My first school visit went a little off the chains.
For those of you who don't know, I'm on a month long driving tour of the South and Midwest. It's The Trevor Project Awareness Tour with Bill Konigsberg, and every week I'll be writing about my journey here.
Yesterday I went to South Houston High School. It was the second stop on my tour, and the first school. I was excited to speak to the students about my coming out story, share with them some words of encouragement and connection and tell them about the fine resources offered by The Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth.
I was aware this wasn't necessarily an all-gay audience, but I felt pretty comfortable in knowing that my message would be important to all sorts of kids -- not just LGBTQ, but those might become allies, those with LGBTQ friends.
When I arrived, though, I learned a few things about which I was not aware. The very kind librarian who invited me explained to me that this had been made an after-school event because the principal was concerned about an LGBTQ-themed message during school hours. Also, she told me that every other area school that she'd spoken to on my behalf had declined my visit, citing concerns about parental reactions. Finally, she mentioned that it was okay if I mentioned I was gay, but that I probably shouldn't focus there. After all, she said, that's not the theme of your books.
I'm a nice boy. I always have been. I'm a big-time people pleaser. I nodded and smiled and said, "Sure thing."
Meanwhile, in my brain, I was freaking out. As it turns out, coming out is a major theme in two of my books, and my most recent, The Porcupine of Truth, includes a lesbian who is thrown out of her home by her religious parents. How was I going to tell my story and talk about these books without focusing on the "G" word?
Then something happened inside me, and for once, I put away the nice.
I realized that the very fact that so many schools declined my invitation, and that this school wanted me to talk about LGBTQ suicide statistics (The Trevor Project information I promised to impart) without focusing on the word "gay," was the problem. How do you let LGBTQ teens, who are three times more likely to die by suicide, know that they matter, that their lives have value, while avoiding the subject like it was something to be ashamed or afraid of?
So I went rogue. I told my story as I always tell it. I minced no words. After, the librarian looked a little shell-shocked. When I asked her how she felt it went, she said, "Well, it is what it is." She later told me that she did hear one complaint from a teacher who wished she had known in advance more about what was going to be discussed.
After, a boy told me that he was afraid that his very conservative father would throw him out of the house if he came out. I told him what I always tell kids: safety first. If you don't have a support system, a place to live, etc., don't put yourself in harm's way if you can help it. There's a reason approximately 40 percent of homeless kids identify as LGBTQ.
And it occurred to me that he had needed to hear what I said. He'd needed it, and I felt good that I'd been there for him.
This is not to say I feel particularly brave about what I did yesterday. In fact, what I did is akin to a hit-and-run. I don't have to be around for the repercussions. I feel badly for the librarian. She is a wonderful person and I appreciate the invitation. She was brave for inviting me. I hope I haven't put her in a bad position, and yet at the same time, I'm not sorry. I did what I needed to do.
The bravery we really need, however, is from those principals who declined my invitation to speak, free of charge. Those who fear parents who will object to an openly gay man coming into their kids' school to talk about why suicide is not the right answer, gay, straight or otherwise. Because those parents are wrong. Not talking about this is the problem. And those principals are in a position to be brave, and do right by the students who need this message.
I don't know if this blog will result in me losing some school appearances. I hope not. I desperately want to be part of the solution. And now, I must say, the problem is crystal clear to me.