Last month I had the pleasure of visiting Methuen High School and sitting in on a meeting of the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance). Several of my colleagues and I are currently organizing such a group at the Marsh Grammar School and wanted to see one in action. I was very excited to go for a number of reasons: to see how these groups function, to gather ideas on how we’d like the Marsh’s group to be organized and run, and to see some of my old students.
Caroline Mulligan, a former student of mine, has been the GSA president for the past two years. Advisors for the GSA are faculty members Jackie Mokaba and Michael Coco. The group consisted of about twelve students in various grades, stages of sexual acceptance/transition, and identities.
The meeting began with each member introducing him or herself, stating the pronouns they prefer being referred to by and answering a “fun” question. The fun question was, “What did you have for lunch today.” Myself and one other faculty member from the Marsh were there as observers.
Most of the members chose to be referred by the pronouns assigned to them by nature. One member, female by nature, requested to be referred to by male pronouns. I was intrigued and impressed by such a young individual being comfortable enough and courageous enough to be honest about their preferred title.
After meeting with them I had hoped to come to at least another meeting or two but, to my disappointment and due to my schedule, I was not able to attend any of their last few meetings. I sent Ms. Mulligan a few questions to pose to the group and received prompt and honest responses.
The first question I posed was, “What is the group’s philosophy and objectives? Every single one of them answered in the same manor: To offer a safe environment. This statement is both encouraging and disconcerting in its obvious simplicity. It is encouraging because we have a large public school seeing the need to offer a safe place for its LGBTQ students and organizing one. Yet it is disconcerting because there is the need for one. Why do our LGBTQ students need a safe place to “feel welcome” and “be themselves”? The answer is just as simple as the question, because the natural school setting along with society does not provide that for them. How shameful.
The next question posed was, “What do you see is the biggest problem for the LGBTQ community? This is where the answers were quite varied which is testament to the adverse backlash this community gets from the rest of society. Bullying, discrimination, lack of open-mindedness, being ignored, social acceptance, not being accepted by friends and family, being told they are wrong, lack of respect, the media, and a lack of law protecting against discrimination in areas like housing and employment were their responses. These young adults ranging from what must be 14-18 years of age have a frighteningly keen grasp of what is it is like to be a member of the LGBTQ community. Their experience of discrimination, hate and unacceptance is embarrassing and unacceptable in a country that has, “And freedom for all,” in its pledge.
“What do you see for the future for the LBGTQ community?” Their answers were surprisingly and heartwarmingly optimistic. They all see a brighter future. One member wrote, “I like to think that over time, through enough education, that it’ll be accepted. It may not happen when I’m alive, but it’ll happen.” Another wrote, “I would like to see LGBT+ issues lose their secret and shameful nature. There are other more serious changes I’d like to see nationwide, or even worldwide.” A sentiment this columnist fully agrees with and applauds. Overall, these wonderful young adults are overwhelmingly positive about their future and the future of the up and coming LGBTQ that will continue to add to our general population but, also see that there are bigger issues than those they are personally facing.
I asked them what they aspired to in their own personal future. Once again, the list was varied with some thread of commonality. They aspired to become a game designer, philanthropist, illustrator, biologist and LGBTQ activist, scientist, English teacher, LGBTQ advocate, entertainer, and writer. Every one of them expressed making a change in this world and I have no doubt that they will. I know their impact will be positive.
My final two questions evoked the most heartfelt and moving responses, which I hoped they would: Do you have any messages for the people of the Merrimack Valley regarding the LGBTQ community? What could they do to help? What do you want them to understand the most? Several of them expressed the desire for those of us in the Merrimack Valley to, not necessarily accept who they are and how they define themselves, but respect them as human beings. One of them requested, “Be aware of what you say and what your words mean to those who hear them.” Another stated, “We are humans just like you. We are the same flesh and bone that live on this planet. Please accept that. We cannot change.” The response that touched me the most and I hope it does my readers was incredibly poignant, “Being in the LGBT community isn’t like running through a field of flowers. It’s difficult. You have to understand that we don’t choose to be this way. We’re human and just want to be loved and happy.” In the end, isn’t that what we all want?
All in all, I am very impressed with the youth of the LGBTQ community. I envy that they are “coming out” at this point in history. I hid myself for thirty years for fear of loss and retribution. I agree that the future is much more promising for them and that they will be more accepted and embraced by family, friends and society than in my generation. I applaud their courage, admire their strength, and am anxious to see what wonderful contributions they will bring to this world.