Op-ed: Why Aren’t We Making LGBT Acceptance a Community Affair?
BY Jimmy Nguyen
October 23 2012 12:07 PM ET
The cast of the it gets better show visits the gay-straight alliance at City High School in Iowa City.
This lesson is evident from two recent bullying incidents targeted not at LGBT kids, but at straight women. In West Branch, Michigan, high school sophomore Whitney Kropp was elected to her high school’s homecoming court as a prank by vindictive classmates. Across the Great Lakes, in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, local morning anchor Jennifer Livingston received an email from a casual viewer who complained that she had a “community responsibility” to lose weight to be a role model for young girls. Though bullied for different reasons, Whitney and Jennifer shared one thing in common: their communities rallied to support them.
Both women received words from people in their hometowns, on Facebook, and across the nation as their stories spread. Whitney Kropp even got what every girl loves – a dream makeover sequence from local business owners. The vast public response convinced Whitney to shine at her homecoming game rather than stay home. For Jennifer Livingston, it emboldened her to speak out on-air against the viewer who complained about her weight and against all forms of bullying. Both women drew strength to stand up against bullies because their communities reminded them they are worthy.
We need towns across America to do the same for LGBT citizens. The it gets better tour provides a model for helping activate communities to do so. In each destination, the tour delivers hope to LGBT residents. In Iowa City, the high school GSA students clamored for the cast members to stay longer. During the after-show Q&A session, one lesbian tearfully told her story about her parents refusing to attend her wedding, and asked for advice on how to overcome religious opposition to homosexuality. A community chorus singer posted to the tour’s Facebook page that the cast’s weeklong visit and the show “indelibly touched me and changed my life... If I can, in any way, affect a change in someone’s world, know that you are part of the collective experiences that got me to that moment.”
But even more compelling was the response from straight residents. When the cast visited teachers in training at the University of Iowa, straight graduate students told their own stories – of watching a friend come out, of seeing bullying, and of their evolution to become more accepting of gay people. Afterward, the University of Iowa Teacher Leader Center thanked the tour with this Facebook post: “You inspire, you lead, and you remind us that we have a tremendous obligation to make schools and classrooms safe for all kids.”
In the show, cast member Drew Tablak touches upon religious views of homosexuality. He recounts his own journey to accept that he can be both gay and Christian, and then he sings a religious hymn. In Iowa City, that moment received some of the loudest applause from the more than 400 (mostly straight) audience members.
In the post-show Q&A session, a former high school English teacher explained that after her son came out, her school administration did not like her discussing gay issues in the classroom. Her story reminded neighbors that more work must be done even in their progressively-viewed city.
Imagine if these kinds of reaction could swell in hamlets, towns and cities across America. When a gay boy is bullied in school, imagine his neighborhood telling him that he is wanted. If a lesbian woman is mistreated at work, imagine her co-workers empowering her to stand up. If a transgender person suffers discrimination, imagine if neighbors simply offered a kind gesture. For the targeted LGBT person, the impact could be life-changing. For local residents, the effect would incrementally make the community better.
But we can’t expect this to happen on its own. Although LGBT non-profit organizations are resource-strapped, they can help by directing more attention to smaller towns. For urban gay denizens, we need to get out of our gay safety zones and reach out to suburban and rural places across America. Just as in Iowa City, we must motivate residents to speak up, ask questions, and explore solutions.
Along the way, we urbanites might even learn a lesson or two – just as we did in Iowa City. The LGBT residents, especially students in the high school GSAs, were not as judgmental of each other as I might see in West Hollywood. And across each letter of the LGBT acronym, they had much closer ties than in big gay meccas where L, G, B and T often go separate ways.
By starting a dialogue, we discovered that we have as much to learn as we have to teach. We must now count on local residents (and us) to keep the conversation going. That’s how we turn LGBT acceptance into a truly community affair.
For information about the it gets bettertour, go to: http://www.itgetsbettertour.org/ or its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ItGetsBetterMusical
JIMMY NGUYEN is a creative producer of the “it gets better” show. He is nationally-recognized as an award-winning lawyer, new media expert, LGBT & diversity advocate, media commentator and motivational speaker. In 2008, Lawdragonnamed Nguyen one of the 500 Leading Lawyers in America, and in 2010, The Advocatenamed him to its Forty under 40 list of top LGBT persons. He writes for his own website at JimmyWin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JimmyWinMedia.