October 11th was National Coming Out Day. Niles North's GSA Club organized a panel discussion that was made available every period for faculty, staff and students to attend. A host of very giving, insightful, courageous and caring students, parents and teachers shared their stories with a minimum of 9 audiences that day. A teacher colleague of mine composed and read a letter to our students. It was beautiful. And an authentic "life" lesson plan. I asked her if it she would be okay with using it as a guest post on my blog in order to reach even more individuals. My heartfelt thanks for her permission, authenticity, and generosity.
"While preparing for today, I’ve been reflecting on what it has been like to come to terms with my own sexuality as a child and to learn to live courageously as an adult. But with all of the stories in the media regarding the injustice associated with issues of sexual assault, Islamophobia and Black lives, I have to admit that I’ve had a difficult time dwelling on my own struggles and journey. As a result of this reflection, I've written the following thoughts that I am honored to share with you today:
I grew up in the 60s and 70s in a small town downstate where people were afraid of gays, blacks, women's lib, Russians and Jews, just to mention a few. The only thing that I feared was public speaking, gay people and perhaps unknowingly, myself. I was insecure, immature and in most situations, a follower. I recall playing coed volleyball during my junior year of high school. As I looked across the net, I noticed a very lanky and effeminate boy standing awkwardly. I shouted "fag" as he ducked and ran away from the spiked ball headed in his direction. Unknowingly, our mothers worked together and during the next summer, I finally met the boy whom I had bullied with a single word.
When I started teaching in the late 80s, I was one of three female science teachers at Maine East High School. I didn’t know of any other gay teachers and there were no organizations such as GSA that supported students. There were no state or federal laws that protected my job based on my sexual preference, no domestic partnership benefits, and gay marriage seemed an impossible dream. I pretended that my roommate, Dirk, who was also gay, was my boyfriend.
But by the early 90s, a brilliant PR and social justice movement emerged, driven by the impact of AIDS, which encouraged gay people to no longer live secretly. “Silence equals death” was the slogan and stars like Elton John, Melissa Etheridge and Ellen "came out" to the world. As many families learned that either their uncle, child or even mother was gay, the gay community slowly but surely gained straight allies over the next two decades. In 2014, perhaps one of the biggest surprises in my life, gay marriage was legalized in the US.
The LGBTQ community still needs straight allies, just as Blacks and other minorities need White allies. Women need men to stand up against sexist language and behavior. Rape culture cannot be ended if only women care enough to try to stop it. Muslims need Christians, Jews and even atheists to support their religious freedom. Transgender people need the support of all of us who are comfortable with our given gender. Silence equals death is for each of us, for all of our differences and all of our special needs.
Statistics are facts and facts cannot be argued or denied. According to the FBI’s latest report, there were 6,727 victims of hate crimes in 2014. Of the 5,462 single-bias incidents reported, 47 percent were racially motivated. Other motivators included sexual orientation, and gender identity which accounted for 21% and religion, ethnicity, disability, comprised 32% of the crimes. Every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia all have the same thing in common. Fear. I have found that when people make or post sexist, racist or anti-gay comments, they create a false sense of self-empowerment and satisfaction. Support from like minded friends gives them a bit more perceived power but it's the silence from the masses that empowers them the most. If we say “No”, or question them, we take away that false sense of righteousness. Driven by cowardice and fear, confrontation typically silences them, and in my experience results in quickly disappearing Facebook posts.
I am thankful that my religious preference is not the first thing people think about when they meet me and perhaps many of you didn't even know that I am gay. I have the privilege of never ever having to think about racial discrimination affecting me or my family never having to give my daughter "the talk.” I guess I wouldn't be gay if I were transgender, but I can't even imagine the obstacles I would face and have to overcome to change my gender. I do have the privilege of being White and I do pledge to spend the rest of my life advocating for under represented minorities. After a couple weeks reflection, I think my journey has been pretty easy for which I'm grateful.
Not much has changed in my hometown of Taylorville. The fear of Russians has transformed into fear of Muslims, gays are still scary but not as much as the transgender people (especially while using the bathroom) and people unhappy with the town’s increasing diversity blame the increase in Black population on the local prison which was built in the 80s.
This past June, one of my best friends whom I loved like a brother took his own life. He was 52 years old, a U of I graduate and an attorney for a federal judge. He was the kindest, funniest and most giving person I have ever met. Still living in Taylorville, he had never married, never dated to my knowledge, and was most likely transgender. His happiest moments were on Halloween when he dressed up as Cher or Stevie Nicks and danced, and spun and sang. He was incidentally, that very same boy whom I called a fag in high school.
Do you want to return to Skokie in 50 years to find that the same fears, racism, sexism, etc. still plaguing your community? If I can face and finally conquer my fear of public speaking, apologize for calling someone gay after coming to terms with my own sexuality, and learn why Black Lives need to Matter, then you can face your fear of others who are different than you. You can learn to face and conquer your fears. Each one of you can become an ally for one person, one cause. It’s not who you are to today, but who you will become that is most important. The question is, what can you do with your privilege?
Male, female, Lesbian Gay, bisexual, transgender, straight, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Black, White, Brown. They are all labels. Human constructs satisfy our innate desire to categorize and divide in order to understand, but they CAN NOT be used to segregate and isolate us from one another. To learn, we must listen.
In closing, I'd like to share a quote from Shannon Alder:
'There comes a time in your life when you can no longer put off choosing. You have to choose one path or the other. You can live safe and be protected by people just like you, or you can stand up and be a leader for what is right. Always, remember this: People never remember the crowd; they remember the one person that had the courage to say and do what no one [else] would do.' ~Shannon L. Alder
I thank you so much for listening today with an open heart and mind."