I graduated from high school in 1983 (don't strain yourself, I am turning 43 later this week). So when I ventured to speak at a high school class in Bushwick yesterday as part of their "Social Justice Awareness Week," I wasn't sure what to expect. Anyone who works with me know I can never say "no" to requests like this, so when the folks at Live Out Loud, a terrific youth group in NYC called and asked, I agreed. Then I got on Mapquest to figure out where I was going.....
Bushwick is a pretty tough part of my home borough of Brooklyn. As my intern and I went through the metal detectors and had a school police officer give us directions and escort us to the elevator, I realized high school is a very different place than when I was there. And I was about to go talk about being a lesbian activist. For someone who regularly battles anti-gay activists on television I admit I was more nervous than walking into Bill O'Reilly's studio.
It was pretty much what I expected - a raucous, somewhat confrontational and tough group of kids. But underneath the tough exterior there was a great deal of savvy and understanding about diversity issues in general, and LGBT issues in particular. The school has a Queer-Straight Student Alliance and one out lesbian student came into the class to see how it all went down.
Yes, there were a heck of a lot of very, ahem, personal questions. But I expected that - isn't what our lives are like really what people want to know about? I think having a sense of humor and not getting (or even feeling) defensive went a long way.
So we talked about the transgender man having a baby (these kids watch Oprah) as well as how my wife and I created our family. I drew the line at questions about my sex life - but only because they wouldn't tell me about theirs first. Turnabout is not only fair play, but a wonderful way to demonstrate a double standard.
One young man in particular, who confronted me about my non-gender conforming appearance (he thought I was a guy at first) gave me the chance to bring up stereotypes. As a young black man in a baseball cap and hoodie who has people make assumptions about him all the time, he soon realized we had more in common than he thought. By the middle of the session, as we told our coming out stories, he was the first to pipe up that a parent rejecting their child because they are LGBT is "so not cool," and if his kid came out they would "always be my kid and I would love them." If that isn't progress I do not know what is, folks.
One young woman in particular really seemed to have a problem with LGBT people, in a very not nice way, either. She confronted my intern Ben when he said he had always been attracted to men. "What if a gorgeous blonde girl walked in the room right now, you wouldn't even look?" she asked. He was a bit flustered but I saved him. "I think he'd be a good intern and send her my way," I said. We all got a much needed laugh and even she smiled at the response.
I made sure to do two things while I was there. One, I showed them a picture of my daughter. It was a way to make real my life and my family and as the picture was passed around, I could see change in their faces as they saw me not as a dyke in jeans and boots, but a Mom. The second thing I did was pass out my business card. I very specifically made sure my last words to them were that these kinds of conversations are very important but also can be hard - and if anyone had a question they did not feel safe asking in front of the class they could call or email me. You could have heard a pin drop. And the teachers were a bit shocked - then came up and thanked me, congratulating me on handling a rather tough crowd. It was exhausting - emotionally and physically - and it gave me a whole new respect for teachers. But if we do whatever we can to have these conversations we'll see more understanding, less bias and more respect for our differences.