Rise up

I have to admit that my jaw hit the ground when I read some of the comments made during the Avonworth School Board meeting concerning the Gender Sexuality Alliance that has been proposed as a club by students to support their LGBTQ classmates.

First let me say that I understand that many parents are uncomfortable with the idea of their teenagers as sexual creatures. That’s been the case since we as a society decided that 12-year-olds should not be getting married – or working in sweat shops, for that matter. We took a very protective stance with regard to our children. That’s what parents are supposed to do.

But for as long as there have been teenagers and high schools – and probably even before that – the reality has been that those adolescent hormones go crazy and there is little chance of success for parents who attempt to stand in the way of that “true love.” That doesn’t change when the object of your teenager’s obsession is of the same gender, or when a teenager knows to the depths of his soul that he is not who everyone thinks he is.

Recently one of the television networks aired a “docudrama” titled “When We Rise Up.” I was not sure from the promo ads exactly what it was about, other than it appeared to involve political protests in the 1970s, something that brings back fond memories of my own high school years. It turned out to be about the birth and growth of the gay rights movement, and I got an education.

The issue of someone’s gender identity or sexual persuasion never was an issue for me when I was a teenager. There were so many movements going on at that time – civil rights, women’s rights, stop the war. I honestly do not know if anyone in my high school class was gay, although the odds are that someone was. But we were so locked into the standards of white working class America that even my naïve political views were considered radical, my activism seen as disruptive if not potentially dangerous. It’s a wonder my mother made it through my teenage years without a complete mental break down.

When I got to college, I met people who were openly – and not so openly – gay and bisexual. One friend had the best time taking us to all the private gay clubs in the Pittsburgh area. It never occurred to me that there was something wrong with any of them. I was shocked when I went to the campus book store one day and ran into someone working there that I had met at a gay club. He was scared to death that I might let on how I had met him. He believed that he would lose his job if people knew who he really was. That still blows my mind, in a very, very sad way.

Fast forward to law school, and Pitt had adopted a policy of non-discrimination on the basis of sexuality. The big controversy was the exclusion of the military from recruiting law students on campus because of the U.S. government’s discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” mandate.

When I watched “When We Rise Up,” I learned how the gay rights movement began and intertwined with the other human rights movements of the era, although politicians who were ready to come around on the issues of equal rights for women and people of color still shied away from the same commitment to stop discrimination on the basis of sexuality. The AIDS epidemic tore through a generation of gay men, and received little to no government support until it finally spread to the straight population. Bill and Hillary Clinton were considered daring rebels for actually visiting the AIDS quilt when it was spread across the mall in Washington.

While there is no doubt that relative vestiges of discrimination remain in our society, none is so entrenched as that encountered by the LGBTQ population, even to this very day. The law is just beginning to right some of the many, many wrongs inflicted by our government and society. We see the issues of sexuality and gender identity in the news, and in our entertainment. I thought we had traveled past the point where LGBTQ people were not considered “normal.”

So while I am shocked at people who can’t quite grasp the concept that there isn’t something “wrong” with people who are different from us, I am touched by the empathy of the Avonworth students who see the critical need to support teenagers who are struggling with issues related to their gender identity and sexuality. We have lost far too many children to suicide and addiction because we as a society have made them question their right to be who they are. We have aided and abetted untold suffering because of our inability to accept and celebrate the value of the differences among us.

There are parents and students in the Avonworth community who have “risen up.” They give me hope.