I just got back from doing my anti-bullying storytelling show in a couple of small towns last week, just in time to open the newspaper and read about rightwing Christian radio hosts and rogue school board members targeting programs like Out in Schools, and “pro family” organizations taking out full-page ads full of hate and fear-mongering in national newspapers.
I had just performed for 1,500 kids in two days in four schools, and as always, I walked away inspired and full of hope for the world. These kids are smarter and savvier than the right-wing seems willing or able to give them credit for, and they are certainly wiser and worldlier than I remember being when I was 15.
That’s the funny thing, right? That the evangelicals seem so convinced that their kids will grow up heterosexual as long as they never cross paths with a living breathing homosexual. It is like they actually truly believe that if they can somehow just keep us homos out of schools, or at least keep us in the closet, and keep our lives and our language out of the curriculum, all of their children will magically grow up to be straight. What they forget is that no matter what kind of self-hatred and misinformed poison they whisper into their kids’ ears, an estimated 10 percent of them will grow up to be some sort of queer, and the real question is whether they will somehow find the strength to survive and thrive and live truthfully despite what they were taught to believe about themselves.
So in some ways, every time I swallow the lump in my throat and step through those streaky glass doors at the front of every high school I enter, I am there for those kids the most. Because I know that despite how scary high school can be for some kids, for others high school is the only place they might have any hope of acceptance and support, because they are not going to find it at home.
The thing is, I don’t even say the word queer while I am there. I just tell stories. Stories about growing up with my cousins and little sister, stories about my gran. Stories about Wendy, Tracy, Sandra, Jeanie and Kerri-Anne, the mean girls back at my own high school. My show is designed to get the kids talking about bullies and teen suicide and how the way we treat each other affects the kind of people we are, and the kind of adults we might become. I don’t need to say the word queer, because it is not about being queer. It is about each and every one of them being safe enough to access their education, and about respecting difference.
Because I remember who got picked on in school. The fat kids, the dumb kids, the slow kids, the fast kids, the poor kids, the boys who threw like girls, the kids who weren’t white, the quiet kids and the religious kids. That’s right, Christian right. Your kids. The ones who weren’t allowed to go on dates, go to dances, wear the right clothes, or makeup, or watch the right television shows or listen to the right music. When I was in school, the risqué show was Dallas and the dangerous band was Judas Priest, and today maybe it is more like True Blood and Gaga, but the song remains the same.
I got this email when I got home, from one of the teachers: “We have had a two-year leadership focus on inclusiveness and anti-bullying, and your presentation supported this so beautifully . . . getting to that part of the audience that may not always be listening or be open to receiving a message. This week we had three different groups come up to our admin to report an incident where a vulnerable Grade 10 boy was being harassed by older boys in the lounge. Our principal called all six of the boys up for a visit. They were banned from the lounge for a week and the public shaming was a lovely thing. Two of the boys called in were not harassing the boy, but they didn’t say anything. They apologized for not speaking up when they knew they should have and could have stopped the ugly affair. Anyway, we think that your performance may have been fresh on our students’ minds and something very good came out of a potentially very bad situation. So thank you again.”
I want to share part of a letter I got from a student after a show I did in a high school last spring:
“Heeeyyy. So you came to my school today. After I got in the car with my older brother and told him all about you, and he goes, Britney, you are one of those girls. I yelled at him and then gave him the silent treatment the whole way back, but when I wasn’t talking to him I was thinking yah, I am one. I’m a Kerri-Anne or a Wendy or that volleyball team. But I don’t want to be. So I just wanted to say thanks. Because even though I have all this respect for you, I don’t always give that respect to other people, and I know I am not going to change this second cause it’s been a part of me since I can remember, but I’m going to be conscious of it all the time now. I know you are making an impact I just wanted to be the extra email that helps motivate you to never quit.”
So, Britney, I promise you, I will never quit. And evangelicals, you might want to think again about stopping folks like me from doing this kind of work in schools. Because chances are pretty good that it might just be your kid who is going to need us to be there for them the most.