Change Is Coming, Ain't No Stopping It, Now

by Michael Abernethy

26 May 2010

The hope for civil rights for LGBT people lies in the hands of today's teens and young adults. This generation has grown up with gay and lesbian family, friends and classmates.

Like most teens, Constance McMillen was looking forward to her prom, but her high school, Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi, decided to un-invite her. In fact, when the school was sued for refusing to let McMillen attend the prom with her girlfriend, the school administration just canceled the prom, rather than reverse its decision. That decision, and the heartless actions of the citizens of Fulton, who sent McMillen to a “fake prom” while the rest of the kids partied in a secret location, have made international news.

Sarah Schwartz was one of those who heard of Constance’s situation. The Tamalpais High School senior decided that Constance should be invited to her prom in Mill Valley, California, so she started a Facebook page to gain supporters for the idea. As the movement caught on, the school administration signed on and extended an official invitation to Constance.

It’s presently unknown if McMillen attended the Tamalpais prom, but she has agreed to attend a gay friendly prom in Tupelo, Mississippi, hosted by Lance Bass and Green Day, among others, and the annual “lesbian prom” held by the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. McMillen has also been chosen to be Grand Marshall of NYC’s Gay Pride Parade this June.

Also attending the lesbian prom will be McMillen’s fellow Mississippian, Ceara Sturgis, who was told by her high school in Wesson that she wouldn’t be allowed to wear a tuxedo for her high school yearbook picture. Sturgis’ mother, Veronica Rodriquez, supported her daughter completely, telling a reporter, “The tux is who she is. She wears boys’ clothes. She’s athletic. She’s gay.” (“Ceara Sturgis, Lesbian High School Student, Told She Can’t Wear Tuxedo In Yearbook”, Sheila Byrd, 15 October 2009)

These teens have dealt with homophobic discrimination at a most personal level, and found both friends and detractors through their experiences. Although reports of teen bullying of gays and lesbians of all ages are still too frequent (this is further explored in Queer, Isn’t It?,‘s “Faggot! Sissy! Queer”), the hope for civil rights for the LGBT community lies in the hands of today’s teens and young adults. This generation has grown up with gay and lesbian family friends and classmates. We older GLBT people are just part of their normal, everyday landscape.

Nowhere is this acceptance of LGBT people more noticeable than in America’s schools—d epending, of course, on where you live. Some American schools seem more accepting, and that acceptance seems to increase when students reach college, where they are more likely to encounter a variety of gay and lesbian students and faculty who treat LGBT students equally. In 2009, George Mason University elected drag queen Ryan Allen as Homecoming queen, while the College of William and Mary chose transgendered student Jessee Vasold as their queen. Fairfax High School in L.A. picked gay student Sergio Garcia as their prom queen.

More importantly, students are electing LGBT students to positions of authority, indicating an ability to see LGBT students as capable of making important contributions and not just serve (unwittingly or not) as gags or talking points for campus forums on gender roles. Openly gay Chris Armstrong served as student body president at the University of Michigan, and Ryan Fournier became Ohio State University’s first gay student government president. Freshman Michael Tuso on UNC-Greensboro became the first gay man elected as student body president in the University of North Carolina school system, following in the footsteps of lesbian Porsha Yount, who served at UNC-Asheville in 2004 - 2005.

In 2006, Dartmouth voted Tim Andreadis into office; however, the surprising election that year occurred at Uniformed Services University. The Department of Defense university became the first military school to have an openly gay elected official when graduate students chose Ph.D. candidate Patrick High as their representative, upon which he was selected student council president. We can only assume that High’s future aspirations didn’t include a stint in the military, though, at least not while Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is on the books.

Not only are some LGBT youth being embraced on their respective campuses, students are demonstrating that they won’t tolerate discrimination against LGBT students. At the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, student body president David Williams found his tenure in jeopardy when he refused to sign off approving funds for an LGBT student group event. Williams cited his personal beliefs, for the refusal. Regardless, the LGBT group received the funds five days later. Organizers of the event claimed that the five day delay left them scrabbling to throw the event together on schedule, no thanks to Williams “personal beliefs”.

Consequently, the student body initiated a recall election, which was canceled by the school’s chancellor, who pointed out the recall wasn’t conducted following the student government’s own guidelines. Following the failed recall, the student government successfully impeached Williams. However, Williams stayed in office through the end of the school year. His run for re-election, however, failed.

All of this is anecdotal evidence, though. For each victory of a LGBT student, there are countless more acts of violence and taunting. Further, a 2007 study published in Educational Studies reported that lesbians in high school feel ostracized, as they don’t fit the mold of the straight, attractive, popular girl. According to author Elizabeth Payne, “These young women claimed values antithetical to normative femininity; rejected the consumer culture that targets teen girls; and sought recognition for their activities in the arts, sports, and academics rather than through relationships with and to boys.” Still, there is significance in the fact that these young women are free to openly discuss their sexual preferences, although the lack of maturity of many high school students mandates that the women be judicious in doing so.

Increasingly, though, it appears that homophobic acts of discrimination in America’s schools are perpetrated by a minority, albeit one that is vocal and active in its discrimination. Currently, there are 4,000 Gay Straight Alliances in schools in the United States, and the organization has chapters located throughout the world. While bigoted students like those at Itawamba Agricultural seemingly have administration support, other school districts are embracing their LGBT students and insuring their needs are met. These efforts doesn’t translate to pandering to the students, but rather, they recognize that LGBT students are more likely to miss school and fall behind as a result of harassment. Both New York and Milwaukee have gay-friendly high schools, and Milwaukee has announced plans for a gay-friendly junior high. Chicago’s attempts to open a gay-friendly school failed, but the attempt is an indication that larger districts are cognizant of the problems of LGBT students.

Most importantly, the increasing tolerance shown by administrations and the openness of many LGBT students has helped mold the opinions of young adults. Throughout the past decade, young adults have consistently shown more tolerant attitudes than older adults. A 2007 paper presented to the American Sociological Association cited two studies: “The 2001 and 2005 Hamilton surveys show that high school seniors hold very tolerant attitudes towards homosexuality, especially in comparisons with older Americans. The bivariate analyses suggest high school seniors are strong supporters of extending legal rights to gays and lesbians, most support gay marriage and the right of gays to adopt children, and large majorities in nearly all subgroups reject the notion that homosexuality is immoral.” (Stephen Ellingson and Dennis Gilbert, “More Than Tolerant: Attitudes towards Homosexuality among a Nationally Representative Sample of High School Seniors”)

Further, a 2009 study of over three thousand junior and high schools students conducted by the Girl Scouts (“Good Intentions: The Beliefs and Values of Teens and Tweens”) found that 58 percent of its members thought gay and lesbian relationships were “OK”, up from 31 percent in 1989. Furthermore, 84 percent said they would continue a friendship with a same-sex friend involved in a homosexual relationship, although a quarter of the students said the friendship would probably deescalate to some extent.

As has been noted by numerous bloggers, the young people who hold these views are the voters of tomorrow. Beyond that, they are the American citizens of tomorrow, the future men and women who will work and live alongside LGBT persons without consideration of differences. They will welcome our partners (hopefully by then, spouses) to company retreats and neighborhood parties. They won’t think twice about letting the gay kid up the street babysit their child. They’ll laugh when they catch us openly ogling the hot guy/girl that just walked by, and encourage us to “go for it” when the attractive stranger returns the glance.

To be honest, I’m envious. I want to live in that world, and it’s possible that in my retirement years, I can sit on my front porch with my partner Jim and see the fruition of the changes coming. Make no mistake—whether I live to see it or not, the change is coming. Not just in my neighborhood, but throughout the world.

Cheers, Queers To Leonard Pitts, Jr., for his Miami Herald article, “21st century lands in Riverdale with the arrival of Kevin”, explaining the cultural significance of adding a gay character to the Archie comic books (28 April 2010). Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Miami Herald, notes that such a character is validation that gayness has arrived in Middle America.

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