State College, Pa, is the next stop on our tour. Home to Penn State University, it’s a tiny town in the middle of an otherwise sparsely populated agricultural region of its state. Its economy’s health is largely reliant on the university. The transient student body makes up a large part of its population. The grounded energy of its agricultural roots does not mix easily with the quixotic energy of the university.
In just one day, I have detected a hint of tension between campus and town. Exchange the Blue Ridge Mountains for the Snowy Range, the rolling hills of Pennsylvania for the high plains of Wyoming, and this could be Laramie. State College is certainly a town where you could find a local haunt like Laramie’s Fireside Bar, where town and gown were known to mix and where Matthew Shepard, on October 6, 1998, met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. who kidnapped him, drove him to the outskirts of town, tied him to a fence, and beat him to death.
Matthew, it seems, felt safe in this bar and in Laramie. But he wasn’t safe. And this is the latest issue that is haunting me as we perform the play on the road and we read the news of more and more gay suicides in our schools. Clearly many of our gay youth are suffering at the hands of homophobic peers to the point where they take their own lives. On the other hand, some environments seem to be improving. Some of the places we go, it seems that gay kids are feeling safer. So that’s the big issue for me now. The difference between feeling safe and being safe.
It’s true, as one character in Laramie: 10 Years Later says: “This could have happened anywhere.” It could have happened in State College. This is not to say that State College feels unusually homophobic to me. I feel safe here. It’s simply to say that feeling safe and being safe are two very different things. In spite of a lot of hard work that is clearly going on at this university to address these issues, whether young gay people are safe here is hard to gauge. Whether they feel safe is a little easier to uncover.
Patricia Koch invites me to visit her bio-behavioral health class. It is a general education credit, so the class is probably a representative cross section of the university’s population. The class has about 120 students. The atmosphere is cordial, tense, maybe embarrassed. I feel like there is definitely some baggage among some of these students about homosexuality. I try to act the comfortably out adult. I think I pull it off, but I am nervous too. High school and college-age kids were who most harassed me for my difference. I bring my own baggage as well.
I ask, “How many of you don’t like or don’t feel comfortable with gay people?” No one raises their hand. Then I ask, “How many of you that are gay would be comfortable identifying yourselves as gay right now in this class?” Not a single student raises their hand. It is hard to gauge whether people feel completely free to voice their homophobia here. But whether or not they are really OK with queer people, their gay and lesbian peers don’t feel safe being out. That’s the point here.
The main aim of antigay hate crimes like the one committed against Matthew Shepard, and the main aim of the gay baiting that the media has suddenly decided is newsworthy, is to create an environment where gay people don’t feel safe being ourselves. Sadly, even if most folks are tolerant, it only takes a few haters and a system of apathetic administrators (or legislators) to make a campus (or a town) feel unsafe.
It’s hard for me to read the group, but really, what is the cost to me even if I do misread them? I will be moving along to Cedar Falls, Iow,a in two days. I won’t have to deal with the repercussions of being out on this campus. Tyler Clementi, Justin Aaberg, Asher Brown, and so many other young students who have taken their lives in recent months were not free to head off to a new town. They had to live with those repercussions day to day. For many, these repercussions have proved too much to live with. Whether it's overt or covert, homophobia continues to kill young people in our schools.
After my work on campus, I am feeling cynical. It’s not that Penn State feels like such a horrible environment. It’s just that — like most places — it just doesn’t feel safe enough. Even as I see the vast efforts made here at Penn State by many students and teachers to support the queer community and queer causes on campus, my hope is flagging in the face of a wall of general disinterest that feels very familiar.
The last group I meet with is at State College High School. The host group is a gay-straight alliance, but anyone who is interested can come. One sports coach arrives with a whole group of young athletes, and they actually do seem genuinely interested.
One young woman shares openly with the group how exhausting it is being out in her school, but she feels it’s important. She can’t be more than 16. Another young man, maybe 15, says he thinks that homophobia is really “less about sexuality and more that people feel threatened when the gender binary is challenged.”
Call me unstable, but all it takes to move me from the depths of despair to the peaks of happiness is hearing a 15-year-old boy talk about challenging the gender binary in front of an auditorium full of high school athletes. My faith is restored once again. Being on tour with these plays and leading discussions on these issues is becoming a schizophrenic experience. I find myself careening between extremes: frustration and resignation, outrage and acceptance, grief and gratitude.
Susan Brindle, who organized this meeting, e-mails me a video that the GSA made for the school’s morning announcements. In it students of all sorts hold up the names and pictures of kids we have recently lost in the spate of gay suicides that have dominated the media for several weeks now. One after another, these young people say, “I am responsible,” as they let the pictures and names drop from their hands. It’s very simple and quite devastating.
Creating an environment that is safe and inclusive of queer people is everyone’s responsibility, gay or straight. I wish more of us grown-ups had the courage these young students have to own this level of responsibility in their social contexts, whatever the day-to-day costs might be.