Op-ed: In the Age of Clementi and King, Models of Pride More Important Than Ever
When the first Models of Pride took place in 1993, it was a conference focused exclusively on the issues and concerns of LGBTQ youth. Now, 20 years later, under the direction of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, Models of Pride not only plays host to more than 1,000 LGBT youth and young adults, it has expanded to include tracks for college bound students and even parents of LGBT youth.
Each track caters to a different audience, but the goal — to create a community of support and a team of advocates for LGBT youth — is the same.
The newer parent track, in particular, offers parents and guardians at various stages of acceptance an opportunity to share their thoughts, fears, and hopes. Parents who enter the room a little lost and in search of a support system leave Models of Pride with tools equipping them to advocate for their children, and a new network of friends to help them along the way.
Teresa Sitz and Betsy Hanger were among the first parents to attend a Models of Pride conference. This year, they’re chairing the parent track and they want you to know why this conference is more important than ever before.
Teresa: Just months after Lawrence King was shot to death in his middle school for being openly gay, my 13-year-old son Elliott decided to come out in middle school. He came out on stage at a poetry slam, in front of 300 students. He also walked away with first place and the huge trophy that sits on his dresser today.
The day after the poetry slam, everything changed. He was harassed constantly – hit, tripped, pushed down the stairs, students threw rocks at him, called him ‘faggot,’ and a few weeks later he received a death threat.
I took the death threat seriously. When I told Elliott it might have been better for him to stay in the closet, he said, “No, Mom. It’s better now, because I am free to be who I am.” As far as I’m concerned, that makes Elliott one of the most courageous people I know.
Despite Elliot’s confidence he’d made the right decision in coming out, it was a difficult time. The first place I went for help was the Los Angeles Unified School District, which connected me with an advocate who suggested I contact Betsy Hanger, a mother who had faced similar issues.
My husband and I caught up with Betsy at a PFLAG meeting, and with her encouragement, our life as LGBTQ advocates began.
Betsy: My husband and I are blessed to have two queer children. Our daughter came out as lesbian when she was in college. Though she was bullied in junior high school, as we look back, her sexual orientation didn’t seem at the root of it. Since she dated boys in high school, we were surprised when she told us. That surprise was mild compared to what we felt when our second child came out as a transgender boy.
Before he told us at age 14, we didn’t have a clue that he had always felt like a boy in a girl’s body. (A realist, by second grade he stopped telling his teachers that he wanted to be a boy when he grew up.) But our son had spent two years researching options, corresponding with other trans teens on the Internet, and gaining strength in his convictions. The research was clear: this is not a “choice” but a hard-wired part of who he is, just like if he’d been born left-handed.
So we followed his lead. First he began telling people at school, followed by a legal name change, male hormones, and surgery to remove his breasts shortly before his 18th birthday. It was sometimes frightening: we were helping him take medical steps that we trusted would be lifelong good choices. It was painful when some members of our extended family didn’t understand that we were being good parents by trusting that he knew what was best for him.
He now lives successfully as male, and we have no worries for his safety. The long process of finding other families with whom to compare notes and exchange information changed our family profoundly. Having the chance to meet so many LGBTQ individuals who’d navigated the same path at Models of Pride was inspiring.
As an activist, my greatest joy is to listen to others whose courage and authenticity helps them overcome prejudice and ignorance. I feel that I’m standing on the shoulders of the world’s most courageous citizens --- people who confronted homophobia and rejected ignorance when there were no legal protections, when hate speech was everywhere and few heterosexuals sought to ally themselves with anyone outside their sphere. I stand in complete humility, because so many funny, tolerant, wise and loving people are deeply committed to this work.
Whenever I think, “Oh well, most people are pretty tolerant now, it’s OK to slack off,” I read about another trans person being murdered, or hear that another family has been humiliated, or another teen who “appears gay” has been bullied. There’s plenty more work to do. This is a lifetime commitment.
But I don’t just do this work because I love my kids and I want to dance at their weddings. Or because I want to know that when they end up in the hospital, their partner can crawl in bed beside them and watch their IV drip and thank the nurse for checking on it. I don’t do just this work just because I have some photo frames set aside in hopes of grandkids filling them one day.
I do this work because organizations like the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and its LifeWorks program make me proud. I do this work because I like to love to hear parents at PFLAG meetings tell stories about how proud they are of their gay kids.
In other words, I do this because it’s an honor. I do it because it’s full of good news and the promise of a splendid future for all my children and their friends.
For these reasons, I am a co-chairing the Models of Pride parent track along with Teresa — an incredible honor I hope inspires the parents who are new to the event as much as I’ve been moved and inspired over the years.
Teresa: The first time I attended the Parent Track of Models of Pride, I already felt like the veteran parent of a gay child. As I looked around the room, I saw many parents looking very isolated, tense and clutching their belongings, like deer in the headlights. Kim Pearson, from Trans Youth Family Allies, took them into another room while the veteran parents stayed for another workshop. At the end of the hour, the new parents returned and they were visibly transformed. They were smiling and laughing and excited to learn more about advocating for their children. This transformation, which I’ve seen several times now, sold me on wanting to chair the parent track.
What I personally, got from Models of Pride was an excellent reason to stay involved in my teenager's life. We've kept the lines of communication open, and we've learned to gengage in very frank discussions about love, sex, and relationships, drinking and drugs, friends, legal rights and other topics parents sometimes shy away from as their children grow up.
Betsy and Teresa: Together, what we've learned from Models of Pride and from our time spent advocating for our children is that having a queer child is blessing. It's rare in our lives that we have a chance to shake our lives up so thoroughly, to completely begin again. It's scare at first, it's a wild ride, but at some point we looked around all all our new friends, and all the fun group sand events we were attending, and we could see that what we're doing makes a difference. We've made wonderful friends who stand with us in the fight for equality for our children and more tolerant world. Models of Pride has the power to provide so much for the parents involved: Comfort, support, new inspiration, a feeling that you're not alone, and that your children have a bright future.
Models of Pride takes place Saturday at the University of Southern California. For more information, please visit modelsofpride.orgor follow Models of Pride on Facebook and Twitter.