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Saturday, June 27, 2015

A privileged personal history of gay rights activism

When I was in high school in the late 1990s, a group of amazing students formed a club one day. They called it the GSA, or the Gay-Straight Alliance. Smalltown, Connecticut, offered an incredibly sheltered existence to all of us, back then. I went to school with literally fewer than 400 students in the 9-12 grade and graduated with something like 98 other kids. And they all looked and behaved just like me. Anyone who behaved even slightly differently, therefore, was subject to scrutiny and side-eye.

Now, we were fairly nice kids, and while a few of my more bullied friends could tell you war stories from that school that would make you shiver, from where I sat in seventh period World Cultures, we all seemed pretty open, honest, and kind. There was the immature name-calling every once in a while, the hallway fist fight once in a blue moon, a few people everyone whispered about for one reason or another. Many of us (and really I can only speak for myself, but I'm guessing many of us) did not understand the reality of oppression, of marginalization, because it truly did not affect us. We were white, straight, well off monetarily, and children. As such, we threw around the phrase "that's gay" very easily, and I distinctly remember at least twice when separate students were made to feel supremely uncomfortable because someone started a rumor that "they were gay." I have no idea how it must have felt to have to walk around with that label, true or not, particularly when they had not yet made a personal choice to share that private information. I do know that I saw red faces, tears, and students drawing into themselves. As if being gay were the absolute worst. Again, I say we didn't know any better, but someone did. Where were the adults?

All this to say my alliance with progressive causes did not start until well after I left high school, and even college. I literally did not understand oppression. I had no concept of it. So when the GSA came along, and quite a few of my friends were in it, I would hang out with them after school every once in a while, when it was convenient to me, mostly to chat with my friends. It may as well have been a sewing circle, or a club for frisbee golf for all I cared or paid attention, but it did spark just a sliver of awareness in me personally, that there was a group of people who felt ostracized enough that they needed a group to support them. And my childhood self did like the idea of equality. Even then I thought that people were people and we should all just let them be and let them love and treat them fairly. I just also thought that they were already treated pretty fairly. I truly had no idea. I was busy reading MacBeth and studying Elementary Functions and playing soccer, and singing in choir, and heading up the Environmental Team. I figured my life was full and complete and did not for one moment consider how incredibly selfish it was.

It's important to note that I didn't even think I knew any LGBT people. I really figured that every single time something like that was brought up, it was mean-spirited talk meant to segregate a person and find something not-normal about them so that they would be made fun of for like a week. I was a fairly smart kid...but I never put two and two together that if I thought being gay or a lesbian or bisexual or transgender was a huge insult meant to wreak havoc on teenage self-esteems, then perhaps I was part of the problem, even though I thought I was doing my diligent part by saying things like, "no, they're not!" I mean, really? So very little I understood in those days.

Turns out, at least two people I knew there were transgender, and many more gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, or without sexual orientation label, per their preference. And that it was okay for them to identify that way. That it wasn't necessarily a source of ridicule, but actually a legitimate identity to be protected, to be held sacred, much like my straight, white life was never questioned. I wish I had known that, then. I wish those students had been able to say with confidence, this is who I am, and I wish I, as a straight person, had known that the correct answer wasn't to immediately thrust the person back into "normality" but to venture to understand what life must be like having to hide from your earliest years. I wish I had known that a better answer than "no, they're not!" would have been, "and what the hell is wrong with that?"

But I didn't know. And for that I am sorry. Regardless, all this is to say that yesterday marked an official turning point in the nation, and the high school friends I still keep in touch with have grown in leaps and bounds since 1996, everyone celebrating, everyone understanding what an enormous weight has been lifted now that our government agrees that love is love and we should not police which gender people have the right to fall in love with.

This entry has been personal and whiny in the face of tremendous societal change for a reason, and that is to say this:

One of the collateral victories in this fight is that when my kids go to high school, they will already know that LGBT people are not a segregated flock of people there only to provide a petty comparison to what straight kids don't want to be. I've taught them from birth that "girls can marry girls and boys can marry boys" and now that we're living in Florida, I can tell you that they came home from kindergarten and first grade at least once a month telling me that so-and-so said I was a liar, or that so-and-so's mom said I was totally wrong and what I said was a sin.

That's not really going to happen anymore in a way I cannot defend. As they grow, I can point to this decision, and guide them in the knowledge that people who identify as LGBT are not only okay, but amazing because they fought for their rights and actually won a battle in our lifetime. When my kids go to high school, "gay" won't be used as an insult. It won't be interchangeable with "stupid" or "ridiculous" or "something I really fucking dislike right now". And that might be a very small thing, but a very good thing. And maybe it's not so small after all.

My children will grow up in a world where more people are treated as equals in the eyes of the law regardless of their personal choice of who to be and who to love. And if they decide they are part of the LGBT community, those who have fought together so hard in my lifetime while I was busy failing Home Economics have paved the way for them, not only personally, but legally, and rights will be afforded them that have been kept away from this group for so long. And I am eternally grateful.

Congratulations, everyone, and thank you. You did it. #lovewins

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