Saturday, December 17, 2016

Coming Out Remains a Daunting Challenge

Earlier in the month I wrote about a decision by the Virginia Beach school board to cancel a gay-straight alliance assembly at Cox High School.  The event has now purportedly rescheduled and I had an unhappy telephone call with one school board member who did not appreciate my "assume the worse until proven otherwise" attitude given my many years of activism within that school division. The call ended with me telling the board member that I would wait to be proven wrong.  During the shit storm of negative local, national and international news coverage that the school board created for itself (something that the board has an amazing talent to do), The Virginian Pilot ran a guest column by  New York resident Grace Bonney, founder of DesignSponge and author of “In the Company of Women.” What made the column so striking is that I know Grace and her parents. She attended school and swam for years on the neighborhood swim team with my children for years. While taking the Virginia Beach School Board to task, Grace also explained the torment that so many LGBT teens still experience.  Here are highlights from her excellent piece: 
IN 1994, I was an eighth-grader at Lynnhaven Middle School. It was that year that I would have my first, but not last, experience with homophobia.
I fell in love with my best friend, who happened to be a girl, like me. At an age when I should have felt free to ask questions and be curious about who I was, I was shut down quickly and swiftly by students who figured out the nature of my relationship before I had time to understand it myself.
Their bullying took the form of notes at first, passed in front of me and left in my locker. Then they found it funny to cough and whisper “dyke” when my friend and I walked the hallway.
Discussions of these complicated feelings didn’t go well at home. And Lynnhaven Middle had no Gay-Straight Alliance or LGBTQ+ club for me to turn to. So instead, I spoke to no one. I became someone who spoke up less and doubted myself more. I was afraid of being singled out. To be noticed felt like being caught. It was then that I realized that the spaces I once thought were welcoming and safe were not.
Rumors of my sexuality followed me into high school at First Colonial, where I spent most of my freshman year convincing people that I wasn’t “that girl” and that no — I didn’t have crushes on all my female friends. I kept my head down, worked hard and, when college rolled around, I got as far away from Virginia Beach as I could.
It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I faced the truth about my sexuality. I was afraid of not being accepted and loved for who I really was, and I was afraid for my physical safety if I lived openly and honestly. On a daily basis, I was reminded that those fears were still justified in most places in the United States.
I’ve worked hard to overcome the damage done as the result of living in a community and school system that wasn’t more outwardly accepting and supportive of LGBTQ+ students. But as much as it pains me to admit, there is still a part of me that has internalized that homophobia and thinks I should be a little quieter and a little less open, loud and proud about who I am.
But that voice — that self-hatred and self-doubt — is exactly the voice we have to stop the next generation of children from hearing.
Most people assume that because more people from the LGBTQ+ community live openly and are depicted on TV and movie screens that things are better — safer, even. But openly LGBTQ+ students are still the victims of bullying on a daily basis, both online and off, especially in spaces like schools that should be safe havens. And according to The Trevor Project, each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.
So when I heard that Cox High School had postponed its very first gay pride assembly, I was confused and heartbroken. The school said officials had decided (one day before the event was scheduled) to be “more inclusive.” If Cox does not see the heartbreaking irony in asking students who are routinely excluded to make their event more inclusive (especially when it never excluded any students or required them to attend), they are missing a much bigger point.
In addition, School Board member-elect Victoria Manning told The Pilot that “this is a controversial subject, and I do not believe it is appropriate to hold a gay pride event during instructional time.”
By suggesting that LGBTQ+ pride is controversial, Manning is sending the message that students who were born gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex or asexual are somehow inherently problematic. I for one am tired of seeing LGBTQ+ people, especially students, asked to take a seat, be quiet and wait while the rest of the world gets more comfortable with our very existence.
No person, student or otherwise, should ever feel that their voice isn’t worth hearing and supporting. No person should ever feel their identity is controversial.
As an alumna of this school system, I expect and demand better from the people who are shaping the next generation of students in our hometown. And as someone who knows what it feels like to put someone else’s comfort ahead of my own for years, I can tell you that the results can lead to permanent damage.
Ironically, Grace and I were struggling with similar feelings and fears in what we both seeming felt to be isolation, consumed with fear of discovery.  It took me many more years than Grace to come to terms with my sexuality as I finally came out in late 2001.   What is so disturbing is that people like school board member elect Victoria Manning continue to act as if LGBT individuals are controversial as they prostitute themselves to Christofascists who strive to unconstitutionally impose their toxic religious beliefs on all.  Religious belief has ZERO place in the public schools. ZERO!  I continue to wait to see if my worse fears about the Virginia Beach School Board were justified or not.

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