Category: Teachers & Schools

Becoming the new enemy

Our theme for September is LGBT youth & safe schools. Thanks for reading!

Dear Christopher,

On the last day of this hot July I met with Marvin Henchbarger at a local Greek restaurant. She is the leader of Gay and Lesbian Youth Services (GLYS), a local organization that serves the needs of gay and lesbian youth in Western New York.  Since her tenure the organization has grown to serve many Gay Straight Alliances in local schools.

test_prettypeopleThey do outreach in a variety of venues. Each year they sponsor a huge fundraiser. Many prominent politicians and gay and straight activists attend.  Not only does it raise needed funds to supplement their grants, but it spreads the word about the needs of LGBT youth.

Marvin has been involved in gay rights issues for decades.

In her work with GLYS she has seen many changes. Yet,  despite the recent Supreme Court decision affirming the rights of marriage, she does not feel the full inclusion of gay people is achieved.  She clearly states,  “Legislative achievements do not translate into support.”   In fact she sees more religious discrimination, which translates into problems for gay family members. As she explains it, some churches do not have another target to label as evil, so LGBT people become the new enemy. Consequently, that has a negative impact on gay kids.

GLYS masthead

Though more LGBT folks are visible nowadays, Marvin suspects the backlash is greater.  That makes it even harder for LGBT kids. With the ubiquity of the Internet, anonymous hate comments are easily made and easily read. So kids are even more fearful. Because of the problems gay youth encounter, GLYS does outreach with a psychiatric center at a local hospital as well as other facilities for troubled youth. In these venues they find there are many LGBT kids.

Under her administration there have been many achievements.  With the support of GLYS there are now 48 high schools in the greater Western New York area that have functioning Gay Straight Alliances. In addition to supporting these clubs, they have sponsored a GSA conference for the past two years. This year there will be two conferences, one in the northern area of the county and one in the southern portion. For the past three years they have hosted a diversity prom. This past June over 200 young people attended.  (In fact Dad and I will chaperone the next prom in June of 2016.)

While these accomplishments have great merit, Marvin is troubled. We talked about how every other group’s efforts to achieve justice has met with continuing problems along the way. Two that quickly some to mind are the Civil Rights movement, and the women’s movement.  Just a quick perusal of the news proves that African-Americans are still vulnerable.  There seems to be a killing of a young black person every week.  Abortion rights for women are becoming more limited with the regular assaults on clinics and on Planned Parenthood.  We do not need to look far to see that while achievements can and must be celebrated, we cannot rest too long because the forces against these gains are deep.

Thanks goodness people like Marvin keeping fighting in our community.  I know you and Lisa are doing good work in your Seattle area with workshops for prospective teachers to alert them to the issues of gay kids.  Discrimination does not disappear easily.  We need to keep talking about these issues and working against bigotry in all its forms.

Love, Mom

Why Marriage Matters

Dear Christopher

While sitting with Dad in rainy West Virginia in July, we went through the album you and Mark put together to celebrate our 50th Anniversary.  So many years, so many memories.


One photo stood out to me in light of our recent conversations about the Supreme
Court decision on marriage equality.  There Dad and I were all dressed to the nines going out to dinner with our friends in Florida during a 1966 car trip south for Easter vacation.  Besides looking so young it brought back memories of the travel through the South, the shock of seeing “colored” and “white” drinking fountains and restrooms.  It was shortly after the Civil Rights legislation was passed, but not quite implemented yet.

Of course after years of watching the Civil Rights movement right in front of my eyes on TV I certainly knew of conditions in the South.  I was so very impressed with the courage of black and white people who came together to fight and even die for the cause of greater freedom and dignity.

Yet even in our Northern living rooms and classrooms I saw discrimination against African-Americans.  As a first year teacher at an integrated school in the city, I remember my chagrin when another teacher said something to the effect that black kids can’t learn.  And there were jokes about these students when white teachers got together in bars and living rooms after hours. I remember Dad and I having all night debates with family members about the justice of greater rights for African-Americans. Some thought there were too many breaks being given by that “crazy” President Johnson.

But coming face to face with reality of separate and unequal in the South was sobering.  On the back roads we saw many shacks with poor black people living in poverty.  Our white Cadillac, compliments of Gram’s loan, stood out for its width and its New York plates which brought many suspicious stares from white Southerners.  Were we those bleeding heart agitators instead of four kids looking for Florida fun for a week?

After the passage of legislation there were opinion pieces critical of the strategy of focusing on voting rights for African-Americans, there were other issues more vital commentators said.   There was criticism of the move to integrate public places like restaurants and even restrooms.  More important issues the naysayers said.  But in that spring of 1966 traveling though the South I saw first-hand the insult to dignity to some of our citizens.

The issue of dignity seemed very clear just two weeks ago when my dear friends, Jimmie and Geri, were married in front of family and friends.  It was a perfect day.  The sun shone in the garden and they were walked down a short path escorted by their family. All of us dabbed the tears from our eyes.  Jimmie, a wonderful poet, and Geri her dynamic partner of 35 years, could finally be recognized as a married couple by their state.  Yes, most of us knew of their love over the years.  Yes, a few years ago they were married in Canada, but now their own country and their own state publically recognized them.  It reminded me how long this has taken to be real.

At the beginning of their relationship, 35 years ago, Jimmie and Geri had to be secretive, especially in work situations.  Geri’s work in the business world made it hard for them to be out in that venue.  As a teacher Jimmie could be freer. Some years ago they were featured as a gay couple in a story in the Buffalo Spree, a glossy magazine that has a large following in the Western New York area. The Buffalo area tends to be very conservative.  Geri has private clients she works with in the business arena.  So it was brave for her to be out.  They have seen lots of changes in their years together. On that day it felt a privilege to celebrate marriage with them.

It made me think how things have changed so much in the 20 years since you came out.  During the party Geri said to me, “This means a lot to you doesn’t it.” Yes it does.  And each time I see and hear of a gay couple married, it makes me understand the importance of that public affirmation.  It is much more than taxes, or even visitation in the hospital, and parental rights, though all of those things are important.  It is the recognition of a common humanity.

I can see all the more clearly why African Americans fought so hard for voting rights, and integrated public venues.  It makes clear the recognition of their very humanity.  And that is what marriage equality does for you and Patrick, for Jimmie and Geri, and for all the LGBT community.

Love, Mom

Movie Time

Dear Christopher,movie reel

Dad and I saw the movie The Imitation Game about the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing. He was responsible for helping to break the German secret code during World War II, most likely helping the war to end earlier. By doing so he probably saved millions of lives.

Yet, because he refused to lie about being homosexual, he was convicted of indecency, forced to go through chemical castration, and committed suicide at 41. What a loss to the world! What a loss to a man who deserved life, as all humans deserve life, an honest life.

The ending chilled us. Thousands of people were charged with the crime of homosexuality in those bad old days and either went to prison or endured chemical castration. We are glad things have changed, though we know more has to change. Young people should not have to go through what you did at your Catholic school. And sadly within your family—that means us. Unfortunately young people still do. Yes, still this goes on. And bullying too still goes on. Though 36 states have marriage equality, not all states recognize your marriage. Yet it is better than it was. But still not enough.

We also saw Selma, another thought-provoking movie. It took me back painfully to the civil rights movement, to the bombing that killed three little black girls in a church. It took me back the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to Dr. King’s ringing speeches, to Viola Liuzzo, to angry dogs and baton smashing police.

Where was I then? Finishing college, starting my teaching career, but changing my outlook on life in radical ways. The grainy black and white TV footage of all these events changed me and many others among my college friends. We came from families that barely made it out of poverty themselves. Thinking about others of different races or ethnicities made little or no impact on their lives. But the news coverage brought injustices to light.

When I got a job in a diverse city high school in 1964, that solidified my beliefs. I met teachers and students of color. I saw how racism impacted their lives. Later in the 60’s and 70’s when the universities were wild with protest, I was changing diapers in our small bungalow in a first ring suburb. We were close enough to the University of Buffalo to smell the tear gas lobbed at student demonstrators. I was totally in favor of their anti-war protests but I only watched from afar. The winds of change seemed to signal a great shift in society.

The civil right movement ignited many movements. It paved the way for the second wave of feminism, for Stonewall, for many attempts to right previous injustices. It provided a beginning for the journey to now, the journey to full citizenship and full participation for African-Americans, for women, for lesbians and gays. But like all movements it comes at great cost. And it needs to be fought again and again.

Despite fine films that show the changes in society, we all know that African-Americans and the LGBT community are far from being totally accepted, far from the full rights of citizens that they deserve. We have to keep working toward the vision of equality Dr. King so eloquently proposed fifty years ago. It’s time for the dreams of Alan Turing, of the civil rights marchers, of the Stonewall activists to be fully realized.

Love, Mom