Dear Walton High School,

May 25, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Posted in Coming Out | Leave a comment
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Thank you.

I’ll expand on that. But, my dear high school, thank you.

I may not have liked you all that much when I was there, but sometimes, nowadays, I can appreciate you.

Thank you for not making me go through what Constance McMillen had to go through. Thank you for not making me a figure in the national news, because I certainly wasn’t strong enough to have handled such at the time. Thank you for taking a hands-off approach which, while not particularly pleasant at the time, I realize now is much better than other approaches you may have taken.

Let’s start from the beginning.

I was 15 when I realized that I was attracted to girls as well as boys. I was 16 when I started telling people at school. I was 17 when I became vice-president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, and I was 18 when I decided to take my girlfriend at the time, Holly, to my senior prom.

Now, Walton High School, you did some smart things: rather than require everyone to have a paper ticket, which goodness knows a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds can’t possibly be expected to hold onto, you created a list of everyone who had a ticket to prom, so that with a quick flash of an ID card (or enough friends to verify your identity if your purse was left in the limo), you could still get in and no one’s night was ruined because a little piece of paper fell out somewhere along the line. This means, though, that when we bought tickets for non-WHS students, we had to put their names on the list. So I went to the table outside the cafeteria, and a PTA mom was sitting there, cheerily taking checks for $50 and writing students’ dates’ names on a spreadsheet. This PTA mom was my “room mom” when I was in second grade, I think, so she’d seen me around for many years, and she smiled when I stepped up to the table. “Hi, Rae, how are you doing? Bringing someone special with you?”

“I am, indeed!” I smiled back at her.

“All right, it’ll be $50.” I handed her the check, she writes down my name and checks off the “paid” box, then asks, “What school does he go to?”

“Rome High School.”

“And his name?”

“Holly [last name].”

She paused. “Sorry?”

“Holly [last name].”

She paused again. “I’m not sure we can do that.” I just looked at her with raised eyebrows. I’d kinda expected something like this to happen. But she was my old room mom. She liked me. She thought of me as the sweet, quiet girl in the front of the classroom who squinted because I hadn’t been given glasses yet, and who never talked except when her hand was raised, and who wore her Brownie uniform to school and sold Girl Scout cookies and brought Matzah to class for a week and taught everyone what it was because this was Georgia, so a lot of people didn’t know. So she thought for a second, then said, “Hang on.” She went to the vice principal. They had a hushed whispered conference. The PTA mom came back to the table, all smiles, and said, “Well, that’s not a problem, you’re certainly welcome to bring a friend to prom. It is your senior prom after all, right?” She emphasized “friend” more than necessary. I sighed on the inside, and I’m sure my smile drooped a little, but the PTA mom wasn’t looking at me anymore, she was just writing “Holly [last name]” on the spreadsheet, and then reaching into the envelope for a paper ticket in case we wanted to have it as a keepsake. I didn’t put up a fight beyond that — all I wanted was to bring my girl with me to prom, and hey, I had a ticket for her, so whatever. One step at a time, I decided. Can’t push these East Cobb County Georgians too far at once, because then maybe I won’t be able to use the ticket at all. Baby steps. Baby steps.

Prom approached. Holly and I were excited. I had a satin purple dress, and she had a fluffy yellow dress, and they actually looked really great next to each other. It was a little like Easter, to be honest, but I didn’t care: she was beautiful, and she was my date to the prom, and I was happy. We had a group to go with: several of my friends who had stuck by me after I came out, and some other kids from the more liberal social circles on campus. We did the whole shabang: picture party, limo, fancy dinner, and then the prom itself. Holly and I presented our tickets at the table, and no one questioned it as we walked in. We held hands, walked around, said hi to people; I introduced her to my friends who she hadn’t met before, and we danced together. We drank punch and ate cheese cubes and threw off our shoes when they started pinching and we just wanted to do the Macarena (it was already hilariously out of date by then, which made it thoroughly amusing). She went to the bathroom, and I waited outside chatting with a friend. My ears perked up at a few words being whispered around me: “dyke,” “gay,” “lesbo,” “queer,” all words which I may have used to describe myself at one point or another but when said with that amount of vitriol are less than flattering. And then on the other side of the spectrum: we went to the dance floor, grinding as any good teenager would do to the type of music they play at prom, and we’d kiss, and boys would whoop and holler and make comments like “That’s hot!” “Keep going!” “Yeah, baby,” and “Can I get in on that?” To be honest, I’m not sure which was worse: being called names that showed obvious scorn, or being treated as sex objects which immature boys (not men, for sure: boys) felt weren’t worthy of the respect they would give to any of their friends kissing their dates on the dance floor.

I pretty much ignored it all. Whatever. I was at prom with a gorgeous girl, and I’m bisexual, and they can suck it if they give a damn.

Nothing remarkable happened other than that, though. The dance ended, and we all hopped back in the limo, and we went to Waffle House for some late-night food, and to a friend’s house for an overnight chill party.

Overall, it was a great senior prom.

So, thank you, Walton High School. I may not have appreciated it at the time, but you were so much nicer than you could have been. I can deal with name-calling. I can handle being unnecessarily sexualized. I can even put up with having my girlfriend being demoted to “friend” in your eyes.

What I could not have handled is being utterly shamed and denied my right to exist. I could not have dealt with being lied to and rejected from the only school community I knew at the time. I could not have put up with trickery and going to court and having a night which was supposed to be such an icon for the high school experience turned into a pawn for you to push through your agenda. You may not have treated me with the utmost respect, but you didn’t dehumanize me. You didn’t make me grow up much faster than I needed to like Itawamba High School did to Constance McMillen when they dragged her through a court case, repeated media exposure, and a fake prom which did nothing but send a message that said, “We don’t want you to exist among us. We deny your right to exist at all.” Then being forced to transfer schools because of the whole ordeal, just weeks before graduation, and then have Westboro Baptist Church (the “God Hates Fags” hate-mongering nitwits) threaten to picket at her graduation. I admire Constance so, so much. I could never have been nearly as mature about the situation as she was.

As much as I value every hardship I’ve encountered as a chance to grow and become stronger, I still thank you. Thank you, Walton High School, for allowing me to attend prom with the girl I liked. Thank you, WHS, for not ruining over 600 people’s prom experience to make a stand on my bisexuality. Thank you, WHS, for not being as bad as I thought you were.

I do have one request, though. Next time, when a girl goes up to the prom ticket table, and she wants to bring her girlfriend from another school to prom, tell the PTA mom to smile and say, “Of course! Here’s your ticket.” Maybe you’ve changed since my senior prom in 2005 and this is already the case. But teenagers are so susceptible to damage at the hands of an adult who simply doesn’t understand what that teen is going through in her journey to discover herself. She’s already made a dangerous choice to bring a date of the same sex to the prom in Georgia. She’s probably going to be called names and be treated cruelly at the hands of the other students. Be an adult. Be an example. Say, with your actions, “This is your prom, and you should be allowed to go with whomever you please, and I’m not going to get in your way.” If you’re opposed to same-sex coupling, don’t insert your politics into a teenager’s life. Let her make her own decisions. I’m glad I was able to make mine, even with some resistance.

So thank you, WHS. You made my life easier than Constance’s life. And I do appreciate that. You have some work to do before you’re a safe haven for teens of all orientations. But you’re one step ahead of some in the pack, and I want to thank you for that.

My five-year class reunion is coming up on August. I won’t be able to attend, since I’ll be in graduate school in Israel by that time. However, I wouldn’t be ashamed to attend if I were able to go. Because as much as I may have disliked the school at the time I was there, I realize that you weren’t all bad. I learned a lot from you. Perhaps not in the easiest way — but I did learn, and I thank you for the opportunity to do that learning.

Sincerely,

RaeAn
Walton High School Class of ’05

PS: Thank you to Senators Franken and Gilibrand for introducing legislation to defend LGBT youth from bullying four days ago. I’m sure I’ll write more on this later, but this deserves mention in this context as well. So thank you, Senators, and thank you, Walton High school, in advance, for supporting this legislation. I hope you will, because there should never have to be another Constance McMillen in our midst: only people as strong as her.

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Mother’s Day and Chosen Families

May 3, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Posted in Chosen Families | Leave a comment
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Ah, Mother’s Day.

The flowers, the jewelry, the spa gift certificates, the Hallmark cards… really, it’s not much different from Valentine’s Day in some ways, I suppose.

And yet it is… because taking a day to put moms everywhere on a pedestal is beautiful. Even though this holiday was essentially created by Hallmark to sell more cards, it’s taken on a deeper meaning in our modern culture. And it’s not just for our “direct” mothers nowadays, either: we also call our grandmothers… and our female friends who have children… and our aunts… and any woman who has ever taken the time to help in our upbringing.

Mother’s Day takes on a whole different meaning when you consider the rapidly increasing different types of families out there. Parents of the same sex; children being raised by grandparents or other extended family members; adopted families; multi-parent households; step-parents; polyamorous families; multi-family homes; co-op communities in which all the adults share responsibility for all the children; and chosen families.

In the queer community, there has been much analysis of our “chosen families.” We may have chosen to bring non-biological relatives into the circle of what we call “family” for many different reasons. Maybe our parents rejected us when we came out, so we had to find comfort elsewhere. Maybe we simply moved far from home and found a circle of friends who became family in a strange city. Maybe we were estranged from our families and then chose to bring them back into our lives after the wounds had healed. Maybe we opened up our biological families to include ¬†others around us who needed a helping hand. Maybe shared grief brought us together. Maybe it was shared joy. Perhaps it was need; perhaps it was desire. Maybe it was circumstance, or maybe it was planned. For whatever reasons, many of us have brought into our lives those who “traditional” society may not call “family,” especially not in the nuclear sense, but who are just as dear to us and who have had just as much impact on our lives as those who birthed us or share our genetic code. (And yet, even in that sense, the DNA of all of humanity varies by less than 1% all across the world — so we’re not as different as we sometimes like to think we are.)

The “coming out” narrative in the queer community has been told and re-told more times than would be possible to count. We’ve all had to grow in some way or another. “Coming out” means stepping outside of the mainstream and that takes a lot of courage, strength — and often a lot of help from others who have been off the beaten path before us.

Mother’s Day is a beautiful time to recognize those who have helped nurture us as we grew. To me, Mother’s Day is all-inclusive of all the women who have helped me grow as a person, who offered comfort when I needed it, who pushed me to do better, who knew when to let me cry, who knew when to push me into the water and force me to learn how to swim. It’s about the women who have chosen to enter my life and be a positive force within it.

It’s about my mother. It’s also about my little sister. And my English teacher in middle school who pushed me to create my first published story. It’s about the therapist at the UMD counseling center who reaffirmed me and comforted me and helped me to heal after I was attacked. It’s about my friend growing up who helped me get out of a very unhealthy relationship in high school. And it’s about the young women who held my hand¬†through the confusion when I had my first crush on a girl. It’s about the writers who have changed my life philosophy and inspired me to do better. It’s about the songleader in NFTY who inspired me to pick up guitar when I was thirteen. It’s about the women who have coached me in ballroom dancing and pushed me to do better. It’s about the girlfriends who have been supportive in my effort to lose weight and achieve a healthier lifestyle. It’s about the women who showed that yes, a girl can grow up to be whoever she wants to be and that the glass ceiling is only put there to be shattered. It’s about the coworker who came into the bathroom when I had a breakdown in the middle of a shift and didn’t judge me at all while she comforted me then covered my tables until I was ready to face the world again. It’s about my boss who has offered me nothing but encouragement and enthusiasm about my goals to attend HUC and become an educator and community organizer in the Jewish community.

It’s about all the women who have entered my life, either by choice or by chance, and who I have chosen to embrace as family, even if only for a short period of time.

Thank you, women everywhere who have nurtured others in some way or another.

Who will have you chosen to be in your family? And who will you be thinking of this Mother’s Day?

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