Twenty-eight years ago, I sat on the school bus, second seat behind the driver, sweating as a girl-bully mildly taunted me. I didn’t like confrontation; I always felt like I’d lose. Even when the the taunter was a year younger than me. Double humiliation.
Among the things she made fun of – my unruly hair, my not-trendy clothes – she eventually called me “gay” and emphasized her disgust with a perfectly curled upper lip. I rarely felt an opening in a taunt, but this, I thought, just might be one.
My not-so-brawny brothers had taught me to fight battles much like Ichabod Crane (“I shall woo the fair Katrina by my wits!”), so I asked this one-year-less-educated seventh grader a simple question that threw her off her bullying course. I looked her in the eye and said, “Define ‘gay’.”
She sputtered. She didn’t really seem to know what “gay” was, so instead she went on a rant about taking cookies without asking, which someone had told her I did at a friend’s house. (I knew I was not gay…and I was pretty sure I wasn’t a cookie-stealer either.)
“That’s what you think gay means?” I shot at her. She sputtered some more and retreated to the cool student seats in the back of the bus. I had won the battle with the intellectual upper hand. Maybe I wasn’t cool, but I was smart.
It was strange to me that even though she didn’t know what “gay” was, she still believed that word meant unworthy, unnatural, uncool.
Flash forward 28 years: I’m eating iHop crispy chicken salad and chatting with J. – the 13-year-old girl from South Central whom I mentor – about sexuality and what girls do to get attention in school. She tells me that some girls will just go around kissing all the boys. She pauses. “Girls too,” she says.
I take this as an opportunity to educate her on the normalcy of hetero, homo and bi-sexuality. “Well,” I begin, “there’s nothing wrong with girls kissing girls and boys kissing boys.”
Without missing a beat, she replies, “I know. I have gay friends,” and picks up a French fry. Then this:
“It’s just that some girls pretend to be bisexual because it’s cool, not because they really are,” and pops that fry into her mouth.
I drop my fork; I can’t digest both the information and my salad. “Kids think it’s cool to be bisexual?”
“Yeah,” she says. “So some girls pretend to be bisexual – “
I cut her off. “ – because the boys like it.” She nods her head and eats another French fry.
I explain to her that when I was in high school, I wasn’t aware of any gay kids (my gaydar was in it’s infancy). But I know now there were gay kids in my school…they just couldn’t be honest about who they were because they might get teased or even beaten up. J. was surprised and we talked about judgement and prejudice and why some people are such “haters.”
There’s no surprise in the never-ending efforts of kids to find ways to fit in, to be liked, to find themselves, to be cool. It’s a naturally occurring part of personality development that no one can avoid.
The shock to me was that a diverse middle school in South Central has openly gay and bisexual kids. And that other kids accept them for who they are. And that some teenagers are pretending to be of a sexual orientation other than their own because it’s perceived as cool. An orientation that many intolerant, ignorant adults still find abhorrent.
So, clearly, something has changed in the past 28 years. Also, clearly, not enough has changed. With the latest slew of news stories about bullies and beatings and gay teen suicides hitting the headlines at a disgustingly rapid pace, intolerance is alive and well at all ages. (Do heed Ellen in that news story link; this is a wake up call.)
But there are some…some young folks who see the LGBTQ community as a normal, natural part of society. My hat is off to the LGBTQ school groups that have given kids of all sexual orientations a safe place to be themselves and educate the public. And my hat is off to all those kids embracing each other for who they are, if just in this one way. I think they’re pretty cool.
And while my hat is up there waving about in solidarity, I’d also like to give a standing ovation to the NOH8 Campaign that fights for marriage equality and anti-discrimination across the globe. Though they certainly shouldn’t be given a free pass, kids and teenagers are learning as they go and we absolutely need to teach them about equality; but adults should simply know better and right now it seems like there are plenty of adults that could learn from J. and her classmates. Yes, they’re teenagers – their brains aren’t fully formed and they are continuing to construct their personalities, piece by precious, precious piece. But at least some of them are already doing what some adults (yes, 50Cent and Asst Attorney General Shirvell, I’m looking at you) still need to be taught how to do: trying your best to accept your fellow human being, no matter how different they may be from you.
This past weekend I went to the NOH8 Campaign shoot and fundraiser for the AIDS Walk to have two pictures taken. One with my hetero long-love, we’ll-never-say-I-do partner, D.C., and another with my beautiful-talented-strong co-stars from the comedic web series, The Real Girl’s Guide To Everything Else (diverse characters of color and orientation, unite!). D.C. shot some footage, wrote a blog post and put together his most beautiful video yet. With vocals by the amazing Doña Oxford, this 3 minute tribute to the NOH8 Campaign really stands on it’s own. Please watch. Please share. Please be you, be tolerant, be cool.