homeless people in downtown Orlando. They started capturing me in some realm. I wasn't thinking, 'I'm going to launch a worldwide relief effort.' More like, 'Should I buy this guy a hot dog?'"
Looking to volunteer, he called Michael Stoops, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "I just looked up a number. I didn't realize I was calling, like, the homeless czar of the United States. I think he thought it was funny or something." Jackson was directed to help at the Homeless Voice, a newspaper run by Sean Cononie in Hollywood, Florida. Between his work there — where he slept on an office floor — and a trip to Costa Rica, Jackson realized acutely that he had been born into privilege and felt compelled to do something for those less fortunate.
After hearing that 30,000 people a day die of hunger, he did research and discovered he could purchase one ton of food for $350. "I sent out a 500 letters to churches around the United States: Can you sponsor one ton of food? I'll be able to deliver 500 tons of food to Haiti!'" I can't tell you how naive I was. No church responds but one out of Alabama – I would do anything to find out what church that was. They sponsored two tons with a check for $600 or $700. That set me on my path."
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He began planning a trip to deliver the food to Haiti with a family friend who had become a doctor. He gave a tour of the Hollywood homeless shelter to an elderly woman who mentioned that she had just sold her house. Jackson remembers: "Jesus tells her to feed the poor, so she was giving money away to feed the hungry. I had told her I was going to Haiti. At the end of the tour, she wrote a check, folded it, and handed to me. It was for $3,000 for feeding the kids in Haiti, so I had my money. I'm no Christian — I was Christian for about ten minutes — but I cried when that happened. I had chills."
Since his work in Haiti, he has gone on to run six orphanages — four in Haiti and two in India — though the Haiti ones will close soon because of security issues (gunmen stormed one six months ago) and because the children have lived their whole lives there and are aging out of the program.
But not to worry. He will move on to other projects: "I'm about to start deworming in Uganda," he says.
Read more about Jackson's trip in his blog post.