I usually give the usual coming out narrative. I explain to people that my high school was not a safe space. I don’t go into detail (I think I don’t want to remember what it felt like) but I list a couple of examples of the types of things my teachers and fellow peers used to say about homosexuality to justify how the hostile climate of my high school would not have been accepting of my identity. I may choose to tell them about my classmate who told me that all gay people should be hanged or I may include several tantalizing and tragic vignettes of the way I was bullied in the hallways called fagatron. I tell people that as soon as I got away from my high school and moved to ‘liberal’ California I was able to experience a sort of self-liberation. I finally felt ‘comfortable’ enough to visibly and politically articulate my sexual identity.
Speaking at my high school in front of an audience of a couple dozen queer, questioning, and allied students made me fundamentally reconsider the way I construct this narrative and the power that is implicit in all our narratives (and how we self-actualize them).
What would it mean to essentially tell these students that the only way they could experience affirmation and acceptance was if they moved out? What would it mean to focus on the bad parts, to remind them of the prejudice they experience on a day to day basis?
In preparing my thoughts for this talk I found that not only did I have to speak to a new and unfamiliar demographic, I also had to speak to myself. I began to recognize the limits of the political strategy that is implied by my coming out narrative.
It is a politic that reinforces a (false) dichotomy by constructing the South as inherently backwards and ‘the rest of the US’ as inherently ‘progressive.’ (Even though the reality of the situation is that prejudice is ubiquitous and not limited to particular bodies or spaces). It is a politic that ignores the material and social consequences of my educational, familial, able-bodied, class, and gender privilege because it assumes that all bodies can ‘escape.’ It is a politic that subsumes the specificity and complexity of our social development within a simple and narrowly focused ‘gay’ narrative (what about all the other experiences I had in high school? How were they crucial in contributing to my ‘development’ and why are they dismissed in this narrative?) Most importantly, it is a politic which elides a very radical and important possibility: the notion that it actually IS possible to change our home and find liberation within structures of heterosexism.
In writing this speech I began to realize that my very narrative – my core understanding of ‘self’ – is not outside of prejudiced power structures. Even though my narrative feels so right and comes so easily – perhaps it only comes easy because it is not actually challenging anything. Perhaps I only began to understand my narrative as such simply because this was the dominant narrative I had been socialized into.
After interrogating my own narrative and the assumptions that govern it I’m interested in disrupting it. I think narratives like these reinforce the very power structures we are trying to dismantle. We need to present more complicated counter-narratives that are messy, contradictory, depressing, and realistic.
This is what I wish I had heard when I was struggling in my high school.
What comes to mind when you think of the ‘gay’ movement? Chances are you think of the Human Rights Campaign and their gosh-darnit this is so aesthetically pleasing ‘equality’ sticker – the very sticker you were so proud of yourself for sticking on the back of your mom’s minivan that you drive to school. Chances are you think of marriage equality: of the ‘State’ ‘denying’ gay people their very integrity and going against ‘true love.’ Now I want you to think about what comes to mind when you think of gay ‘activists’ who compose our movement. Chances are you think of people participating in protests and rallies screaming into megaphones demanding full and equal rights. You might think of a Pride Parade with gorgeous and fit gay people dressed up with all their reckless fabulosity.
Now I want to ask you a question. What would change in your life right now if the Supreme Court ruled that banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and that every State in the United States now had to legalize same-sex marriage?
My guess is that after your cried tears of joy, felt a delicious burst of self-affirmation in your heart, texted all your friends, and kept the news on all night, you would recognize thatvery little in your day-to-day life would change.
Chances are you will still get made fun of. Chances are the teachers who called you Satanic for wearing a rainbow bracelet to school will still think you are Satanic. Actually, the prejudice you experience might even increase. Imagine how angry the uber-Republican Coach who teaches you American History will be? Imagine the comments he’ll say in class, imagine the points he’ll deduct from your papers without giving any reason.
Next ask yourself: What would happen if you tried to organize a Pride Parade in the hallways of your high school?
Sure it’d be a bunch of fun to organize. You might even get funding from one of those holy mainstream gay rights organization for this project. You might even get featured on their website. But, imagine what your teachers would do. Some of them, undoubtedly, would be very proud of you and your confident visibility. But imagine the teachers, students, and administrators who would be annoyed. Imagine how much trouble you would get in. Imagine what the school would look like when all the confetti was cleaned up.
It would be just as ugly, just as sterile, just as prejudiced.
Marriage equality and pride/visibility are two tactics that have become made central to the organizing of our LGBT movement.
Now I want you to think critically of these images: of the gay couple getting married, of the gay marriage activists running around in Pride parades – do they look like you? Do they experience their sexualities like you? Are their tactics, their identities, pertinent to you?
I don’t think so. It is my belief that these dominant ideas actually aren’t related to your situation. For many of you your sexuality is the worst thing in the world to happen to you. You are terribly confused, alone, and scared as hell. Most mornings you wake up afraid to go to school and most nights you ask yourself whether or not you are going to make it to the next day. Sure you are reading these articles online (and clearing the cookies afterwards), but you are far too scared to share them with your parents (because you know they’re far too conservative to accept you). But, these images make you think that one day you could grow up and ‘come out’ and become a ‘gay activist’ and maybe even get married! That one day – once you’re out of this god-forsaken high school you will be able to experience happiness like that; that your life will be meaningful.
You have been made to believe that the only way that you’re going to experience happiness is in the future. Because of these images, because of your very understandings of ‘activism’ and ‘gay,’ you do not believe that you can be satisfied right now. We believe the myths that we are told that it will somehow “get better” in the future because we are terribly lonely. We fear rejection from our schools, from our families, from our religions, from our friends. So we hold on to these images. So we plaster our binders with Equality Stickers and we dream of what it will be like to move to New York City, to find a lover, to get married, to have our parents say, “It’s okay.”
I actually believe that these dominant ideas lull us into complacency and prolong our feelings of inadequacy because they make ‘happiness’ and ‘activism’ as somehow beyond our reach. I want to show you that you have the power to cultivate happiness and engage in activism RIGHT now. That liberation doesn’t have to be after your graduate. That even in your awful and prejudiced high school you have an oasis of hope right now in your own heart and those of your peers.
Adopt your own individual narrative of identity and resistance
The dominant definitions of activism and positive depictions of homosexuality that we encounter do not fit our specific situations. Let’s think critically about our own needs and experiences with our identities. The truth is there is not one way to be an activist nor is there one way to be gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or an ally, or queer. Actually, we have to develop, cultivate, and organize around our own frameworks. Only by addressing the (harsh) and (depressing) realities of our own situation will we be able to overcome them. What follows are some suggestions and some of my concerns with adopting a ‘gay’ ‘rights’ framework in high schools.
Let’s first think at the level of identity articulation and formation. You and I have internalized understandings that the only way that we’re going to be happy is when we come out as ‘gay.’ I used to think this. There were nights in high school I’d go outside and scream “I’m gay” in my backyard just because I felt guilty, dirty that I was hiding from the rest of the world. I’d imagine what it would be like to be ‘out’ and ‘happy.’ I conflated ‘out’ with ‘happy.’
The mandate to come out is actually impractical for young people. The action of ‘coming out’ associates that there is a space to land once you take those preliminary steps. The truth is many of you cannot afford to be ‘out’ right now. You may step out and find that the ground has been moved beneath you: you could be kicked out of your houses. You may step out and experience violence: You could be beaten up at school. You could lose all your friends. Is this worth the cost?
The mandate to ‘come out’ privileges a particular notion of mobility – that we must ‘move’ away from where we currently reside in order to be liberated. Coming out is narrative not only privileged at the level of the individual, but at the level of ‘community.’ We are encouraged not just to identify as ‘gay,’ but to participate in gay life – to move to San Francisco, to live the gay lifestyle, to, sometimes, even go out further – to the gay cities of Europe and beyond.
This mandate of mobility is detrimental to our project. Most of us cannot move (due to the conservatism of our town, our class and racial identities, our obligations to family/community). Not only can we not move, but why should we have to move? What if we were able to build resistance from within (the closet, the conservative town, the ‘abject’ place?)
Let’s re-frame the narrative of mobility. It’s up to you to decide. You should never feel pressured to identify a certain way or to follow a particular trajectory. You should not be judged for only telling some of your friends and not others. Do what makes you comfortable. Do not judge other people for not ‘coming out,’ even if you know they are so bicurious. Use the words that make you comfortable, or don’t use words at all. Find frameworks, labels, terms, situations that maximize your happiness right now. Maybe ‘coming out’ doesn’t even make sense to you. That’s completely fine!
Stop focusing on the ‘closet’ as a site of repression (I know this is hard, but try it), and view it, rather, as a strategic tool. View it as an outfit. Don’t let it restrict you. Take it on or off as you please. It can always be there for you in the back of your closet even when you’re technically ‘out.’ We each have to create our own strategies and paths to liberation and these paths may end up in completely different directions with very different destinations. You don’t need to be ‘out,’ you do not need move to a city, to ‘the North’ to experience affirmation and find safe spaces. You have the ability to excavate small spaces of resistance with your own identity, friend group, and schools. Sure these spaces may not be as ‘glamorous’ and ‘liberating’ as you’d like them to be, but there is nothing wrong or backward about them.
Build Diverse Coalitions
This process of introspection and analysis of our own particular surroundings doesn’t only make us reconsider how we negotiate the closet, but it also encourages us to analyze the very language with which we use to articulate our own sexualities and speak about sexuality in our schools. I encourage you, as people committed to ending prejudice in your school, to self-reflect on whether the term ‘gay’ is really effective for you.
Many ‘gay rights’ interventions in high schools have been reactionary. We have an understanding that there is an immediate crisis of (serious) prejudice directed against people perceived to be non-heterosexual / gender transgressive and we want to stop this prejudice as soon as possible. While this is certainly important, we need to make sure that the methods we employ to articulate this prejudice and counter it aren’t actually counter-intuitive to our ultimate goals of ending discrimination. In order to do this we must not only be reactionary, but we must think of the root causes of prejudice – where does prejudice emergence? How does it become cultivated and disseminated? What ideologies construct this?
In order to answer these questions we must not only focus on the experiences of non-heterosexual / gender variant students, but we must also incorporate a frank analysis of the experiences of ‘prejudiced’ ‘bullies’ themselves! Indeed, these ‘perpetrators’ are just as much victims of the patriarchal and heterosexist society we live in. They are struggling with the same gender and sexual boundaries that we are, they just respond in very different ways. Let’s think about what it would mean to incorporate these ‘bullies’ into our analysis at the level of identity articulation / word choice.
The word ‘gay’ is by no means neutral. Think about how your peers often use it: “That’s so gay” (as a pejorative). ‘Gay’ becomes constructed as a site of failure, of incompetence, perhaps even of perversion. I remember in high school even though I wouldn’t walk, talk, or dress like the other boys as long as I avoided the term gay I was able to excavate relative spaces of safety. As soon as I became labeled as ‘gay,’ or ‘faggot,’ I immediately became more susceptible to verbal and physical harassment. By ‘marking’ an individual as ‘gay,’ they become associated with all of the negative stereotypes and may actually experience increased risk of discrimination than they had before they identified as anything. Thus, we have to be careful in the way that we always feel the need to ‘name’ difference because this very process of naming or identifying may by antithetical to our goals. Sure, you could argue that by proudly identifying as ‘gay’ in high school you have the ability to significantly counter these stereotypes and re-frame assumptions. This is probably the case for close friends and family, but does it have an effect on the most homophobic people in our schools – the ringleaders of violence and prejudice? In fact continuing to push ‘gay’ identity may preclude the very possibility of conversation with these people – conversation that is necessary for changing school climate. In propagating ‘gay,’ we, in turn, create ‘straight’ – we give words, language, verbal ammunition to construct ‘bullies’ who now see themselves as ‘straight.’ In a patriarchal and heterosexist world what transcripts, what scripts do we have for heterosexuality? The type of heterosexuality these (newly straight) people adopt are prejudiced, exclusionary, perhaps even violent. In dwelling in the language of ‘identity’ based asks and claims we need to think about how ‘homosexuality’ AND ‘heterosexuality’ interact to mutually construct one another as identities and practices. There is actually a radical possibility in ambiguity, in the unnamed. It may feel weird and uncomfortable, but at a strategic level it may permit us access to spaces, conversations, and hearts that we wouldn’t have before.
Even ‘positive’ depictions of homosexuality may have negative affects on the efficacy of our advocacy. Think about positive depictions of homosexuality you may have encountered online, through pornography, or on TV: chances are the ‘gay’ people you have seen are white, male, able-bodied. Considering that many youth come to formulate their understanding of ‘gay’ subjectivity/identity from these discourses (and not from actual encounters with people who identify as gay) we must recognize that when we employ the word ‘gay’ in our schools we simultaneously evoke all of these larger associations (which are racialized, class-based, gendered, etc?). What does it mean to continue to use the word ‘gay’ as the percentage of people of color in our schools continues to increase?
Growing up as a queer South Asian I always felt like ‘gay’ was for white people. I had never seen brown ‘gay’ people, so I assumed that at some level my increasingly uncertain sexuality was a result of my Westernization, a racial and ethnic failing, a process of me becoming more ‘White.’ Yet, ‘gay’ was the only framework I heard about, so I accepted and internalized it readily and began to reject my South Asian culture, assuming that (white) Western culture provided a space of recognition and acceptance for me that my own ethnicity did not.
Indeed, the use of ‘gay’ in our advocacy may have the effect of isolating heterosexual-identified and queer students of color. The way we have emphasized ‘gay’ as the one intelligible way of comprehending non-heteronormative expressions actually causes queer youth of color (like me) to experience isolation from our cultures, traditions, and families. Thus, Youth activists have to make a concerted effort to
1) Cultivate leadership of queer people of color and other people with intersectional identities in our groups and organizations
2) Recognize a vast array of different ways of identifying/labeling/articulating sexuality and not advancing an imperative of ‘gay’ identity (one that is often racialized as White) 3) Incorporate anti-racist frameworks in our messaging and pleas (i.e. not adopting zero tolerance policies for homophobia as this contributes to a high school to prison pipeline which disproportionately affects people of color).
Finally, what does it mean to advocate for ‘gay’ ‘rights’ in your high school when the majority of people are just beginning to have sexual and erotic encounters? Seeing that there are already so few spaces to talk about sex (in my high school we didn’t even have sexual education!), what does it mean to introduce the topic of homosexuality? First this might actually reduce the number of people experimenting sexually in your high school. As soon as people begin to associate same-sex intimacy/encounters with a very particular ‘gay’ identity,’ they might feel like they don’t identify/look like that ‘identity,’ and stop themselves from experimenting. Also, as research suggests, often the most homophobic people are the people who repress their homoerotic desires the most. If we want to reduce homophobia in our schools, we need to create the conditions for more homoeroticism, for more experimentation, and a ‘gay’ ‘rights’ based framework may not allow us to do this.
Focusing on ‘gay’ advocacy also could be interpreted to create a special category with ‘special’ rights. What if we were to re-focus our advocacy toward sexual education in school more holistically? This would allow us to incorporate everyone into our asks and advocacy. We could use more language like ‘self-determination’ and ‘sexual health’ that is, of course, inclusive of queer identities/practices. In making demands for progressive sexual health/education curriculums we are providing forums to talk about what bodies – not just gay bodies – can do and consent to. Homosexuality can become less associated with a particular type of identity (one that becomes Othered, demonized, and discriminated against) and moreso a particular type of action.
We will certainly face backlash in making these claims. Conservative parents will think that we are trying to recruit their children with our homosexual agenda. However, the result of actually obtaining progressive sexual education might not be as important as the process and the conversations we get to have about sex, sexuality, and health. The language that we employ and disseminate in this advocacy is what’s important as it sparks consciousness, self-reflection, and capacity for dialogue. These conversations allow students to think about their own sexualities, respective sexual privileges, ignorance about their own identities, confusion, anxieties, and insecurities. These thoughts, these interactions create new capacities for coalition building and solidarity.
Re-conceptualize ‘activism’ and ‘allyship’
As youth queer activists we need to be more deeply concerned and troubled with the way that the mainstream gay rights movement has dominated the very language of ‘Equality.’ What does it mean that the very word ‘Equality’ has become claimed and marketed by the gay movement when there are so many continuing social and economic inequalities in our society?
We recognize this reality every day in our hallways. It’s not just the ‘gay’ kids who get picked on: it’s the kids of color, it’s the non-Christian kids, it’s the ‘fat’ kids,’ it’s the kids with disabilities, it’s the poor kids. Yes, bullying on the basis of gender and sexual identity is a major issue, but it’s an issue among many. As young people we have a particularly privileged vantage point to understand that inequality still exists against many different social groups. We interact with diverse people daily. Unlike our (older) peers who work at fancy non-profit organization offices in Washington DC and New York City and are able to think of ‘prejudice’ and ‘equality’ in narrowly focused ways that only consider the experience of ‘gay’ students, we encounter multiple-forms of discrimination every day we go to school. In fact, we might even be the cause of some of this discrimination: accepting our LGBT friends but making fun of the kids in Special Education.
If we really want to dismantle prejudice against LGBT people we need to think more about what type of bodies, what type of personalities, what type of identities get stigmatized in our school and how these struggles are interconnected. Indeed, my high school presented a really tangible and easily accessible way to understand how heteronormativity intersects with multiple systems of discrimination. Every year the homecoming king and queen looked the same: they were a heterosexual pair, white, Christian, able-bodied, blonde, athletes, upper-middle class, etc. etc. Through the institution of ‘Homecoming,’ we can see how many high schools (not just my own) valorize not only heterosexuality, but Whiteness and Able-bodiedness. Students who do not fit the ‘paragon’ ideal are made to feel insignificant, self-loathing, insufficient. Growing up I not only wanted to be straight, I wanted to be white, I wanted to be Christian, I wanted to be rich, I wanted to wear Abercrombie & Fitch (not because it was sartorially pleasing…far from it!…)
Considering the intersections of these prejudices at a real and immediate level in our schools, I do not think we should be only focusing on discrimination against kids on the basis of gender and sexual identity. In doing so, we are only fighting for the rights / legitimacy of white privileged LGBT students. Instead, we need to create models of activism that address the needs of all students. Indeed, only by dismantling racism, classism, ableism, sexism, and other hierarchies of oppression can we truly dismantle heterosexism – as these ideologies all are interconnected a complex system of power.
Thus, I believe we should think about the radical potential of being an Ally, more broadly. I began this speech with critiquing the narrow definitions of ‘activism’ we have become socialized into arguing that rallies, pride parades, and direct actions may not be the most effective strategies of resistance in our high school. I think Allyship is, instead, a much more legitimate and useful strategy.
‘Ally’ is an elastic and un-specified enough term that it can apply to multiple different types of discrimination, not simply LGBT-based discrimination. ‘Ally’ unlike ‘gay,’ is not (as easily) associated with a particular race, gender, class, etc. It is a term vague enough that student activists can imbue it with meaning – make it cool, hip, important for all students. In a culture where students become demarcated and classified into separate groups and categories every day, Allyship provides a necessary intervention: it allows students to self-identify and to transgress boundaries. Allyship permits a space for radical coalition building among groups.
It is important to concede that allyship presents a particularly useful framework for queer youth activists because it provides a space for queer and questioning students who may not ‘be able to come out’ to still actively identify as something different. Yet, this difference has not (fortunately) become associated with as much stigma as gay/lesbian. We need to strip the ‘straight’ from ‘Straight Ally’ and think of Ally more of a space (emotionally, intellectually, and politically) of resistance. Being an Ally is a useful framework for political action in your high school. Being an ally means asking your history teacher why the history of women and minorities aren’t covered in your curriculum. Being an ally means intervening in a conversation when someone says “No Homo” and explaining why it’s problematic.
These interpersonal and interactional encounters you have are more important than any demonstration you could coordinate. They confront people with their racist, sexist, heterosexist, etc. assumptions and present alternative realities, visions, and perspectives that have the potential to radically transform peoples’ minds and directly confront systems of oppression.
The Radical Potential of Emotion
Allyship presents a compelling way to publically engage in activism, especially for students who might not be comfortable enough in their own (marginalized) identities or may not have safe spaces to articulate themselves as otherwise different. However, allyship is not the only tactic of resistance.
Perhaps the greatest and most effective tactic of queer youth activism is at the personal level. Dominant narratives of ‘activism’ tend to construct it as something external, something necessarily public. What if we were to re-conceptualize activism as also a personal process, one that happens from within? What if we viewed self-love as a campaign goal? What if we viewed our humanity not as something that is inborn, but that which results from a process of becoming increasingly empathetic?
Indeed youth activists have to work through layers of internalized prejudice. Educating ourselves, meeting diverse people, participating in clubs/groups that engender happiness are all part of this process! Loving yourself and others – especially those who are stigmatized in your schools – is a massive act of resistance. That means playing violin in your orchestra because you love it is a form of activism. That means spending hours talking to your friends on AOL Instant Messenger (do people even use that anymore?) is a form of activism because it makes you happy. In doing these things, you are bestowing worth to a body, to an identity, to a perspective that has become stigmatized by your community. You don’t have to wait to be an activist until you graduate from high school, recognize that perhaps your political arena is best fought on
One note of caution: as you engage on the process of self and community love, make sure that you never forgot the feeling of being stigmatized – that raw, visceral, feeling of exclusion and prejudice that festers in your gut. Sure, nudge it aside with positive energy, but do not lose the trauma; rather, learn to command it, evoke it on whim. Located in this emotion is a radical potential for coalition building. This emotion will equip you with a language to communicate your story to others and build connections with diverse peoples who have been discriminated against in other ways. If you completely dismiss the feeling you will forget what it was like – you will forget the importance of what we’re fighting for.
This is what the older generation of ‘activists’ who dominate our movement is slowly forgetting. They are forgetting what it felt like to hate themselves. They are forgetting what it was like to see prejudice at every direction in their schools, not just directed at them. They are forgetting that they were not holy; that they, too, called other kids names.