We all want to be like everyone else, but actually each one of us is unique. There was a time, not so long ago, when red-haired children were mocked. Today we believe that we are more tolerant. Yet, even though LGBT people have become increasingly accepted, hate crimes continue to occur. Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge because his roommate set up a webcam to spy on him, and shared the resulting images of him kissing another man with a classmate. In 2014, lawmakers in Arizona passed a bill that would allow restaurants and stores to refuse to serve openly gay people. (The governor of the state vetoed the proposed bill!)
When children or teens first sense that they may be sexually attracted to same-sex friends they become scared. Children can be cruel. When one of their classmates is different, they may engage in name-calling or bullying.
In order to forestall such taunting, PFLAG NYC embarked on a Safe Schools Program. At the invitation of the school, teams consisting of a PFLAG parent(s) and/or an LGBT person visit classes to familiarize students with the gay community. I recently accompanied two such teams on their visit to Middle School PS 88 in Brooklyn.
Drew Tagliabue, a gay man and executive director of PFLAG NYC, opened the meeting by providing some background information on PFLAG, stressing the organization’s ability to help families with its gay members. Today, being gay is more familiar. Over half of the class put up their hands when asked whether they knew anyone gay, and a quarter indicated that one member of their extended family had a gay member. (Statistically, one family in three includes a gay member.) Openly acknowledging having a gay relative is new and surprising. Five years ago, being gay was much more of a secret.
When it was her turn to speak, Debbie related the story of gay children from a mother’s point of view. She was aware of her son Carl’s sexual orientation from the time he was very young. Debbie helped him navigate his sometimes hostile middle school. By the time he reached high school Carl was fine and he helped found his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance chapter. As its name implies, the organization promotes friendship and respect between people of varying sexual orientations.
Drew won the audience’s trust. He explained that from the time he started playing house, his future role as a wage-earning dad who left all the childcare to his wife did not fit. Even though he was aware of his doubts, Drew did his best to ignore them. He dated girls in high school and in college. It was only when he contemplated a life-long traditional heterosexual marriage that he had to admit to himself that he was gay. He came out to his parents when he was twenty-two. Both his parents were totally surprised at his revelation, but to his amazement his father was the more welcoming. Unbeknownst to Drew, thirty years earlier his father had witnessed the death of his favorite cousin. Tommy, who had admitted to his high school class during the 1950s that he was gay, was so harassed that he committed suicide. Upon learning that his own son Drew was gay, he simply hugged him saying that he was loved, no matter what.
PFLAG’s Safe Schools Program is a big success. It helps students realize that LGBT people are just like everyone else. They also realize that coming out to oneself and to others, including one’s parents, is not easy, but that help is available. PFLAG is one source for that help.