Thursday, October 15, 2009
Climate change, for the better. Today is Blog Action Day 09, what is Blog Action Day you ask?
Blog Action Day is an annual event held every October 15 that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking discussion around an issue of global importance. Blog Action Day 2009 will be one of the largest-ever social change events on the web. You can read more here: http://www.blogactionday.org/
I would like to talk about a different kind of Climate Change, a change in the Climate regarding LGBT Issues here in the USA and beyond. In the 30 years that I have been out, things have indeed changed, some for the good, some for the bad. I came out in the mid-80’s, a somewhat goofy and happy time in our collective history. We were coming off the big hangover of the 70’s and moving into the blossoming tech-savvy world of the 90’s. As a young Gay man, I had a lot on my plate, college, finding a boyfriend, surviving AIDS. I shared this in an email to a former student, a bright young woman who is now in California chasing her dream to be an actress. She had talked about how going to see the Names Project AIDS Quilt during a class field trip had changed her life and made her more socially aware:
I will tell you that when I graduated from high school in 82, the future was indeed bright for me. I had been told by some family members, community folks and the church that as a gay person, I would lead a miserable, lonely life. I rebelled against that notion, and led a life that was robust, full of friends and people who loved me. Things were going great, and then this big disease with a little name showed up. For a long time, that cast a shadow on me as well. I viewed my life as terminal (which it is, but I thought I would die early as a gay man) and held little hope for living beyond 30. When AIDS first came out, it was pretty much a death sentence. No one felt safe, and there was little we could do to avoid it. I am blessed that I have avoided it, but I have friends who were not so lucky. Chris, Ed, Steve, Tam, all were lost at the beginning of the disease. They had lives full of promise, but this took them out early. My friend Reed couldn’t handle this at all, and he shot himself so he didn’t have to worry about getting sick and dying. To him, it was easier and not as scary to take his own life instead of waiting around. We never really knew why he did that back in 84. We don’t know if he was positive or if he just couldn’t deal. I was told that I would never have kids, that I would never find love, and that I would die early. So far that hasn’t come true. I have a family, I have a soul mate in Tod, and I am doing pretty good for a forty something.
While Amber has a great deal of respect for me (and me for her) it wasn’t always so. My position as a high school teacher kept me in the closet for much of my career. Oh sure, there were rumors that flew around like wild fire, but it was never actually talked about. Some students knew, especially towards the end of my tenure. I lead the school’s diversity group. We weren’t bold enough to call it a GSA, but that’s pretty much what it was. We were a rag tag group of students and staff. We were the misfits and outcasts, but we found strength and support in each other. It wasn’t until I went to the college and officially came out that things began to change in regards to my own personal worth and self esteem.
It wasn’t until I “graduated” and began working at the college that I finally came out in all aspects of my life. I was worried, as I was on the tenure track, and I didn’t want rumors or questions of my sexuality to detract from my tenure review. I had a very frank and open conversation with my former Dean and shared with him the need for a GSA on campus. We had gone to Chicago on the train as a departmental trip, and on the way home, a student came out to the entire group. It was an interesting and enlightening ride home for sure. With the Dean’s approval, the student and I moved forward with the creation of the college’s first ever GSA. I was having lunch with the director of Human Resources and she was talking about my work on campus with the group. I asked her if anything had been done in the past, and she shrugged her shoulders and remarked that she had been there for over 30 years, and that I was the first person on faculty to be out and in the open. Certainly there had to be others before me, but none were as out as I had become. In the past, I worked to hide my sexuality, but now, it was front page news.
I got a phone call from the newspaper here in town and they did a story on the student and my efforts to create the group. It ran front page on National Coming Out Day. In the past, this would have been a reason to panic, but now, I was finally feeling like I was being true to myself and my identity. A high school teacher coming out is a big deal, and possibly a career killer, but a college professor, that’s a different story. I was concerned more about the student, who was a little shocked at the article’s placement, and its featuring of his story so prominently, but to him, it was a big step towards becoming who he was as a young Gay male. The issues that plagued my high school friends didn’t seem to be as big of an issue with this young man. It’s amazing what a difference several decades can make. When I was in high school, the only Gay characters were Billy Crystal’s on Soap and, in a strange way, Klinger on MASH. Oh sure there was Jack on Three’s Company, but he was just playing Gay.
But now we have a more open society, with entire television networks devoted to LGBT programming. Now we have the internet, a way to connect and find out who you are in a somewhat safe environment. I remember going to the card catalog in the library and looking up Homosexuality. I didn’t bother writing anything down, as I didn’t want to get caught checking out “those books” so I memorized the general call number and headed to the stacks, turning a cautious eye as I came towards the dozen or so books that this particular branch had in its collection. I remember my mouth drying out as I reached for the titles; books that are now probably out of print or out of touch with modern LGBT mores and views.
If I touched them, would an alarm go off?
Would the librarian with the lunch lady arms come and beat me with the ruler sitting on her desk?
Would my parents find out?
It turned out that I didn’t have to worry, as I ended up working at the library and was befriended by one of the male librarians. This man was probably one of the first Gay men I ever met. My folks were friends with a guy and I remember going to his house for parties, but that’s about it for my exposure as a kid. The librarian became my mentor and never failed to blow my mind with the stuff he would send my way. I remember checking out my mail box one afternoon and there was a paperback book with my name clipped to the cover with this note: “See me if you have any questions.” The book was Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” and I could hardly wait for work to be over so I could go home and begin poring over this new book. As a junior in high school, there was much I didn’t understand, but I took this man’s advice and asked away. He moved out of our small branch and took residency at the main branch downtown, a treasure trove of bigger, better, and more up to date books on what it’s like to be Gay. Vitto Russo’s “Celluloid Closet” was one of the first books I ever checked out proudly and openly as a young high school student.
I tore through Russo’s book at a furious pace, mentally replaying the scenes in the many movies he discussed in the book in my head. Mind you, this was 1981, way before the advent of Video Stores, Netflix, and You Tube, so I had to scan my young brain for snippets of what I had seen. As elated as I may have been to find this new freedom of the press, the words of doom that I had heard from my early critics came back to haunt me as I finished out the book, which ends with a chapter that outlines how all the LGBT characters die in their various films. It was a who’s who of who’s dead and broke my heart when I read it.
Was this my future?
Was I to die a tragic death as well because of my sexuality like these movie characters in Russo’s cinematic morgue?
Finding self esteem and self respect wasn’t easy back then, and for the generation before me, it was probably next to impossible. But things have changed for the better, and thankfully, the black cloud of what I had been told as a young Gay man when I first came out has since been lifted. We’re in a better place now here in the US. There have been many contentious ballot initiatives regarding LGBT issues, especially Proposition 8 in California, but with my rose-colored glasses, I see a not too distant future where these issues will be moot. Our President campaigned on changing the climate here in the United States for us, and I think we’ll get there. But in the mean time, I am happy to report that I am now legally married and have kids, something that I thought would never happen in my life time.