Gay youth need relief from the burdens of bigotry

Commentary by Leroy Aarons

Twelve years ago, a man named Bobby Griffith, age 20, strode to a freeway overpass in Portland, Ore., gazed at the oncoming traffic, and, suddenly, flipped over the edge into the path of trailer-truck. He died instantly, leaving behind an extraordinary four-year diary chronicling his agonizing struggle with an irreconcilable conflict: his homosexuality and the view of his family, his church and peers and ultimately himself that he was a sinful and eternally damned individual.

From the beautifully written diary -- and the story of his mother Mary, who, in the wake of his death in 1983, underwent a painful transformation from religious zealot to crusader in behalf of other gay youngsters -- I crafted my book, Prayers for Bobby. When I began, four years ago, it was with the assumption that times had changed. Surely, I thought, the rejection he suffered in the early '80s that drove this sensitive, intelligent and talented boy to suicidal despair must no longer be the case for boys and girls today who discover their sexual orientation is different from most of their peers.

My curiosity led me to expand my research beyond the small circle of the Griffith family of Walnut Creek, Calif. I began a process that has continued after the book was published last June, examining other books, research studies, the gay and mainstream press, and asking questions at meetings of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and other gay youth support groups as I traveled across the country. The picture I discovered was mostly not a pretty one.

True, an institutional framework has begun to form around concerns of gay youth. And, in some school districts support systems have taken hold, most dramatically in the state of Massachusetts. But by and large, gay and lesbian youngsters remain the great silent minority, struggling invisibly to gain a foothold on life in the midst of a social and peer environment that still demonizes and victimizes homosexuals. They have no political clout and thus are in effect an unrepresented constituency. Adult gays tend to avoid them for fear of being tagged as pederasts.

Those young people who do surface -- voluntarily or because they are perceived as "queer" or "weird" (even if they are not gay ) -- find life is a nightmare of rejection, ostracization, insult, and potential and actual violence, including rape and murder. Most of them hunker down and lie low, somehow struggling through their junior high and high school years, keeping their guilty secret and, if fortunate, finding others like them to relate with. The fortunate ones find support within their own families, often through the auspices of organizations such as PFLAG. For the rest, there are years ahead, even decades, to spend healing the emotional wounds and ultimately, it is hoped, finding self-acceptance.

But others give in to self-loathing and despair, or are thrown out of their homes by unforgiving parents, adding to the statistics we hear about with regard to alcoholism, drugs, homelessness, AIDS among the younger generation - and suicide.

Complicating this picture is the emergence of the religious right as a powerful, organized and wealthy political force in this country. That development, nurtured over the last two decades, coincides with a general swing to the right and a marriage of interests between fundamentalist religious leaders and conservative politicians. We see the fruits of this alliance not only in Washington, but in state legislatures, cities and especially in rural and suburban communities across the country. One of the most significant phenomena is the takeover of school boards in districts around the country by religious-right candidates. Much of the activity occurs in key presidential states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which have early caucuses and primaries.

What are the consequences for gay youth?

Considerable. A principal focus of the religious right is the issue of homosexuality -- especially when it surfaces as a potential program for support of gay youngsters of training of school personnel to recognize and deal sensitively with sexual-identity issues. The ferociousness of the right's attacks on these programs has roots in two factors: a philosophical belief that homosexuality is the devil's work and can, like a virus, be passed on if one is exposed to it; and the issue's effectiveness as a wedge or hammer to wield as a political weapon. Fear of homosexuality lies close to the surface of the American psyche, making even well-meaning but uninformed people vulnerable to stereotypes and caricatures of gay people. This is especially true around schools, where the darkest visions of sexual predators and proselytizing remain vivid images of our culture, regardless of their accuracy. One consequence is they force tens of thousands of devoted gay and lesbian schoolteachers and administrators to remain fearfully closeted at risk of their careers. (As in the military, these so-called dangerous people are OK to have around as long as they pretend to be straight.)

Simultaneous with these developments has been the growth of efforts to provide a safe and hospitable environment for gay and lesbian youngsters in our schools. These attempts have sprung up in pockets across the country. Almost invariably they have met with savage -- and frequently successful -- resistance by the organized religious right, which operates on the premise that even the mention of the word homosexuality in the framework of acceptability is anathema. The result is that the schools are becoming the battleground for a war over homosexuality, the leading wedge of a fundamentalist-based political agenda that embraces such goals as school prayer, and the teaching of creationism. A case in point was the situation in Salt Lake City where all extracurricular school activities were eliminated to prevent the formation of a gay support group in one high school.

The losers in this national struggle -- part of which is being played out at the highest levels in the Congress -- are, of course, the powerless youngsters who so desperately need the help.

As a gay man who spent much of his adult life in a search of self-acceptance, it gives me a lot of pain to see what young gay kids are still going through. If it were not so painful, it would be ludicrous to witness the passionate debate over a need so obvious and a problem so fixable.

And the solutions are visibly in operation in some school systems:

The most sensitive aspect of delivery of information about gays in school environments is the area of curriculum. Here is where parental fears of "recruitment" come to the fore. Antagonism and hatred of gays is a transgenerational phenomenon passed down from schoolyard to adulthood and parenthood, to nursery and back to schoolyard. It is, in my view, a disservice to straight youngsters to allow this cycle of bigotry to go into the next century.

I am optimistic that, as gay issues and gay people continue to become public matters, comfort levels will grow. I believe that gay and lesbian students will continue courageously to go public and visible in our schools, they will continue to forge alliances with straight classmates; that more and more teachers will come out of the closet; that administrators will become increasingly aware of the terrible isolation of young people within their own systems.

From these developments momentum will build for a structure that is tolerant of differences, that protects the well-being of those who are different, while respecting the views of those who disagree.

Roy Aarons, president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, writes a regularly syndicated column on varying gay issues. He is the author of "Prayers for Bobby," a book chronicling Bobby Griffith's short life due to his inability to accept his sexuality. The book which also focuses on Bobby's mother's rebirth as a gay right advocate after her son's death is coming out in paperback in mid-August. Aarons can be contacted at raarons@aol.com. This syndicated column is reprinted with permission, and all other publication rights are reserved.
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