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Joining in Protest? Readers Respond

A country, united in grief, gathers to mourn the death of its citizens at the hands of terrorists, and proves to the world that they refuse to live in fear.

Black men and women, marching to draw attention to discriminatory voting laws, gather on a bridge and stare down white police officers armed with billy clubs and tear gas.

Hundreds of uniformed police officers, mourning the death of a fellow officer, turn their backs on an elected official they blame for inciting violence against one of their own.

Throughout history, we gather. From the Boston Tea party to the Arab spring, from sit-ins at lunch counters in the 1950s and 60s to the Occupy movement of today, from Stonewall, to Ferguson, to countless other protests big and small, men, women, and children join together—in protest, in solidarity, in mourning, in triumph—finding solace, strength, and solidarity in public union.

Mom’s last letter mentioned the importance of the Stonewall riots to the modern LGBT civil rights movement. In June of 1969, a group of gay men and women, led by several drag queens, decided that enough was enough after police carried out a routine raid on one of their favorite gay bars—the Stonewall Inn—in New York’s Greenwich Village. New York state law at the time required that citizens wear clothing “appropriate” to their gender, so after the couple hundred patrons were lined up and police checked their identification, several drag queens and women dressed in mens clothing were arrested and led outside to be taken away.

In his book The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996, Charles Kaiser details the events of that night. Kaiser quotes Deputy Police Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the raid, as saying, “ The homosexuals were usually very docile, quiet people. But this night was different.”

According to Storme DeLaverie, a cross-dressing lesbian (whom some credit as starting the riot when “the cop hit [her] and [she] hit him back”), “The police got the shock of their lives when those queens came out of the bar and pulled off their wigs and went after them. I knew sooner or later people were going to get the same attitude I had. They had just pushed once too often.”

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On Christopher Street in front of the bar, trouble erupted. Tired of the sporadic raids and humiliation, customers reached a breaking point. Impromptu chants rang out. Bricks, beer bottles, and garbage cans were hurled by the protestors, and garbage cans were lit on fire. Hundreds of onlookers joined in, having been awoken by the early morning ruckus in the streets. While waiting for reinforcements, the police conducting the raid and arrests were forced to retreat back into the bar, fearing for their safety.

Protestors gathered for two more nights of protest. The poet Allen Ginsberg, present for the second night, thrilled “Gay Power! Isn’t that great!” and remarked that, “The guys [inside the now re-opened Stonewall Inn] were so beautiful. They’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago.”

After Stonewall, the LGBT community began to work together as a cohesive unit, forming new activist organizations, starting newspapers devoted exclusively to issues of the gay community, and commemorating the riots that started it all with annual gay pride parades, first in New York city, and then, over the years, around the world.

Clearly, the Stonewall protests have served the LGBT community well. As direct action, it sparked a drive to change discriminatory laws and social norms that is still thriving today. As a symbol, the riots have served as an important cultural landmark, providing inspiration to members of the community—used to living quietly and secretly in the closet—to come out into the light.

For all I owe to Stonewall as a member of the LGBT community, I have a hard time attending those yearly commemorative events. The Pride Parade makes me feel slightly uncomfortable and foolish. Perhaps it’s just my introverted nature, but my passion for LGBT rights doesn’t translate easily into public demonstrations, replete with banner carrying, speeches, and chants. Had I been in New York City in June of 1969 (and not in my crib in Buffalo), I’m not sure I would have joined the throngs in the streets demanding justice. But I am so thankful that many did just that.

While I’m conflicted about joining the crowds, I’m not conflicted about joining the fight. There are several aspects of my life that are, at least in part, about protest. Supporting gay and lesbian led families hoping to adopt, helping a group of students start a Gay-Straight Alliance, or even just being an out gay high school teacher all have political, public, demonstrative qualities to them. They are not the banner waiving kind of protest, for sure, but they are done in community with others and are motivated by injustice. That, I believe, is the very nature of protest.

So, I’m the quiet protest type. What about you? This week, we are asking readers to respond with their own stories of protest—big, small, loud or quiet. We want to hear from you about public demonstrations where you took the bullhorn and rallied the crowd, and singular moments when nothing needed to be said to make your point. Tell us about how you felt, what motivated you to act, and what the impact of your action was on others in your community.

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He Who is Without Sin…

Dear Christopher,

Did you hear about this on NPR? Dr. Willie Parker is one of two doctors who practices at the only women’s health clinic in Mississippi where abortions are willie parkerperformed. Parker, a devout Christian, is the subject of a profile in Esquire magazine called, “The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker” by John Richardson.

I am astounded. What an inspiration! The faith and commitment of this gentle doctor has come to his work to help poor women get health care in one of the most difficult decisions of their lives. Here is someone who does not take a doctrinaire approach, but who practices basic Christian compassion in providing services to women in the only abortion clinic in Mississippi. Wealthy women can go out of state, but the women who end up at this clinic are poor women who get harassed by the protestors outside as they enter.

This reminds me of the anti-gay rhetoric and the horrible anti-gay legislation propounded in Uganda with a great deal of help by some American churches. It made me wonder how American and English Christian preachers can promote laws that not only criminalizes gay behavior, but also even promote the death penalty or life in prison. It seems to me not far from the behavior of Islamic fighters in Iraq who are forcing conversion on the Yazidis. They either must convert or die.

As a Catholic it seems to me that all I was taught and all I continue to believe is that religion should be a force for compassion. Doesn’t it say in the New Testament “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone” among many other citations that instruct believers not to judge others? It seems we need to be reminded that faith-filled people can and do choose to use their religion to make principled decisions that go against what others may take as doctrine.

Listening to Dr Parker’s interview I was so impressed by his deep faith, by his struggle to work with poor women, by his courage when he knows that there are those who would even kill to enforce their twisted sense of what is right. To me, these so-called Christians are compatriots of the ISIS terrorists in Iraq, and compatriots of those who promote the death penalty for gay people in Uganda. They do not have any right to claim religion as their motivation. I believe their motivation is the will to have power over others—the will that has caused so much destruction and so much suffering in the world.

Love, Mom

Rocking the Bus at Pride

Dear Mom,

When I was in school getting my Master’s degree and teacher certification, things were different from when you and your friend Mike were teaching, but perhaps not by much. It’s true that 2001 was a post-Ellen world and the heyday of Will and Grace, two cultural markers of the shift in attitudes towards the LGBT population.

But when I spoke with teachers who identified as gay, anxious myself to know what it was like to be an out public school teacher, I found that many feared reactions from their administrators and parents. Some worried about losing their jobs, and one spoke about having the word faggot spray painted on the outside of his portable classroom.all families poster

Towards the end of my teacher certification program, a lawyer who often represented teachers and teacher unions came to speak to our class. In the discussion of many legal issues faced by teachers, he touched on the issue of homosexuality. He was of the opinion that new teachers should not be out of the closet. According to him, experience had shown that although anti-discrimination laws in Seattle included protections for sexual orientation, you just never knew how your supervisor felt about openly gay teachers. “Don’t give them a reason to nail you for something small and petty that they might otherwise be willing to overlook as a new teacher,” was what he said.

Despite his warning, I was not interested in going back into the closet, even if it meant risking my job. Although I didn’t come out as a student teacher, during my first teaching assignment I did come out, very deliberately to staff, and somewhat obliquely within the first month to students. (I will never forget hearing from the school secretary about an exchange she overheard between two students; one said that she had heard I was gay. The second said “Yeah. So what? If you have a problem with it you can take it up with me.”)

After my first year of teaching, I decided that I was going to come out to students on the first day of class. I wanted to get it out there, not leave students wondering and whispering. Also, I wanted to show my students—whether gay, straight, or questioning—that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of, and that like their straight teachers who could proudly talk about their personal lives as a way of getting to know students, I could do the same.

Flash forward 12 years and I still come out on day one. I doubt there are students who don’t know I’m gay because by junior or senior year, I’m sure they’re well aware. Maybe there are some who are taken by surprise, but if so it doesn’t seem to bother too many. This is a bit surprising given the large number of Mormon and immigrant students and families in the community.

Over the course of my teaching career there seems to have been a seismic shift. Sure some teachers still struggle with whether or not to come out (not every LGBT staff member in my building is out to other staff or their students), and certainly some that are out struggled with how and when to make their sexual orientation known. For students, many are still harassed and bullied because of their sexual orientation or their perceived sexual orientation. Often students I know will wait until college or beyond before coming out. And still, even in 2014, I hear the F word—faggot—tossed around way too easily.

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But although the climate is not perfect it has gotten better. At my large, suburban high school, several student athletes are out, a male couple attended last year’s senior prom, and we have a thriving and active GSA. Some of the strongest student leaders in the school are part of the ASPEN (AIDS/HIV Student Peer Educators at Newport) program, which in recent years has expanded beyond AIDS/HIV education to include awareness around diversity and sexual orientation. This past year as a staff we had training related to transgender issues, and began a concerted outreach effort to support transgender students.

I am proud to play a small role in helping schools continue to improve. For the past four years, my friend and colleague Lisa and I have facilitated a training for new teachers at the University of Washington. We talk to these novice middle and high school teachers about safe and inclusive classrooms, schools, and curriculum in regards to sexual orientation and gender. It is a comfort to know that the teachers of tomorrow, those who will be teaching my own kids and grandkids and the children of my community, will be much more in tune with how to make sure the classroom is more inclusive of all students and families, and hopefully a safer place to learn.

Today is Pride in Seattle. I will miss out this year due to our vacation with Patrick’s family, but I know that there’s a yellow school bus filled with students, staff, and families that will be making its way down the parade route. As it has for the past several years, it will sway back and forth, and the crowds will cheer. Just like the dykes on bikes, PFLAG contingents and the drag queens, the employee groups from T-Mobile, Macy’s and Microsoft, these brave individuals will, in the words of one of our favorite poets, “announce their place in the family of things.”

What a glorious moment it will be.

Love you,

Christopher

:)