Twenty Years After a Comic, An Airport, and a Hot Mic

Posted: December 26, 2017 in Blog
Tags: , , , , ,

I just watched a very poignant clip of Ellen interviewing Oprah about the 1997 coming out episode (The Puppy) on the Ellen Show. That episode aired in April 1997 and I started work at Youth Outlook in October 1998. I found it difficult not to tear up while Ellen and Oprah talked about both the episode and the backlash following. Ellen’s show was canceled. Laura Dern couldn’t get work for a year after playing her role. Oprah got hundreds of messages telling her to go back to Africa.

As a community, our fight is far from over and some of these messages have made an ugly reappearance recently. While listening to Ellen and Oprah, though, I was reminded of one thing—one primary feeling—of “the old days” that I rarely speak about to anyone, and at THAT time, I never spoke of.

I was afraid. I had reason to be.

When I moved to IL in 1998, I had been out for several years, sported a crew cut and Harry Potter glasses, and had a rainbow in the back window of my car. I was settling into my gender neutrality, having fun with my “boi” playfulness, and I was accustomed to a different atmosphere after living for twelve years in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement, and around Syracuse, hovering in or near academic circles of radical feminism. It was a great place to live and a great place to come out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from IL. I hoped for Chicago overflow, similar to NY overflow, to which I attributed much of the free thinking I encountered in Syracuse. That’s not what I found.

In past blogs, I have mentioned the resistance I met in my efforts to form connections to some of the high schools.  That was rough. I was both irritated and embarrassed to meet other social workers who denied the existence of LGBT kids.  Countering the belief that kids were too young to know who they were (although most of the folks who maintained that could handily tell me at what age they’d had their first heterosexual crush or when they knew for sure that they were cisgender) was an uphill challenge, but it did not compare to the covert and cowardly threats I endured as the first employee of the first not for profit that specialized in working with queerlings in the western suburbs.

The timing of this was important. By 1998, services had existed within the Chicago city limits for years. There were potlucks, a sports association, bars, youth groups, churches, and medical clinics specific to LGBT people in Chicago. In the western suburbs, there were only the daring PFLAG groups.

Then I arrived. It was my job to make connections within our communities, to be a visible face of this new agency. To be publicly queer.

That part I had no problem with. I’d been publicly queer for a while.

Just pause for moment and think about the things Ellen describes and picture how that would have gone in towns and cities in DuPage County, IL.  Name calling? I certainly got the name calling. I got the slurs hurled from passing cars, most often “Faggot” which I have always found odd. I usually want to refer people to Urban Dictionary for the correct slur to hurl, if one is going to hurl slurs at all. Female bodied queer people are not generally called faggots, but I may have to re-evaluate that based on the frequency with which it was used at that time.

As the agency’s single employee and being who I was, I was particularly aware of the hostile environment. It’s a safe assessment that the early board members were also aware and to some extent, felt compelled to keep the kids hidden for their protection (except the kids weren’t interested in being hidden).  Many of them had lived here for years. They knew what to expect.

It was a bit of a surprise on the day a board member asked me to attend a county meeting and afterward, she called me to ask one question. “Do you have to look so….butch?”

At first, I was confused. I had sat next to her in the meeting. I had worn a blue silk shirt and black pants. She had also been wearing a shirt and black pants. I cast around for an answer, feeling vaguely insulted, when I realized she was referring less to WHAT I was wearing and more to HOW I was wearing it. My clothing was not that much different from hers. But I have a stance, a presence, that leaves little to imagination about what my orientation might be.  She had already told me that she could not come out.

We ironed out that she didn’t actually have a problem with the clothing I’d been wearing. She had a bigger issue with the fact that it was 1998 in suburban Illinois and I was identifiable as queer. When I pointed out that being identifiable as queer wasn’t really a bad thing for someone who was running an LGBT focused agency, the conversation came to an awkward stop and never arose again.

I could manage the questions about being out. On the other hand, the death threats put me on edge. It was the anonymous voicemails left about how the building we were using would be set fire to because we were all going to hell anyway. It was the creepy demands to “make sure you tell all those kids the truth—that they’re all going to hell for being disgusting little perverts” and the parents who cried and shouted at me that I could not tell their kids that they were good human beings that  left my sleep ragged.

Those were the days of Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps picketing churches that were becoming open and affirming and the funeral of Matthew Shepard, carrying signs that declared “Matt Shepard Burns in Hell” in front of his already traumatized and horrified family. As an agency, we had to be ready for anything that might be leveled at us, any day of any week. We learned to live with the fear. We wrote guidelines for how we’d handle if we ever needed to evacuate our borrowed spaces on short notice and we coached the kids on what to do if they ever found themselves confronted with a line of protestors carrying vile signs.

Verbal harassment. Death threats. Protestors. I was afraid. I had reason to be.

I did my job anyway, sometimes watching over my shoulder in dark parking lots and often enduring strangers’ comments that if I would just be open (to people of the opposite sex, to someone’s god, to psychiatric help, etc.), that perhaps someday I, too, could be as normal as they were. Oh, and by the way, which church did I belong to? I learned to fend off married women’s passes in public restrooms and to allow the slurs from passing cars and people in crowds to roll off me like water off a duck’s back.

I couldn’t exactly reach out to Ellen in those early days but I do owe many thanks to the Chicago women who supported me, those who understood that you live with the fear and you do it anyway. I just entered year 20 of my job and some of those early memories don’t get trotted out into sunlight very often. The Ellen interview sparked quite a few of them. (http://www.upworthy.com/in-1997-being-gay-on-tv-was-not-ok-ellen-and-oprah-look-back-in-this-emotional-clip?c=ufb3) These days, I’m more likely to be focused on what’s coming next week or next month, and less on what it was like to be a public queer in 1998.  Wow. We really have made history.

And yes, thank you for asking–I did have to look this…butch…while I was doing it. (And can you believe it–she hadn’t even seen me wearing a tux!)

Dedicated to my colleague and friend, Jessica Halem, who will probably never know how much of a sanity saver she was.

Nance

Comments
  1. Doud says:

    Thanks for all of your struggles to make it easier for the rest of us. Unfortunately in this new political environment, I’m afraid some of those battles have not diminished

    • Some days, it is a matter of looking back and marveling at what we’ve been able to do. Other day, it is a matter of looking at what’s going on and wondering why we’re doing this AGAIN. Thanks for reading, Doud!

  2. Kellie Dyslin says:

    Thank you for your courage. You set the bar. Roughly how many kids have been through the agency’s doors since this time?

    • Off the top of my head, between 3000 and 4000 in the drop ins. Maybe another 3000 to 3500 in schools. And for community education and professional development, probably upwards of 10,000, more than half of which has happened in the last 5 years.
      And climbing!

  3. Antoine OKarma says:

    I’m so proud to call you my friend. I️ love you no matter what your name is 😘

  4. Mary Fear says:

    Thank you, Nancy Bob.

  5. Eileen says:

    I’m glad you took the time to reflect back because you have to appreciate the impact you had on society by following your heart and passion and by not allowing fear to win. Your work and public honesty was a game changer 20 years ago.

  6. Babs says:

    You, my friend, are a Courageous Soul, and the world needs you!! 💜

  7. Maryann Krieglstein says:

    Wondering who that early board member was who said that to you. I suppose the same one who felt it was unsafe for the kid’s to be out having spent her whole life in the closet. You were a great choice way back then. I remember you speaking in my classes at AU where some did not like “that subject” being brought into the classroom. Your first intern’s father being one of them. Memories. Keep doing the great things you do.

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