I came out to my parents on a Thursday night at 11 p.m. I was 24 years old. That next day I found myself in the empty sanctuary of the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in my hometown of Vincennes, Ind. Local folks call it the Old Cathedral. I was kneeling in a front pew, crying, asking God to change me. I didn't want my life to be destroyed by homosexuality. I'd been struggling with my sexual orientation for as long as I could remember, since before I even knew what it was.
When I was a 17-year-old junior in high school, a senior classmate of mine who was perceived to be gay was murdered. His name was Brent. There is some speculation on what happened on the night of his death; his murder was never solved. Some family members still debate his sexual orientation. Nevertheless, I was no different than he. We were of the same time: Rock Hudson had recently died of AIDS, the disease wiped out whole communities of gay men, and yet I was still attracted to certain male classmates. I was frightened. I had no gay role models, no resources to confirm or explain my feelings. I needed someone to tell me that it gets better!
Growing up I bounced between my stepfather's Presbyterian church, my mother's Baptist church, and my paternal grandparents' Catholic church. Each house of God sent a clear message regarding the evils of homosexuality. By the spring of 1986, after Brent's decomposing body was found dumped in a drainage ditch in a farm field, the message again resounded from pulpits all over town. My high school teachers, administrators, and counselors remained silent. Only recently did a former high school counselor express her regret at not having bucked the status quo and talked with students about Brent's murder. It would have been helpful if she had.
Eventually I left my southern Indiana roots and moved to Miami. I began teaching for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. It's been in Miami that I've settled into myself. Yet, on occasion, I still find myself having to "come out." That's the thing about coming out: It's never over. One must do it again, and again, and again. But I've been lucky: I have the loving support of family and friends as well as my Miami-Dade County Public Schools colleagues, faculty, and administrators. And it is a goal that no student of mine, regardless of his or her sexual orientation, ever feel like I once did, like there is no one to whom he or she may turn. My students have the opportunity to see a successful adult, a teacher, a writer, and a local active citizen, who happens to be gay. And I'm not the only one. There are many educators, business leaders, houses of worship, community activists, athletes, and parents who want our local students to see and experience positive representations of the LGBTQ community.
Recently Miami-Dade County Public Schools' Sexual Minority Network offered a professional development workshop, "Educator Strategies for LGBTQ Student Support," with participating organizations like Safe Schools South Florida, Equality Florida, and the GSA Network. One of the most remarkable aspects of the workshop (and there were many) was that the event was hosted in the fellowship hall of the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ. According to their website:
The members of Coral Gables Congregational UCC have declared themselves an "Open and Affirming" congregation, which means that all people regardless of sexual orientation, gender identities, and gender expressions are welcome into the full life and ministry of the church.
Having grown up in rural, conservative, predominately Christian southern Indiana, the idea of an open and affirming church is alien to me. Not unlike Mark, the young gay male protagonist in playwright extraordinaire Del Shores' play Southern Baptist Sissies, who says that his church "is where we learned to hate ourselves," I experienced condemnation from my hometown church and folks who considered themselves good, God-fearing Christians. I understand Mark. And I agree with him. The thing is that it's not just church. Many LGBTQ students also learn to hate themselves in school.
Workshop presenter Isabel Rodriguez-Duncan, the Sexual Minority Network Coordinator for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said:
We, the teachers, administrators, counselors, and schools, have an obligation to maintain safety, to maintain a safe school for all students. If LGBT students are safe, all students are safe, because LGBT students are the most discriminated group in school.
For some LGBTQ students, religion can be a risk factor, and school may be their only safe zone.
The workshop organizers assembled a panel of LGBT youth who shared their stories of struggle and triumph. They were courageous, to say the least. The first young man, a 20-year-old University of Miami student, spoke of his experience at age 15 in English class:
There was a one-sided discussion on homosexuality taking place. Most of my classmates were in agreement and saying, "It's wrong," or, "It's against God's word." The English teacher did nothing to interject an opposing viewpoint or stop the class discussion. One girl finally stood up, faced the class, and said, "You don't know how hard it is not to hold my girlfriend's hand just to please people like you," and then she walked out of the classroom. That girl standing up made a difference in my life. She showed me it was OK to be who you are. She is why I'm comfortable saying I'm gay.
Another panel participant spoke about the experience of having her first girlfriend in middle school. Things were tough for the two, and their relationship didn't last. "I hoped in high school the experience of having a girlfriend would be better," she said. "It wasn't." She suffered from bullying and was ostracized by the female student body thanks to misguided information. It was assumed that because she was a lesbian, she wanted to kiss all the other girls. She shared with us:
One day after school, a Wednesday, I went to the bathroom with my new girlfriend. We shared a kiss. In that moment I heard another girl in the restroom gasp. Our kiss had been witnessed. The onlooker ran out, and soon an administrator entered and escorted my girlfriend and me from the restroom to the principal's office.
She said that the principal told her, "Public displays of affection are not allowed. You have a choice: we can call your mother or the police." Sobbing, she told us:
I begged him not to call my mother. In that moment I knew the relationship with my mother would never be the same. I'd been building up walls around myself, and now my mother was going to find out. The principal made me feel ashamed of myself. He pushed me to out myself to my mother. I begged. I pleaded with him not to make me do it.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, it is against the law for a school to disclose a student's sexual orientation or gender identity to parents or anyone else without permission.
The remaining panelist spoke of a male former classmate, a flamboyant boy with whom she rode the school bus:
One day at the bus stop, two other boys got off with him. They jumped him and beat him terribly. He missed two weeks of school. When he did return, his face was really messed up. That made me want to keep the fact I was gay to myself. But my mother found out. She told me I was a disgrace to God. She told me I was disgusting. She punched me, kicked me, beat me. She made me feel everything she was saying. She made me hate myself.
Workshop attendees did not miss the irony of the fact that after having witnessed her flamboyant classmate's beating and worrying that she too might suffer his fate, she was beaten by her own mother.
Just before the youth panel testimonials, we workshop attendees were alerted that the funeral of a military officer who was killed in action was taking place in the main sanctuary of Coral Gables Congregational. Out of respect, we were asked to refrain from applauding these courageous young men and women sharing their stories. We were asked instead to utilize the ASL sign for applause by waving our hands aloft. It was our way of honoring and showing respect for a man who gave his life for our freedom, and for the man's grieving family and friends, our way of honoring this son, husband, father, and soldier lying in state just a room away. It was apropos, I thought, paying our respect with silent applause for the LGBTQ students bearing their souls in the fellowship hall. The same souls had been forced to remain silent for most of their young lives, fearing ostracism by their family, friends, and schools. Isn't their freedom to be who they are, their freedom to live without fear, an inalienable right? Isn't protecting liberty and justice for all why the military officer being mourned died? Yet the disturbing truth is that our LGBTQ youth are suffering, and that suicide is their leading cause of death. According to Safe Schools South Florida, national statistics state that:
- Gay and lesbian youth are two to six times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth.
LGBTQ youth experience relentless physical and verbal harassment, and now, with online bullying, there is no escape. It is 24/7. If LGBTQ youth aren't safe at home, and they aren't safe in their place of worship, shouldn't they be safe at school? The GSA Network points out that more heterosexual students than LGBTQ students are harassed and bullied because they're perceived to be LGBTQ. Nevertheless, LGBTQ students are still disproportionately affected by anti-LGBTQ harassment. The lesson: Homophobia and transphobia affect all students. And they affect their education. To reiterate what Mrs. Rodriguez-Duncan said, "We, the teachers, administrators, counselors, and schools, have an obligation to maintain safety, to maintain a safe school for all students."
I remember how frightened I was to come out to my parents. I remember the fear of being ostracized by my high school classmates, or worse, ending up dead in a ditch and my community being utterly apathetic. I knew that my church did not want my kind. Yet somehow I managed. The irony of my story is that God answered my prayer that Friday afternoon in the Old Cathedral. I asked Him to change me, and He did. I asked Him to not let homosexuality destroy my life, and it did not. My homosexuality is a gift that enriched my life beyond measure. That is the lesson that I want all my students to learn: Who they are is a gift! And fortunately my students, both LGBTQ and not, have the school system in their corner. It makes me proud to be a Miami-Dade County Public Schools teacher.