Being Visibly Queer-Friendly: Please Consider It

[cross-posted from Poesy Galore]

Six GLBTQ teen suicides were reported in the month of September. Six that we know of. Six that made the news.

I urge you, if you work with kids in a library or school or afterschool program or religious organization, to please consider wearing something (or posting something in your office, if kids visit you there) all the time that identifies you as GLBTQ-friendly. At 36, out since 18, I still feel a little lift (and gratitude) when I see a rainbow sticker on a car or posted in a shop window (or, for that matter, a queer magazine with all the other magazines in a library). It still makes a difference to me.

When I was 17, in 1992, a professor of mine wore a pro-GLBTQ button on his bag, and seeing it made my heart beat faster. I bought one and wore it (this was a button that simply said that the wearer supported GLBTQ rights--not that the wearer was GLBTQ) from my dorm room all the way to the bathroom. Then another girl opened the bathroom door, and I turned red and ripped it off before she’d even seen it, and buried it in a drawer back in my room, and even then worried that my roommate would find it when I was out of the room. Just conjuring up that moment for some weird reason makes me feel scared enough, now, to need to pee. I couldn’t wear the button yet (when I came out a year later, things went a bit too far the other way: I hardly had one piece of clothing that didn’t have some kind of queer slogan on it)—but it made a difference, however small, that someone I knew and respected—the professor—could wear it without blinking or even mentioning it, like it was perfectly normal.

I remember that dark swirling feeling I had in high school and the first year of college before I came out, the feeling that if people knew who I was that their stares would crumble my body to dust. I remember blushing a lot, and feeling my stomach sink a lot, and feeling hunted and baited by the few people (I think it was only a few) who suspected. I remember feeling ice cold when I walked by their lockers. I remember feeling like my sexuality was the source of their deepest amusement, their most hilarious joke among themselves. That they daily looked forward to that moment when I would pass by and they could make me pay for who I was, if only with their eyes and cruel, knowing grins.

I was never openly, loudly bullied, and I never had more than three or four people who made me feel bad. I’m trying to imagine what it feels like to have a huge portion of your school—including adults at your school—enjoy making you feel bad, ashamed, sick (that’s right--not just making you feel bad, but enjoying it, thriving on it, feeling a little thrill when you walk by or when they think of some new clever way to attack or hurt you). And then going home and having their intolerance follow you onto Facebook or Myspace or in texts to your phone. Bullying without borders.

As GLBTQ rights are slowly won, each generation of GLBTQ people tends to think that it's easier for the new one coming up. I know I've been guilty of thinking "Well, if I was 11 in 2010 instead of 1985, I'd have come out at 11." In 1985, I didn't even have a vocabulary to describe who I was--I honestly didn't know what "gay" or "lesbian" even meant. In 2010, most kids know what it means. And they see successful, out, unashamed GLBTQ folk, at least on TV. And maybe their schools have GSAs, though I’m sure some kids are afraid to attend meetings (I know I would’ve been—my siblings went to the same school. I might’ve been ready for a GSA, but I wasn’t ready for my family knowing I was interested in one). But perhaps there's a mistake in thinking this stuff makes it easier.

In addition to seeing Ellen and Kurt on Glee, today’s GLBTQ teens are also seeing GLBTQ rights discussed almost every day in the media. Eat breakfast. Wait to see if the country decides folks like you are allowed to be in the military. Pop a Diet Coke. See a photo of Fred Phelps picketing funerals with a “FAG BURN IN HELL” sign. Take a bus. See a campaign ad arguing that you should never be allowed to marry. Right at that moment when change seems to be accelerating--a biracial president! Gay marriage legal in Iowa!--is when we see a huge backlash against the change. People that were passively racist/homophobic/etc become actively so. People, goaded by anger and irresponsible politicians, somehow feel it's okay to make remarks they wouldn't have made before. Hatred in the air and on the airwaves trickles down to kids. Opinions get magnified into passions and crusades.

And there are parts of being a queer adolescent that, even when role models are available and rights are won, are humbling. So entrenched is the default assumption that everyone is straight that straight kids don't have to come out to their parents. And coming out, as long as GLBTQ folks are considered "lesser" (and discussions of sex between generations are considered taboo) in the U.S., isn't easy--even to accepting parents. For one, you usually know your orientation before you're ready for your parents to think of you as a sexual being. And when an 11-yr-old girl tells her parents she has a crush on a boy, they don't respond, "How can you know you're straight when you're only 11?" Queer 11-yr-olds are regularly told they can't possibly know who they are yet. Finally, as long as GLBTQ folks are considered lesser, you might have the feeling that you're disappointing your family, letting them down by being queer, giving them one more thing to have to "deal" with. This is not a great sensation to be running around with as a young teenager.

We can help young queer kids by knowing about things like the It Gets Better project, I'm From Driftwood, and The Trevor Project--and promoting them through posters or buttons or bumper stickers, so kids can see and learn about them without having to ask for them (which they might not be ready to do). We can also help by visibly wearing a button on our lanyards or bags that identifies us as queer-friendly. Kids will notice, even if they don't yet feel comfortable approaching you to talk about it. I wear a "Be Proud at Your Library" button on my lanyard that I whipped up at Zazzle. It costs $2.10 to get a button from Zazzle. They're easy to make. Consider making one--or customizing the one I've linked to (you can change text to "school" or whatever fits your situation)--and wearing it. You can also make shirts, stickers, posters, and more. Note: before buying anything from Zazzle, check at RetailMeNot for promotional coupon codes--Zazzle regularly offers them.

Why buttons and bumper stickers? I think it's extremely important to be visibly queer-friendly out in the world, especially in less metropolitan areas. Some kids aren't ready to attend GSA meetings, and some may even shy away from watching queer-friendly YouTube videos if it's on their home (or even a library) computer. Seeing a car pass by with a friendly sticker while your mom's driving you to your piano lesson doesn't require a kid to pursue anything: it just happens. And we need to reach (and not judge) kids who aren't ready to pursue anything, but may be comforted by seeing a queer-friendly face (or bumper).

Please consider making or buying and wearing or posting something that identifies you as a GLBTQ-friendly adult, and passing this post on or writing your own. We are needed.


Katie Birkwood said...

Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

My own version of the story you start with is seeing sixth-formers (that's 17&18 year-olds) at school wearing world AIDS day ribbons (this would be mid-1990s), and being so pleased by that, but so scared that it would be noticed that I'd noticed... Does that make sense? It's hard to believe how much difference the smallest things can make to young people who are worried.

Andrea Pearson said...

Another excellent essay. Thank you and rock on.

Thea Atwood said...

Thank you for this. I never knew that a sticker in a window or a button on a shirt or a lanyard could have such a significant impact. I will definitely be much more visible in my support from now on.