A Place of Solidarity and Engagement

An hour ago the president of the United States for the 18th time addressed the nation in the wake of a mass shooting — this time the massacre of 50 people celebrating Pride at an Orlando gay bar. In his remarks, Barack Obama underscored the importance of the gay bar to the LGBT community.

“The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub,” the president said. “It is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.”

I’ve been physically sick since I heard the news. It could have been me mowed down. I was last in a gay bar two weeks ago. A friend of mine was at Pulse, the Florida club in question, not long before that.

And I am terrified for the young people in the process of feeling their way through their sexual orientation or gender identity who woke up to this news and are wondering whether it’s safer to wall off that part of themselves. Because it’s not. It’s the psychic equivalent of giving yourself cancer.

The lies the fear can give rise to have devastating consequences. And that fear is best faced in a safe, affirming space. Which is why the Orlando shooting — the deadliest yet in an era of mass killings — has direct and immediate implications for schools and the educators who work in them.

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in gay bars trying to come out. School was not a safe place to do this. This was before there were clubs like the Gay-Straight Alliances, before there were more than a few openly gay educators and before anyone had contemplated the frighteningly high rates of homelessness and suicidality among LGBT youth.

The bars were a safe haven. The air was easier to breathe. There was no trying to figure out how to explain yourself. Possibly because of this shared understanding, no one ever asked for ID. In a menacing display, the cops would move in 10 minutes before closing time and show themselves around. But apart from that nothing dicey ever happened to me. I frequently ran into a friend’s semi-closeted mother, who kept an eye on me–and still does to this day.

It was something and it was mostly safe–but it was woefully inadequate. I had no idea, for instance, that queer people celebrated Pride. And I had no idea that Pride began as a way to mark the anniversary of a riot that took place at the Stonewall Inn, a New York gay bar where patrons finally got tired of police harassment that was much more violent than what occurred in St. Paul’s bars.

None of that was present in my school. I had no idea there was anything to be proud of, or that I was having the same experience as millions of others. I certainly had no idea that that experience had ignited a civil rights movement that would reshape the nation. There was no one to talk to about it.

The bars helped us fearful types keep things secret, you see. During the rest of your waking hours, you had the option to pass. Which is what I did. For so long that by the time I realized the problem with living a partial life, I had acquired a family that was then forced to deal with my mess.

By contrast, kids come out in public today, and much, much earlier. Which is great, because what else is adolescence for but identity formation? But it’s also perilous, because the vocal minority that’s trying desperately to stuff the toothpaste back in the tube in terms of LGBT rights has steady access to kids’ developing minds.

Fifteen minutes from my house, there’s a school district where five years ago this culture war got so heated at least eight bullied gay and gender-nonconforming teens killed themselves in a single year. The Anoka-Hennepin School District had a “no promo homo” policy, a rule that barred adults from saying anything affirming about sexual orientation or gender identity.

It took a federal civil rights suit — filed by teenagers, no less — to get rid of the policy. Yet the culture — one in which that small but vocal constituency continues to demand schools offer “pray away the gay” conversion therapy — persists.

It’s not just happening in Michele Bachmann’s home district. There are “can’t say gay” laws on the books in a number of states and annual efforts to enact them in many more. And of course there are the infamous trans bathroom battles.

And it’s pervasive. Last year among other school supplies my younger son picked out a pink binder. His teacher called home: Did I understand he would be harassed? Not only did my suggestion that it was the school’s duty to prevent this harassment fall on deaf ears, he came home with a white binder.

It’s hard to have pride–big P or small — when you are in the literal crosshairs, and when you are too young to know that it really, truly does get better.

While I was at a local gay bar two weeks ago, my friends and I watched as not one but two separate party buses — literal buses stocked with kegs of beer — full of bachelorette parties pulled up. The brides and bridesmaids that literally tumbled out, complete with matching dresses, were puke-in-the-parking-lot drunk.

My spine has acquired enough titanium over the years that I can deal with the fact that there are people who think making a visit to liberated queer territory is a stunt so daring they need to be liquored up. (Indeed it was a particular flavor of hilarious to watch them realize everyone else present in a tiara was male.)

But my heart bleeds for the kids out on the skinny, skinny limb that is trying to find a safe haven. By all means pray for the victims in Orlando and their loved ones and demand a rational response to mass shootings. And work to change a political culture where it’s acceptable to demonize a group you fear or don’t understand.

But take one more action. Whatever your relationship to the young people in your community or their educators, mark Pride this year by finding some way to push your local schools to be that place of solidarity and empowerment Obama described. Where LGBT youth and adults can come together to raise awareness, speak their minds, and advocate for their civil rights.

Beth Hawkins is the writer-in-residence at Education Post. She lives and writes in Minneapolis.