Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. Since 1988 this date has been observed nationally and internationally to promote awareness of the issues and rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.
Before scoffing or harrumphing, ask yourself if you really do understand what it means to be gay. What if your child or grandchild is the next to come out as gay? Will you be part of the solution or ... ? You know how that adage ends.
Do you remember these names: Asher Brown, Texas; Billy Lucas, Indiana; Justin Aaberg, Minnesota; Seth Walsh, California; Raymond Chase, Rhode Island; Zach Harrington, Oklahoma; Tyler Clementi, New Jersey? One year ago they were all over the news. The latest addition is Jamey Rodemeyer, New York, a 14-year-old who committed suicide recently after being repeatedly bullied at school for being gay. Déjà vu?
Progress with gay issues during the past year has been phenomenal: The "It Gets Better" campaign, the end of "don't ask, don't tell," gay marriage legalized in New York, and the administration's refusal to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. One likes to believe that, indeed, it is getting better.
However, young teens are still being bullied and committing suicide. People are still attacked, beaten or killed for no reason other than that they are gay, as were Dane Hall in Salt Lake City on Aug. 26 and Joshua Esskew in Rock Hill, S.C., on April 9.
In the minds of some, it is still OK to discriminate against people for being who they are. Educators can't speak the word "gay" aloud, literally, in the schools of Tennessee if some legislators there have their way. In Montana, consider the Legislature's effort to end protections for LGBT people in Missoula and Bozeman with House Bill 516 and to maintain an unenforceable state law criminalizing homosexuality. Why the quagmire?
There are two reasons - ignorance and fear. Too many people still know LGBT people only as stereotypes. Until they are willing to look at people around them, they won't realize that gay people lead the same mundane and "normal" lives as heterosexuals. When a family member or friend is gay, opinions change - sometimes. Until an acquaintance represents what it means to be gay, many jump to hysterical conclusions: "They will destroy the institution of marriage." "They have an agenda." "They will recruit our children to that lifestyle."
What can be done to improve the current situation?
Bullying must stop. Schools must deal with the issue in real and effective ways, not just with lip service. Efforts to educate and prevent must be as persistent and relentless as the bullying they intend to eradicate. If the U.S. military and the National Football League can say that it's not OK to discriminate, then it ought to be OK for schools to say the same. Schools can revise their policies to protect LGBT students and staff specifically. To their credit, at least four Montana public schools have already done so without a state or federal mandate. All schools have an obligation to provide a safe environment for all students. Contact the Montana Safe Schools Coalition for assistance.
Educate yourself and others. PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) are two national organizations that can provide education, advocacy, and support for all people - young, old, gay or straight.
Being gay is not a choice. What you do about it is.
Pete Shea is the state coordinator for PFLAG in Montana. He recently retired after a 40-year career as an educator.