Derik Cowan

April 1997

Harassment from the Past

I wasn't out in high school. Well, I knew I was gay, and I did tell a couple of friends that I had same sex attractions. But I wasn't out widely, not really because I was afraid to be out to classmates -- most of them thought I was gay anyway, but because I didn't want my sexuality to get back to my parents. I think that life has justified that choice for me, but I still feel at times that I should have come out earlier. I look back at my time in high school, and I think that things there would be so different if just one person came out and forced the school to deal with gay issues. It isn't like I was the only gay person in my high school at the time. One of my best friends right now is someone who graduated the year before me who I ran into at college and has since come out. I've heard of a number of others among my schoolmates who have come out, and I've even had a former teacher come out to me. I can't help thinking that if only one of us had been either aware enough or strong enough to come out, we could have made the school a much better place for LBGT students.

There isn't, of course, anyway that I can truly go back and change the past, but I decided to do the second best thing that I could and came out in the alumni newsletter. I don't know what I expected the response to be -- mostly I just expected that people would read it, perhaps find it somewhat scandalous, but not feel the need to respond to me about it. Perhaps I thought that I might be contacted by some other students or alums who had come out. I certainly didn't expect to be harassed for it. In spite of everything that's happened to me, I guess I still tend to underestimate the capacity to hate that our enemies have, because indeed the only response I got was from a homophobe.

He was one of my former history teachers, a man who had a definite set of disciples in the school, mostly male students, all of whom were rebelliously conservative in the face of the institution's lily-white liberal ideology. To his credit, I had been one of his more apt pupils, a young man who had often gone to him for guidance. He had been a mentor of sorts to me in high school both in regards to politics and religion, and I can understand how he would react badly to finding out that one of his biggest disciples had made what an abrupt 180 degree turn from what he had portrayed in high school. But that doesn't make what he did right.

The day after I received the alumni newsletter that contained my coming out statement in it, I received a letter from him bringing first congratulations on my upcoming graduation from college but quickly becoming far more vicious in tone. He said that he had been surprised to see that I'm involved in working for the rights of gays and lesbians because someone with my sort of background should know that those sort of people are the cause for the downfall of our nation and the only way to truly help them would be to get them out of their perverted, disease spreading lifestyle. I was shocked and angered to the point that I didn't know how to respond. This was the first time that I've really found myself the target of a hate attack from someone who was more or less not intimately involved with my life, and I tried to blow it off, but it hurt to know that people were so willing to see GLBT people as somehow less than human or emotionless that they could say terrible things about them to their faces without impunity.

The letters continued, some of them containing informational pamphlets for Exodus Ministries, a christian group that purports to being able to make gay people turn straight (ironically, Exodus Ministries was long ago discredited when it was found out that the leaders of it (supposed former gays) were using the ministry to seduce those who were coming to be straightened out. Apparently that's been covered up fairly well in the fundamentalist community I came out of), all carrying the basic message that homosexuality is evil, disapproved of by God and abhorrent to mankind, and each becoming more and more frustrated with my refusal to respond. Frankly, I'm at a point in my life where I don't feel the need to defend my life to those who will never change their minds and only want to degrade me, so I will never respond to him.

But all of this brings a larger issue into focus for me. This teacher retired a year or so ago, and so no longer can harm students coming through my old high school. But how many teachers are there out there who feel perfectly justified in doing the same to their students or former students? Jesse Helms and his ilk refuse to let us get the information we need in our schools because they are afraid of us recruiting, but who's worrying about the homophobic teachers who are doing their best to harass those of us who are out and gay back into the closet (and therefore back into being straight in their eyes) or keep those of us who would like to come out from doing so? Why does nobody do anything about them? I think in the gay youth community we talk often about safe schools, but safe schools aren't only created by getting gay friendly materials in the counseling office or by instituting harsher punishments on students who gay bash their peers. We need to also address what goes on in the classroom to make sure that students aren't being given debilitating messages from the blackboard.

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