A couple of weeks ago I had a gig in a Surrey high school. It was for the Dare to Stand Out conference, a gathering of queer students and teachers and their allies.
Even though I was in a Surrey high school for an explicitly homo-positive event, I still had the familiar heart-pound-mouth-dry-watch-my-back feeling descend upon me as I entered through the double glass doors and past the school office, and followed the rainbow signs that led me into the gymnasium.
I was an adult, and I was about to speak to a bunch of queer kids and teachers. I had officially been out of school for longer than I was ever in school, but still, my body’s memory took over, and took me back. Back to my own 16-year-old self.
How do I know that I still need to work to make schools safer for all kids? Because I am still afraid of entering a high school, to this day, even now, even for something like this.
My nerves quickly disappeared when I walked into the gym and saw the 16-year-old pretty boy with the Mohawk and the eyeliner who was setting up the mics. Not to mention the awesome kickass young woman behind the soundboard, whose nametag read Darth Vader, and her sidekick, dubbed Stormtrooper, of course.
Our next generation. I love them all, just on principle, and feel fiercely, almost irrationally protective of them.
I want everything to be so much different for them than it was for us. I want them to be able to be unapologetically out and safe in their schools, and I want them to feel nothing but memories of joy and triumph should they ever return to a high school for any reason 20-some years from now.
I know, what a dreamer, right? But why not? Why not imagine building a safe, respectful environment for all kids to be educated in right now?
Is it not the year 2010? Why expect anything less, and why settle? Because we had to? That is simply not good enough.
The fact that so many of us, queer or fat or nerdy or smart or slow or brown or from somewhere that is not here, still can’t imagine school without the accompanying torment or hassle or trauma is a sign to me of just how much work we still need to do in our schools for all kids, not just the queer ones.
There were sandwiches, and mini bags of chips, and juice and pretty decent coffee. There were speakers, and Out in Schools was there to show some movies. There were stories, and tears, and really smart questions and awesome answers.
There was a lot of talk from the youth and the other presenters about the It Gets Better video project. President Obama had just posted his contribution the previous day, as had Hillary Clinton.
The kids seemed more impressed with Tim Gunn’s video from Project Runway. Said it seemed more genuine.
They said the It Gets Better videos did make them feel a bit more hopeful, and they are free and accessible to anyone with internet access, which is cool and all, but they were looking for something a little more immediate. A little more fast-acting than just believing that once high school is over, things will improve.
They wanted coping skills for right now. They wanted to organize gay-straight alliances. They were there to strategize, not just to wait it out until they could move out, get their own homo-friendly pad and go to university in the big city, where all the adults were assuring them it would get better.
I scrawled some points on the back of one of my stories and ad-libbed my way through a good portion of my talk. Then I took my notes home and cleaned them up. This is basically what I said to all those young and beautifully out-already faces that day.
1. Always remember that working to make your school safer for queer students, or bisexual students, or gendernon-conforming students is not a selfish act. Creating a safe school for yourself will only lead to a safer school for everyone, and everyone deserves a safe place to learn. Not feeling safe at school can seriously affect your ability to access your own education, which can affect you for the rest of your life. When you work to make your school better for you, you are doing your school and everyone in it, and everyone who will ever be in it in the future, a gigantic favour. Never forget that.
2. You deserve so much more than to just be tolerated. You deserve to be loved for exactly who and what you are right now. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. This also means you must return the favour. Learn about racism and sexism and ableism, too. You unfortunately are probably already well aware of how much homophobia can hurt, inside and out. Learning more about how different kinds of oppression work and where they intersect will help you build better bridges with others and create a safe and respectful school culture for everyone. Bullies are almost always outnumbered by the bullied. We just need to organize.
3. Remember that not everyone is able to come out to everyone all of the time. Some of us cannot come out to our parents yet, or our work, or our teammates, or even our friends. It is okay to know who you are and keep it private if your own safety requires it. This does not mean you are any less queer or radical or cool than the guy with the purple hair and the rainbow stockings. It just means that he has different circumstances than you do.
4. It does get better. Especially when you make it better. There are lots of us out there who care a whole lot about you, whether it feels like it sometimes or not. I am one of them, and I will never stop coming into high schools to meet kids just like you; until I stop feeling scared every freaking time I walk through those front doors, I will keep working to make all schools safer for all of us. I promise you that.
And in the meantime, when I get home I will watch It Gets Better videos, not because they are the only solution but because they make me feel a whole lot better, so I can get up the next day and get to work, making it better.