Hello, Lavender Classes of 2018!

Greetings, faculty, parents, family and friends!

I wanted to start off saying thank you for inviting me, but “inviting me” seems so formal. As the first person in DuPage County who was hired specifically to be gay, I am not known for standing on formality. This feels less like an invitation to witness and more like being included in one of the most important milestones you’ll experience.  So forget that part about inviting me. Thank you for including me.

I am now in my 20th year of running Youth Outlook, the only organization in the western burbs that works solely with LGBT youth.  That’s a long time, especially when I stop to consider that when I started working here, most of the drop-in center youth …and ummm…most of you…hadn’t quite arrived just yet.

As I got started in my new job here, we were looking forward to a new show called Will and Grace that actually had openly gay characters. Kids were wearing bellbottom jeans and some cell phones still flipped. Can you believe it? Have you ever seen one of the early cell phones? They’re about as big as your head. You were supposed to be able to plug them into your car but I’ve always driven very small cars. After I burned out my engine a couple of times trying to charge my phone, I just strapped big wheels to the phone itself and used it like a skateboard to get around Syracuse.  I was driving a hatchback at the time—I really couldn’t tell the difference in the ride.

I guessed when I sat down to write that you’re the first graduating class born mostly, if not entirely, in this century.  That’s kind of a fun fact to own. I did a little digging around based on that. The number one song in the country in the year 2000 was Breathe by Faith Hill. Looking back over what has happened since you arrived, that may not be simply a song title. It may be a good suggestion for how we conduct ourselves through the rollercoaster ride that has been LGBT issues for these last two decades.

There are some interesting tidbits to LGBT history and what topics folks of different generations will recall or feel affected by. Sometimes at work, I share about how there were no role models for me as a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s. My view of life was limited at that time to my neighborhood in South Philadelphia and more specifically to the Irish Catholic parish that I belonged to.  We did not speak of LGBT people except in whispers and then in very derogatory terms. My only example of a lesbian was the woman who lived down the street from me, who wore men’s work boots and her wallet on a chain that led to her pocket and just looked constantly angry. I was a little afraid of her. I crossed the street if I saw her coming my way.

Back then, I had no idea I was going to grow up to become a professional lesbian. Really, it only worked out like this because I got bored being an amateur lesbian.  But that’s a story for another time.

I digress.

So I had my little view of the world, but what I didn’t know and couldn’t see yet where the steps being taken in other places that would advance our lives. I didn’t know when I was 11 years old that in New York, Renee Richards (having undergone gender affirmation surgery) challenged the decision to ban her from the women’s US tennis open because of a “woman-born-woman” rule, and the Supreme Court ruled in her favor.

Kids of the 60s may remember the events at the Stonewall Inn when our journey to claim our rights as equals got its feet under it. We haven’t always done such a great job of explaining our history to young LGBT folk so I thought I’d bring you some a little bit.

Kids of the 70s may remember Renee Richards, and openly gay city Supervisor of San Francisco Harvey Milk, and the first openly gay TV character, when Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas on the sitcom Soap. In 1973, 9 months before the mental health world voted to remove homosexuality from the diagnostic manual as a mental illness, Jeanne Manford co-founded the first PFLAG meeting to let the world know she was proud of her gay son after walking with him the year before in a parade that would ultimately become what we know as the Pride Parade, a memorial to the events of the Stonewall riots. In 1979, more than 75,000 people marched in the first LGBT march on Washington in our history.

Kids of the 80s will recall the horror of HIV and the panic that struck the gay men’s community, and the support that poured into from the lesbian community to take care of our brothers. They will remember the emergence of the bisexual and transgender identities in a new and more assertive manner—people who had been key members of the LGBT movement from the beginning who were rightly insistent that their existence stop being written out of our culture. Our reflection on the night of June 28, 1969 had become a movement, a demand for our recognition as a community and a culture, one in which we refused to be defined by the limitations of a public health crisis.

We haven’t always done such a great job of explaining the early days of the HIV epidemic to young folks, either. Survivors of that time period…particularly gay men…talk about the terror of who might be diagnosed next, misinformation and myths about how the disease was spread, and the catastrophic loss of the deaths of their entire social circles. We have options available medically today that could not have been imagined back then.

Kids of the 90s grew up in the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, a decision that was meant to keep military folks safe and closeted, and it was suggested to us that safe and closeted was an improvement over a dishonorable discharge. While working in a Vietnam Veteran’s mental health clinic, I came to understand that what was said to military personnel while they were serving was a bit different from what I was reading in the news.  During that time, I met gay vets who described being called into private meetings where their commanding officer would say to them, “Now I can’t ask you if you’re gay, but if I DID ask, how would you answer?”

And then…then it happened. Then we had Ellen.

What we see today is not how things got started. Ellen’s decision to come out publicly in 1997 was unprecedented. Her show was canceled. The actor who played opposite her couldn’t get work for a year after playing her role. Oprah, who played her therapist in that episode, got hundreds of messages telling her to go back to Africa.

When I moved to IL in 1998, I had been out for several years, sported a crew cut and had little round glasses that made me look more like Harry Potter than Daniel Radcliffe on his best day. I had a rainbow in the back window of my car, which a friend quickly recommended I remove. I was settling into my gender neutrality, 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.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from IL. I wanted to have fun with this job, creating safe space for young LGBT people in the western suburbs. 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.

This area was soooo different from what I was used to. The western burbs were devoid of rainbow anything. I had never lived anywhere that LGBT people were so invisible. School representatives often refused to speak to me, or hung up on me, or argued with me about the very existence of LGBT youth. Over and over, I was told that high school students were too young to know if they were LGBT. Or if there WERE LGBT students in a school, the counselors got them help, making it immediately clear that having an LGBT identity equated needing help. Sometimes I countered that comment with my own question—Get them help? How about if they just want to make friends?

There was exactly one GSA operating in DuPage County. There were none in any of the other counties Youth Outlook serves.  Students were regularly told that they couldn’t take a same gender date to prom. When a faculty member at another DuPage County high school organized the first ever gay prom, the subsequent public outcry called for her termination.  The demand that LGBT students stay safe and closeted, very much like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, was so loud, it often drowned out the rumblings of support from faculty allies.

And then you arrived to join us. You arrived to join us at a time when our movement was gaining traction and we were pushing back against those recommendations that we stay safe and closeted and obedient.  You arrived to the rebellion.

You may not be aware of this yet, or maybe you are, I can’t say for sure…but I wonder….has anyone told you that you are warriors yet?  You are warriors in this social rebellion.

Since you joined us, we have seen the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We have seen the end of the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2000, Vermont become the first state to legalize civil unions between same gender couples and in 2015, probably just as many of you were starting to learn to drive, we saw the outcome of the Obergefell lawsuit, allowing same sex marriage.

As you head out on your next adventures, remember that. Take it with you tonight that you have a long, beautiful cultural history as part of the LGBT and allied community. You belong to a movement where you…where we…have always been recognized as an important part of the effort, where we are warriors working for social change, sharing our knowledge and our sense of belonging with the next generation down, and the next, and the next.

To summarize:

Remember your history.

Remember that you are a key part of the movement that helps shape our shared future.

Remember that you are a warrior.

Even though you are a warrior, remember to be kind. We all need each other to be kind.

Remember you have a tribe.

Remember to be someone else’s tribe. We need that too.

Remember Faith Hill’s suggestion and BREATHE when things feel like a rollercoaster.

And whatever you do, never, ever leave home without your cell phone charger.

Congratulations, Lavender Classes of 2018, and welcome to the rebellion!

caps in the air

  1. Nancy Carlson says:

    I love this!

    Sent from my iPad


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