On December 10th, 2003, I delivered a speech at the Harvard Club in Boston on the tenth anniversary of the passage Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law.
Up until 1993, Massachusetts law protected students against discrimination in terms of admission to public schools or access to school courses and activities on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, religion, and national origin. The Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Bill added sexual orientation to the protected classes.
I had gone to some of the Governors Commission hearings in 1992 when I was 16 and a junior at Belmont High School. I had just come out to my family and an inner circle of friends…
I was isolated, depressed and felt alone when I first attended these hearings. I did not testify, but I came with Jessica Beyers and Velvet Ganshaw, my friends from BAGLY. I sat and listened to them and others testify about their experiences being lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – and the difficulties and struggles they faced on a daily basis in school and in the world.
I even brought my mom one day… It seemed to have a positive effect on her, at a time when we had a strained relationship.
The Governors’ Commission hearings had a profound effect on me, as well, as I began to find my voice.
Of course there were detractors who came in the form of guidance counselors and concerned adults who said that “change only happens gradually over time”, or that “its just a phase”, or that I “just wanted attention” and that I “would regret coming out publicly”. . . They were, of course, wrong and out numbered by positive and supportive people.
They also made tired arguments about whether or not sexual identity was a choice or something you were born with – which doesn’t matter, anyway and has nothing to do with whether or not queer people deserve an equal opportunity to an education in a safe environment free from harassment and discrimination.
The hearings inspired me to begin organizing and working for the passage of the Gay Student Rights Law which had been in the legislature for a while.
I proposed an independent study my senior year at school and began working with David La Fontaine and Bernie Gardella and and along side other youth activists.
It was during this time that I learned about media relations: speeding around town, firing off press releases, courting the media, writing op-ed pieces, organizing and publicizing rallies and lobby days at the state house and watching people come out of the wood-work.
I had gone from being a victim to becoming an empowered advocate, almost over night.
Some days it was just me and my mom stuffing hundreds of Action Alert envelops until our tongues became sticky with glue. Other days I was cutting classes to get ready for radio interviews and speak with the movers and shakers of Beacon Hill.
The Fall of 1993 was truly was a whirl-wind of activity culminating when Governor Weld signed the bill into law and the media response that followed.
The day of the Rally at the State House that October was my most memorable moment. I was nervous, walking up the Freedom Trail to the State House from the Park Street subway station, rehearsing the pauses and spaces that Bernie helped me put into my testimonial, wondering whether the bill would even make it past the state senate.
My efforts and the efforts of everyone else had not been wasted and the day of the signing came just a few weeks later in December. . . The flash of a photographers’ bulb burnt the moment into history forever. . .
. . .I was there. The events of 1993 taught me what could be done when people put their minds, resources & energy together and worked their hearts out.
After that, no matter how difficult the ups and downs in my life went, I could always turn to the law and say, “I was part of that…I helped make that happen” and no one could ever take that away from me.
I continued to appear at speaking engagements at conferences through 1994 until I graduated high school – – the Oprah show being the final chapter.
Then I moved to Chicago and pursued a BFA at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Since then, I have continued to push for social justice in my community, working at an AIDS service provider and needle exchange in Providence.
I am also a working artist and puppeteer and have been performing regularly here, in Boston, and in Rhode Island as well as showing my artwork in gallery shows.
It has now been ten years since we passed this law – ten years! And we are still not there yet!!!!
I heard that there’s about 200 Gay-Straight Alliances in the state and that’s a great achievement….It’s a lot more than the handfull that existed when I went to school 10 years ago…
But that means that theres still about a hundred and sixty schools without them. And we need to do something about that.
Shortly after, I moved back to the east coast I was disappointed when I read how the Safe Schools budget had been drastically slashed.
Since then I have learned that queer teens are still going through the same obstacles that I had to go through: daily harassment, and suffering in silence while schools drag their feet in non-compliance or just turn the other way.
That is unacceptable.
If you are a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or a questioning teen and you are in school now. . . .Hang in there. Don’t give up.
Help start a Gay-Straight Alliance in your school if you don’t have one, or help out the Governors Comission & the Safe Schools Project.
The spirit of this law is the politics of inclusion.
Growing up, especially these days, is difficult as it is. . . and being different or perceived different can make it that much harder.
Whether its being queer, or fat, or weird, or a teen mom, or the child of an alcoholic parent….
Everyone wins with the Gay Student Rights Law because contributes to an environment of greater acceptance in public schools and in the world…
Living in a time of fear, when more and more of our civil liberties are being taken away from us, we must hold our institutions accountable and continue to challenge our movement and ask ourselves what the next frontier of inclusion is.
It is the 10th anniversary of this law! It is a time to celebrate! And a time to take action!