True Story: From Fear to Equality

Twenty years ago, I led a multicultural committee made up of about half the teachers at my high school. My interest had been in making sure that across the curriculum, we recognized the accomplishments and unique histories of people from many backgrounds. I had done work on science achievements around the world, great mathematicians from every continent and the American experiences of various immigrant groups to our nation. Other teachers on our committee though were more interested in organizing an event than in curricular reform.  I went along with the majority and set about creating a Diversity Day at the school, calling people I knew to share their cultures with us -- a bonsai gardener from Japan, a martial arts expert from Korea, drummers from West Africa, a world class wheelchair racer, and dancers from Mexico.

Looking for more ideas and contacts, I attended a diversity panel at the local college, where individuals shared their experiences being different in our rural community.  As I scanned the panel, I recognized a few faces, including the previous year's student body president ("J") of our high school.  He was the only  white participant without a disability and I wondered how he fit. This was 1993.

J was very accomplished, poised and successful. He was beloved by his teachers and administrators as well as fellow students.  Finally he spoke.

"I am a gay man," J said. I was stunned.  I knew a few gay people but my experience was shallow.  I held my breath and tried to understand.

"Let me tell you what it was like for me in my high school." He went on to describe homophobic comments he overheard from teachers, the clear and present danger he felt if he came out before graduation.

His revelation hit me like a brick.  Was I one of the guilty ones? Had I said insensitive things? I really didn't know.  I reported back to the committee and shared what he had said.  I suggested we invite him to a teachers' meeting to give all of us insights into how our secretly gay students experience our school and our classes.  Surprisingly to me, the committee didn't want him to speak to staff but did want him to speak to students during the Diversity Day.  I invited him.

Thus began one of the most difficult periods in my career. School and district administrators entered the picture and nixed his appearance, explaining that our community "wasn't ready".  Other presenters found out and began bailing, letting me know that if J was excluded, they would not participate either. The local newspaper editor got word from someone of the controversy and threatened to expose the district's duplicity.  Teachers on the committee -- the same ones who had argued to include him -- were fearful and backed down, afraid to have their names associated with the controversy.  An administrator told me that if he had been "an obvious homosexual", they wouldn't be so opposed.  Presumably a gay man who was accomplished, known and well regarded was quite another matter.

As for me, I soon accepted another job I had already twice turned down and left the school.  Later, an administrator myself, I worked hard to defend the rights of all of my students, including gays and lesbians. As the years passed, students did begin feeling safer being themselves, even at school.

It is now 2012, the day after our national election.  Maryland and Maine voters just approved gay marriage, the 8th and 9th states to accept marriage equality. Other states beat back new attacks on gay rights.  The President of the United States followed his Vice President's statement in support of marriage equality.  After a campaign season where subtly racist attacks on the president persisted and women's rights appeared to be slipping backwards with contraception damned and rape exalted, America's gradual trajectory of more inclusiveness and greater civil rights is still on course.

To all of my gay and lesbian friends, thank you for the courage to come out.  J opened my eyes.  Each of you has opened the eyes of others like me. Finally, the payoff is in sight.