Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tiffany's Story

Although my parent's are not comfortable with my sexual orientation, before they even had a concept of what “bisexual” or “queer” meant, they taught me to be true to myself. This was a mixed blessing when I decided to come out as bisexual in eighth grade, which meant that I put a rainbow flag sticker and a picture of two same-sex couples holding hands on my school planner. Some people were surprised and many were confused about the differences between being bisexual and being lesbian. The most important people in my life took it in stride, however, and after a few more lectures on the bible's teachings that I would have liked, I was generally accepted by my inner circle.

This says nothing for the reactions of acquaintances and strangers at school. In eighth grade I had to replace my planner three times because of vandalism to the cover photo. Once it was taken from my hands and torn apart in front of me, which was a very upsetting experience. My reaction was to tape pictures to all of my school binders in ninth grade and to keep a closer eye on my things. (I was also taught to never back down in the face of intimidation.) I am still bothered by how I handled more aggressive forms of harassment, like name-calling and inappropriate jokes in the hallways. At the time the most dignified reaction I could think of was to walk away without giving anyone the pleasure of getting to me, but in hindsight I wish that just once I used one of the many snappy comebacks I dreamed up.

There are other things I have realized with more distance from my high school days. The actions of my peers who have little life experience may be excused, but the faculty and staff at my high school were little more supportive. Even after numerous complaints, few teachers would tell students to stop using “gay” as an insult and as a general synonym for stupid, and none would enforce the ban. During tenth grade I was an assistant editor on the school newspaper staff and I wrote an editorial about the issue. That article remains the only thing my teacher never published, saying that she feared it would create negative backlash against me and the paper. My most disturbing memory, however, is from a sex-education class. After a week of sitting through classes, I realized same-sex relationships were not going to be addressed without prompting, so I asked the lecturer what measures same-sex couples should take to remain safe and what particular they might be prone to. After the laughter subsided (which took a while), she looked at my with a mixture of confusion and thoughtfulness and said she had no idea. And then she moved on.

Overall I think I faired pretty well during high school. I never felt physically threatened, and while I was frustrated and sometimes held back, my optimism and determination to remain true to myself kept me from feeling oppressed. I was lucky. As the token queer, one of two out students in a population of 1,500, I was often approached by people who were in the closet and terrified of coming out to their parents, classmates, and teachers. To this day I have not lied about my sexual orientation to anyone, which I am extremely proud of (though I have purposely avoided the subject in uncomfortable situations with strangers). As an involved and academically-successful student from a loving (if concerned) home, and as a female, I think I was somewhat sheltered from many of the negative aspects of coming out. At college I met gay men who had been assaulted and abused verbally on a daily basis in high school. I have friends whose parents have not spoken to them since they came out. Even the hurt in the voices of closeted classmates is a form of ongoing emotional abuse generated by a hostile environment. And the worst part is that no one it doing anything that changes how principals, teachers, and staff handles these issues. No one ever reprimanded the kids who shouted “DYKE!” at me outside their classroom. No one thought it was just as important for queer youth to know how to protect themselves from STIs. This has got to stop.

It's not a matter of what the right or wrong way to live your life is. No matter what anyone's personal beliefs are about gender roles, mental capabilities, or racial differences, it is absolutely unacceptable to disrupt a students education by harassing them because of any of these reasons, and there are appropriate legal channels to ensure that no matter your gender, race, or mental abilities, you're entitled to a proper education. Queer students who are terrorized or preoccupied with keeping their cover are denied this basic right. I hope you will think about all of the bright, funny, talented young people out there whose spirits are being crushed, who are crying out for a ray of hope in their darkness. Will you stand up for them? Will you stand up for the right of all children to have a fair chance to succeed?

Tiffany, 19, from Stoneville, North Carolina.

1 comment:

  1. I loved your story. I feel the last two questions are up to us to answer.

    I saw an episode of the Real World Brooklyn, where that blonde straight guy, Chet, started making fun of Katelynn's medical equipment. Katelynn is transgender. I think Katelynn's appearance on the show has been a great educational moment, and it seems like these straight guys have become friendlier. But it suks that the use of their jokes is at the expense of a person's gender identity, or any deeply personal characteristic.