Learning the truth at 17

BY Advocate.com Editors

December 05 2005 12:00 AM ET

I debated what
song from my younger days might best express the
earthshaking importance of what was accomplished by Kerry
Pacer, The Advocate’s Person of the Year
for 2005, and her allies at White County High School
in rural Georgia. First to mind: Janis Ian’s potent
“At Seventeen”: “I learned the truth at
17 / That love was meant for beauty queens.”
It’s also got that great line about how
“small-town eyes will gape at you / In dull
surprise.” Hmm. Could be.

Or maybe
something perkier, like the Waitresses’ ode to high
school misfits, “Square Pegs”
(“I’d like it if they liked us / But I
don’t think they like us”).

Or I could point
out how far we’ve come in 32 years by quoting Elton
John’s 1973 song “All the Young Girls Love
Alice,” which dooms its 16-year-old lesbian
protagonist to being found “last Tuesday…in
the subway dead.” Or perhaps bring up Fred
Phelps’s White County protest and call the
column “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

This was going
nowhere. Fact is, I have no personal cultural context for
understanding the life of a 17-year-old lesbian in rural
Georgia who never questioned her right to equal
protection. Who never hated herself because she was
attracted to other girls instead of guys. Who came out at
age 12 to her unwaveringly supportive family. Is there a
Kanye West song I’m not familiar with that
captures the spirit of a small-town gay girl from the
Bible Belt who’s on the fast track to changing the
world?

What Kerry
represents is mind-boggling for us older folks: a generation
for whom sexual identity is largely a nonissue.

For me, The
Advocate
’s Person of the Year should fulfill a
couple of criteria: She or he should be someone who
accomplished something remarkable, something that only
that person could have done, and whose actions were
driven by heart and soul, not just strategic calculation.
Second, he or she should be someone who symbolizes a
cultural shift, a “hot spot” in the
battle for gay and lesbian equality. Who this year
should join the company of V. Gene Robinson, Rosie
O’Donnell, Mark Bingham, Tony Kushner, and
Donna Red Wing? When associate news editor John
Caldwell nominated Kerry Pacer, everything just clicked.
(Musical cue: “I believe our children are the
future…”)

The editorial
staff unanimously supported her selection.

The power of what
Kerry and thousands like her have done—forcing high
schools and parents to see LGBT kids who are, above all,
just kids—goes beyond changing laws and
enforcing fairness. Adolescent experiences reverberate
throughout every adult’s life the way all those songs
from my youth play endlessly through my head.
Adolescence is the backdrop against which the rest of
our lives play out, whether we’re obsessed with
trying to escape it, to relive it, or to fulfill it.
Thanks to gay-straight alliances in thousands of
schools across America, millions of American young
people are coming of age amid the harmless reality of
diversity. Yes, some will cling to old prejudices. But
most will move into adulthood humming a new tune.

It’s a
song that’s still being written.

Tags: Commentary

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