For the past few years I've volunteered with Live Out Loud, a New York City-based organization that does the kind of grass roots work that brings about change at the most local level. Live Out Loud "connects LGBT youth to leaders in the LGBT community through events and programs at area schools and universities." That translates into sending people like me to give talks at public and private high schools, colleges, and universities. I've also moderated panel discussions, and even hosted a poetry slam. Fun stuff.
Recently, Live Out Loud launched The Homecoming Project, which encourages gay folks to go back to their high schools (actor Alan Cumming hosts a great PSA about The Homecoming Project on the LOL web site). Why go? As Live Out Loud explains, there are three reasons:
• Serve as a positive example for LGBT youth;
• Empower young adults to reconsider the challenges and unspoken fears of growing up gay;
• Replace your old and uncomfortable memories of high school with new and positive experiences.
So a couple of weeks ago...
... after a little gentle arm-twisting on the part LOL's enthusiastic and lovely program coordinator, Aartie Manansingh, I agreed to go back to my high school -- Hillcrest High in Jamaica, Queens -- for the first time in thirty years to speak to a combined class of 125 students. I had plenty of anxiety about the idea of returning to a place I ran from long ago. Aartie said she'd go with me. That helped.
Everything about Hillcrest was intensely familiar, from the inspirational mosaic in the entry hall that pictures Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, and Lincoln, to the vintage 1970s tiled halls (pink tile!) and the Scandinavian-modern auditorium, which is where I would address the students.
I'd worked so hard to leave Hillcrest and my painful teen years behind me that I didn't find myself fighting off memories--good or bad. I mostly struggled to recover the vapors of memories long-since deeply buried. But there wasn't much time for that because soon after I arrived in the auditorium, the students started pouring in.
I was told in advance that the students I'd be speaking with were in this class to learn about diversity (many come from immigrant families), self esteem, and the kinds of issues inner-city kids have to deal with -- from how to stay out of gangs to planning for life after high school. Some were openly gay, some were closeted or questioning, but most of the kids were straight.
In advance of the class I'd prepared a list of questions for a student interviewer to ask me. I hate straightforward presentations where there's the danger of boring your audience, so I prefer the back and forth and comparative spontaneity of an interview format. And by writing the questions myself I was certain to be able to make the points I wanted to make and maintain some control over the discussion. Not that I'm afraid of any particular question, but we had only forty minutes and there was a lot of ground to cover, starting with "What was it like to be gay at Hillcrest in the mid-1970s?"
To involve more than just one student, the teacher copied my list of questions and handed it out to a group of students she thought would be good at asking questions. And they were. But before long, we were off the script and one hand after another was in the air, attached to a student eager to ask questions that were not on my list. This was a little more challenging, but I'm used to answering questions and I knew from experience that if I got a question I didn't like or felt I couldn't adequately answer I could always say, "Let me think about that and I'll come back to it later." Later could mean later. Or it could mean never.
The most aggressive and sexually blunt questions came from a group of boys sitting together in the last occupied row of the auditorium. Their genuine curiosity was wrapped in the kind of bravado and macho banter that terrified me when I was their age. But given the decades I've lived since Hillcrest and having had years of good therapy, I mostly marveled at their energy and their persistence (and felt grateful that I wasn't still in high school praying I could get home on the subway without getting the shit kicked out of me by a similarly tough-looking bunch of teens).
These kids were deeply curious about how I could NOT be attracted to girls. "They've got all the right stuff, you know, soft on top and..." And they kept coming back to this one point, asking me in several different ways the same question as they struggled to sort out how a guy could possibly find another guy sexually attractive and how a guy couldn't find a girl sexually attractive when finding girls sexually attractive was the most natural thing in the world for them. I did my best to explain my world view, using humorous anecdotes and generally trying to get them to put themselves in my shoes by turning things around and asking, "Well, why don't you find a guy sexually attractive when it feels like the most natural thing for me...?"
The final question that came from the back of the room reminded me of a Jerry Springer moment. With the encouragement of his friends, the young man said, "Okay, let's say there's this girl and she has a dick, would you be attracted to her?" I'm sure I smiled. And I know I scratched my head. I wish I could say that I answered the question by responding, "I don't know, would you find a guy with a vagina sexually attractive?" But I wasn't thinking as fast on my feet as I like to think I generally do and gave an answer that got my point across but not nearly as efficiently.
After the class I was surrounded by a group of girls, all but one of them gay (not surprisingly, it's a lot tougher at Hillcrest for boys to identify as gay). Some of them had questions. Some just wanted to talk about their family circumstances (I was shocked by some of the breathtakingly terrible things their mothers had said to them--and I'm not easily shocked). I marveled at their confidence, was inspired by their open hearts, and was just about moved to tears by their yearning to be accepted and loved by their friends and families. Although more than thirty years separated their experiences and emotions from my own at that age, I was right there with them.
Then after some group pictures it was time to go. Me, back to Manhattan, a mere 13 miles and a lifetime away from Hillcrest High School. And them, on to the next class and then home to the families that don't understand or embrace them.
Going back to my high school was an incredibly gratifying and healing experience (for a long list of reasons). And apparently it won't be a one-time visit because Live Out Loud is in conversations with my old high school to bring me back to talk to the faculty and to the parent-teacher organization. Next time no one will have to twist my arm and I think I'll be able to make the trip on my own.
So don't just take my word for it that going back to your high school is a good thing--for you and for the students. Give yourself a gift and do it yourself. Here's a link to the Live Out Loud Homecoming Project application: www.liveoutloud.info/homecoming-apply.html. You really can go home again and you might just be glad that you did.