My students have been reading and discussing the play The Laramie Project in class over the past several weeks. After gay college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, WY in October of 1998, Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project travelled to Laramie and interviewed dozens of residents about what came to be known as a murder motivated by hate.
While discussing the play, I asked students to consider whether what happened to Matthew in 1998 could still happen today. Students had keen insights into current attitudes in our country toward LGBT individuals, and many noted that twenty years after Matt’s death, things have certainly changed.
However, students also pointed out that there are factors hampering full acceptance. One student mentioned geographic location: “We can’t overlook where we live,” she said. “I have friends who are out in their high schools in South Carolina, and things are very different for them.” Another mentioned the generation gap: “I think a lot of us don’t see a person’s sexual orientation as a big deal. But my parents and grandparents are not accepting.”
Race, size of the city or town where a person lives, and religious background were also mentioned as factors that can impact the acceptance of LGBT individuals. The sophistication of these comments greatly impressed me. These students, who many would see as safely ensconced in their suburban, upper middle-class, left-leaning privilege, recognize something you mentioned in your last letter to me: there is still much work to do to reach total acceptance and equality.
Although same-sex marriage rights are the law of the land (students stared, gap-jawed, as I recounted how, back in the day when they were toddlers, Patrick and I had a commitment ceremony, never thinking marriage rights would happen in our lifetime), the civil rights struggle for the LGBT community is far from over.
Just last week, the Human Rights Campaign released the 2015 State Equality Index, a report detailing state legislation from across the nation that impacts the LGBT community. There, in one document, is a collection of all the religious freedom laws, attempts to curtail equal access to public accommodations for transgender individuals, and the startling fact that “more than 111 million people live in states where LGBT people lack clear state-level protections against discrimination in the workplace.”
HRC identifies 28 states that are the low performers:
States in this category have many laws that undermine LGBT equality, from those that criminalize HIV and sodomy, to measures allowing religious-based discrimination against LGBT people. An overwhelming majority do not have non-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation or gender identity protections; few have hate crime laws. LGBT advocates (in these states) largely work on killing bad bills, and on passing municipal protections for LGBT people.
There are another 10 states that are only a step above the low performers. That leaves only 12 states and the District of Columbia that are doing an adequate job of ensuring employment non-discrimination, banning conversion therapy, providing protections for transgender individuals, and allowing second parent adoptions (something that Patrick and I were fortunate to access in 2003 when we adopted Isabella).
The prospects for 2016 are no better:
In many states opponents of equality are ramping up efforts to sanction discrimination against LGBT people by proposing state-level laws that would undermine existing protections, erode marital rights of legally-joined same-sex couples, target transgender people – including youth – and limit the ability of cities and towns to pass their own inclusive laws.
Recent news from the Oklahoma legislature indicates how completely absurd—but frighteningly dangerous—these laws can be, particularly when it comes to LGBT youth and conversion therapy. A bill introduced in that state would protect this form of therapy, and provides some guidelines for what would be allowed under what it calls aversion therapy:
“Aversion therapy” means any counseling by a mental health provider that exposes or asks a client or patient to undergo physical pain, such as electroshock or electroconvulsive therapy, touch therapy, pornography exposure, or vomit-induction therapy, in order to change sexual behaviors or gender-identity expressions and/or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex.
This law would allow mental health counselors to engage in these kinds of behaviors, even with children under the age of 18 who are sent to them by their parents. It sickens me to hear that today—in 2016—teenagers who are struggling with their sexual orientation in what may already be unwelcoming communities, religious organizations, and families might be subjected to this kind of absurd and dehumanizing treatment.
These are the kids who are friends of my student, the ones who don’t live in what she called “our liberal bubble.”
It hits a bit too close to home with my own experiences in high school. When you and dad took me to a counselor because I was depressed during my senior year, I shared with him that I was struggling with my sexual orientation. There were no electric shocks, but his recommendation was that all I needed to do was look at straight porn and masturbate and I could “change my sexual arousal pattern.” But this information was back in the dark ages of the 1900s. Young people—regardless of where they live—should not have to deal with these kinds of quacks today.
Until my students no longer articulate qualifications for acceptance, we as a society still have a long way to go.