Little Rock, 1957
September marked the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. This event is significant in American history as much for the way it came about as for the event itself. In order to keep nine black students from attending the school, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard, this despite a court order requiring the integration. Those nine courageous students were finally able to attend a full day of classes with the help of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, sent by President Eisenhower to insure their safety.
At this point you may be asking yourself, "What does this have to do with being gay?" Well, as I watched news coverage of the anniversary and read articles in magazines, I began to think about parallels between that historic event and gay teenagers today. Just like those nine black students in Little Rock forty years ago, gay students today want to go to a school where they can be accepted for who they are and be safe from verbal and physical abuse.
The "Little Rock Nine" were met at school on that first day by an angry mob of racists who threatened violence and hurled ugly, hateful remarks at them.
Many students who are openly gay have faced similar problems. Although it may take place on a smaller scale, the threat of violence, of being beaten simply for being gay, is a very real one. For many, verbal abuse is a daily occurrence. One such teen, Jamie Nabozny of Wisconsin, recently made headlines. After years of taunts and physical abuse, including one beating that sent him to the emergency room, Jamie sued his school district and its administrators. One principal had actually told him that if he was going to be openly gay, then he should expect that kind of treatment from other students. A Wisconsin jury found the school officials guilty of not protecting Jamie and the case was settled for $900,000.
Even for students who are not out, the threat of taunts, of possible violence, of how life would change if people at school found out they were gay weighs heavy. I have a friend with whom I chat online often. He is a bright, self-confident young man who is very comfortable with his sexuality.
Yet he speaks of how his life would change for the worse if people in his highly conservative community were to find out that he is gay. It surprises and saddens me that in this day and age a person can still feel that an entire community would be unaccepting of someone because of something like sexual orientation. Yet everyday, students go to school with just that feeling.
Forty years ago, on September 4, 1957, the black students in Little Rock agreed to meet a few blocks away from school and face the crowd together.
But one student, Elizabeth Eckford, did not have a phone and never got the message. She faced the angry crowd alone. In an interview I saw recently, she said that as she walked through the mob she was looking for just one friendly face, one person who was willing to step forward and help her.
As I heard that, I began to think about how one person can make a difference in the life of a gay, lesbian or bisexual teenager. What would happen if one friendly face came forward to make things easier for those students who needed someone? How much easier would it make things for my friend to know that not everyone at his school is as close-minded as he thinks? That one person can be a teacher, an administrator, or another student. In the current issue of Oasis, staff writer Paul Pellerito profiles Jason Hungerford, a 1995 graduate of Osbourn High School in Manassas, Virginia.
Jason sent stories about the problems faced by gay students to the administrators at his school along with anonymous notes asking why it was happening and what could be done. That led to meetings at the school that made people more aware of gay issues. By doing what he did, Jason made things easier for every gay student who follows him at Osbourn.
The act may be something as simple as coming out against what a person perceives as intolerance and close-minded thinking. Forty years ago a courageous editor of the Little Rock Central High School student newspaper challenged her fellow students to be open-minded in receiving the school's new black students, a bold statement considering the time and the place.
Last month I wrote about the safe zones that had been established at Brookfield (CT) High School and the controversy that had erupted because of them. After the issue came out I got an email from a graduate of the school telling me how much those safe zones had meant. He is now attending a good university and is comfortable with who he is and how he fits into the world, and he credits those teachers at BHS, who were simply willing to listen, with helping him get there.
So if someone tells you that one person can't make a difference, tell them they are wrong. Any act, no matter how small it seems, can have a positive impact on the life of another person. You never know when someone may be looking for that "friendly face" in a crowd.
Comments can be sent to me at BCEagleGuy@aol.com. And if you're looking for a glbt youth group near you, check out the directory on my web page.