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 Op-ed: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

 Op-ed: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

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If you have ever looked out the window while landing at Dulles Airport in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, then you've had a bird's-eye view of my hometown of Sterling, Virginia. From that distance, the little Monopoly houses are orderly and carefully arranged in cul-de-sacs. It could be Anywhere, USA, save for one thing that makes it more akin to Wisteria Lane: there is a madman on the loose, in plain sight, and nobody is doing a damn thing about it.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified Public Advocate of the United States as an "active hate group," in large part due to the group's antigay rhetoric. Public Advocate is run by a delusional man named Eugene Delgaudio, who is also a local elected official serving as Sterling's representative on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.

My parents moved our family to Sterling in 1984, when I was 6-years-old, because housing was more affordable and because my mother wanted her kids to have the freedom to play outside safely in a semi-rural setting. She was raised in Arlington, Virginia, literally across the bridge from Washington, D.C. She wanted us to grow up in a different environment. That, we did.

Sterling was a different place 25 years ago. For several years, the only local grocery store was a place called Basics, where you could buy a whole pig head, but if you wanted something to carry it home in, then you'd have to rummage through a room of delivery boxes to find one that could still carry things. Bags came at a premium. It was a big deal when the Mobil gas station opened because it was within walking distance, about one-and-a-half miles from home. My sister, a couple of friends and I walked there and back several times during its grand opening to get free hot dogs and balloons. My sister was the eldest, no older than 10. We walked the long, hilly, roadside trail unaccompanied. The year I graduated from high school, a girl from another high school was shot to death on that same path.

Sterling is no longer the same place it was,perhaps especially not to me. My childhood was idyllic; there is no other way to put it. We ran around outside, we had fun, we were kids. My adolescence was a different story. While I strangely never thought of myself as a victim of bullying until the recent anti-bullying bandwagon was built, I certainly have considered myself a victim of a hate group -- and that hate group was the suburban Virginia community that I hesitantly admit is my home town.

Throughout middle- and high school, (this was the early mid-1990s), I was pretty constantly abused. And by no means was this a secret. First, my childhood best friend suddenly didn't like me. For a while, as soon as I stepped off the school bus, he and his new friends would charge me with their bikes, literally crashing into me. Bruised more emotionally than physically, I replaced my friends with Oprah and Haagen Dazs and quickly gained weight, a lot of weight. Soon no one would let me sit next to them on the school bus.

At one point, my own sister pushed me off the edge of the seat I tried to share with her. Betty the bus driver would scream at me for standing, and so I took to squatting in the aisle. As I did, boys would flick my ears from behind, push me over, and call me things -- "satellite ears" perhaps the least clever of them all, and "fag" perhaps the most obvious.

Someone actually asked me point blank on that bus, "Are you gay?" My cowardly answer was, "Are you?"

My only source of pride, though, remained my integrity. I've never lied about my sexuality. And I paid a price for that. In the locker room, boys would smack me and pinch me -- part aggressive mock flirtation and part sadistic amusement. They took stock of each new bruise that emerged. I was a science experiment of a sort, I guess. Not one teacher, administrator or any other adult ever intervened.

But that story isn't specific to Sterling, Virginia; it's just my association with the town. I moved away when I could afford to, in my early 20s. I went east to Arlington, a much more liberal place with the sort of verticality that I find comforting for some reason. I made the move shortly after I saw the movie The Hours. I had never read a Virginia Woolf book (she is now among my favorite authors), and I think my read of the movie was different than most. As I watched Nicole Kidman's Virginia repeatedly attempt to "escape" her married life in the suburbs to take the train to London and then eventually kill herself, I had an epiphany: living in the suburbs is killing me. So I moved to a bigger, taller suburb. It was something.

A few years later, my roommate announced that she was about to pick up and move to Cairo (yes, Egypt) at the same time I was accepted into an MFA in creative writing program at George Mason University. To save money, I moved back to my parents' house. It was uncomfortable -- not living with my parents, but being back in that town.

Although my sister came around quickly to my sexuality and regrets having taunted me about it when we were younger, she still thinks that I am a "snob" who looks down on Virginians. That's not true; I don't look down on them. I fear them.

During the grad school years, I became aware of Eugene Delgaudio. My parents urged me to attend a local debate for his office. He was the incumbent, and running against him were an Indian woman and, incredibly, a gay man.

The two opponents were both articulate and seemed genuinely to want to engage in the community. Delgaudio spewed nonsense and said that the other Loudoun County supervisors "don't like Eugene, don't want to hear Eugene's ideas." He spoke of himself in third person, and he came across as totally nuts. And that was before I knew his platform. To give the benefit of the doubt to Sterling's citizens, I assume those who actually vote are simply ignorant of local politics (as I always have been) and vote for the name they best recognize. Whichever name is on the most signs. They vote for familiarity and continuity. How dangerous.

In response to the U.S. House and Senate bills H.R. 998 and S. 555, Student Non-Discrimination Act of 2011, Delgaudio wrote in a public email that the Congressional action, which he calls the "Homosexual Classrooms Act," "require schools to teach appalling homosexual acts... force private and even religious schools to teach a pro-homosexual agenda... ram through their entire perverted vision for a homosexual America... create a new America based on sexual promiscuity."

The Human Rights Campaign published the full letter, which includes fair-and-balanced commentary, including "and that's just the beginning of the Homosexual Lobby's radical agenda. In fact, it will set them up to ram their entire perverted vision for a homosexual America." Delgaudio's God, not mine, forbids that children living in my hometown under his supervision be protected from the devastation of being different in middle- and high school that I lived through.

"If someone thinks they can deny me this discussion," the ever-eloquent Delgaudio said, "they are smoking serious weed."

In response to the SPLC classification of his not-for-profit organization as a hate group, Delgaudio told the Washington Post, "Now a no-name organization is on [the SPLC] list... they're scraping the bottom of the barrel when they have to kick the Italian guy." Indeed. Someone should tell Delgaudio that, at one time in American history, Italians were maligned in the same way he attacks immigrants today: "We need help in Loudoun. We are struggling. We are a small county, and we can't handle the hordes that are coming here and using up our services."

Regarding school protections for LGBT youth, is my story any wonder given that in 1990 when I was 12-years-old, the man sent out an official communication that read, "As Public Advocate, it is my responsibility to let taxpayers know how their money is being spent... Congress is rewarding the Homosexual Pornographers with our tax money." And then in 1991: "[A]s homosexuals die off due to AIDs [sic], the remaining AIDs carriers, prey on children to replenish the 'Homosexual Community.'"

Did I mention there is a madman on the loose in Sterling, Virginia?

I only know about Eugene Delgaudio because he happens to represent the town in which I was raised, for better and worse. He is a local problem -- one I left to the locals to deal with when I moved to D.C. three years ago. I just couldn't live in Sterling in good conscience anymore.

Now, I don't think for a moment that all suburbs are like Sterling, and I certainly hope that Delgaudio is an exceptional example of human hatred and ignorance. But the fact is, he has been elected to public office by the residents of Sterling for over a decade. This is a man who reacts to an anti-hate group's classification of his organization's mission as practicing hate with: "I have to take it lightly."

As I mentioned earlier, a gay man ran against Delgaudio several years ago. He wanted to change Sterling. At the very least, he wanted people to know who this man is that keeps getting reelected. But nobody listened, and he lost.

The point of all this -- the larger question I have -- is for all of us who come from places like Sterling.There have to be many because "gay ghettos" still exist in every large city in part because of a feeling of safety in numbers. The question is, did I do the right thing by running away?

Do we do the right thing by running away? Is there a chance that staying put would help to advance the public's awareness that, well, we're just kind of regular human beings like everyone else? Would it advance our rights by forcing hateful people to be around us? Even if this were the case, would it be worth sacrificing some of our comfort and oftentimes personal feelings of safety and security?

I don't have the answers to these questions. I'm just beginning to puzzle through them. But I have made my choice.

I can't live there anymore. I will do all I can to support the growing popularity of the anti-bullying crusade and the important work being done by SPLC and about to be done by the Born This Way Foundation. But, for me, there's no going back.

DAVID MICHAEL CONNER is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and artist. His website is https://www.davidmichaelconner.com or follow @ArtistLike on Twitter.

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