The Holders of the Light

The Overpass Light Brigade’s first visit to Madison included joining the Thursday evening Solidarity Sing Along inside the Capitol, followed by a display of lights outside on the steps. This picture was taken that night, December 1, 2011. Photo by Callen Harty.

A weekend ago members of the Overpass Light Brigade (OLB) gathered on a hillside overlooking the Dane County Airport.  The lit dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol was visible miles in the distance as OLB celebrated the past year by starting to film a documentary about the group.  Not feeling well I only stopped by briefly and then headed home, while others camped out all night in the cold and took turns holding letters that together formed messages of love, peace, and progressive politics.  In a nice twist at one point during the night all of the letters were laid out randomly underneath the stars “spelling nothing,” as the OLB Facebook page said, “full of potential for future messages, bearing witness to the sky.”

It is that kind of intellectual and emotional consideration that makes the Overpass Light Brigade so compelling.  The messages are not simply political talking points, but well-considered thoughts brought forth in light.  Despite the simplicity of holding letters together to form words and phrases there is something elementally powerful about the Overpass Light Brigade.  The OLB ordinarily holds political messages on overpasses above highways in Milwaukee, Madison, and elsewhere, but it has also held signs of peace and signs of empathy after tragedy.  It has taken its messages to places in need of support and solidarity.  It responds to the moment in which the holders currently live, making it more resonant with both the message holders and the message receivers.

Each time the group shows up on a bridge somewhere the message is utterly new, fresh, and meaningful.  It is one of the reasons why so many people want to be a part of it.  Hundreds of people have held the lights since the group’s inception and thousands upon thousands have seen the messages, honking wildly, waving, and even occasionally raising a middle finger or screaming.  I held the “C” in “Recall” the first time the OLB came to Madison, until I relinquished it so that I could get photos.  Several times since then I have held letters on bridges or elsewhere and I am proud to be one of the countless who have done so.

Those who assist earn the title of Holder of the Light and I think that is part of the draw.  It is considered (and feels like, and is) an honor to be a Holder of the Light.  Everything about the group is grass roots, from the creation of the letters to the decisions about the messages and locations, to the people who participate.  The Holders of the Light own the experience.  In addition, it feels familial.  There is a cameraderie and a deep respect among the light holders.  There is shared passion and shared experience which creates a bond.

And there is something deeper than just holding a board with a letter created from LED lights.  There is symbolism in the nature of the act.  Each individual is important to the success of the evening’s message, yet there is only meaning if all of the individuals work together, a microcosm of what our society should be but all too often is not.

Further, and incredibly significant, it is light.  The holders are shining a light both literally and figuratively onto the collective consciousness of our cities, our state, and nation.  What passing motorist can fail to reflect upon a message of light?  What holder could not feel honored to be a part of spreading light into the dark recesses of our nation’s soul?  I hold that light and the Overpass Light Brigade in deepest respect and deep in my heart.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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2 Responses to The Holders of the Light

  1. Daisy says:

    “There is symbolism in the nature of the act.” Very true. Holder a simple letter as part of a simple message is a great way to speak volumes to the world.

  2. ruleoflaw says:

    I was next to you, holding the A. Nice pic.

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