Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Speech at the Harvard Queer Students and Allies Anti-LGBT Bullying Rally, 10.12.2010

6.12 seconds. That’s about how long it takes to fall 604ft. 604 feet is about the distance Tyler Clemente fell after jumping off the George Washington bridge. Tyler, a talented violinist and undergraduate at Rutgers University, took his own life because his college roommate broadcast, live on the internet, webcam footage of him having sex with another man.

I never endured anything like what Tyler went through when I was at school. But I was bullied for being gay. You see, as a boy I was a ballet dancer. Every week I’d pull on my leotard and shiny blue hotpants – they were really quite something – and spent an evening practicing Demi-Plies and pirouettes. And I loved it. I loved the discipline, the music, played on an old piano, the feel of the wooden floor beneath my feet – I even secretly quite liked the outfit!

But my schoolmates did not love ballet. And neither did some of the teachers. One, a PE teacher, used to remark upon how girly I was, how dancing was not something that a boy should do. I remember that he was the first person to call me a “fag” – a term which, at all of seven years old, I didn’t really understand. I remember that, in high school, “gay” was only ever used as a term of abuse. And I remember one cold morning, sitting in the school’s assembly hall, when the principal intoned “homosexuals deserve our pity and our prayers.”

Not all of us have experienced homophobic bullying. But we all, I think, know what it is like to feel different, to feel isolated, to feel alone. Perhaps you were too short, and the tall kids made fun of you. Perhaps you were too tall, and got it from the shorter ones. Perhaps you were too skinny, or too large, too quiet or too loud, the wrong race, or from the wrong part of town. We’ve all felt, I think, even if just for a moment, that there is no one standing with us, no one on our side.

And we can all agree, too, if we have kids in our lives that we care about, that we don’t want this to happen to them. Imagine, if you can stomach it, what it must be like to come back home to see a strange shape swinging from the tree in your back yard, twisting gently in the breeze, the creak of the branch as it bends with weight. And as you get closer, the feeling deep in your gut as you realize what it is, hanging there. Who it is. Who it was.

Because that was Seth Walsh, 13, hung himself from a tree in his garden. It was Billy Lucas, 15, who hung himself at the home of his grandmother. It was Raymond Chase, who hung himself in his dorm room. And it could have you’re your brother, your sister, your son, your daughter or your friend. It could have been one of us. All these senseless deaths within the past few weeks, and these are just a few names in a very long list.

I only came out in March this year, a full ten years since the time I first told my parents I thought I might be gay. In those ten years I missed a lot of opportunities to make a difference in kids lives. I was a high school teacher, and every day I wasn’t out was a day I deprived gay students of a positive role model. I’m not willing to waste any more time. I have to act now. We have to act now. Because it isn’t enough to allow these things to happen and then to mourn them after. We need to catch these kids before they jump.

And there is something we can do to help. Blogger and journalist Dan Savage has started a campaign – the It Gets Better Campaign – to tell kids who are being bullied for being gay, or for whatever reason, that there is hope for the future. He’s invited people to tell their stories of how they overcame bullying to live happy, proud lives. And I believe if we made such a video, as Harvard students with prestigious degrees and sparkling careers, we could make a difference. So we need people who are willing to tell their own story, to help hold a camera, to do editing and sound – people who will make this the most inspiring It Gets Better video there is.

So if you are an undergraduate, speak to Tevin, who is standing right here. If you are a graduate student, or just want to come along, come to our planning meeting at 7pm on Monday 18th over at the Education School.

I recently joined the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, and there is a song they sing to the new members in our first rehearsal. These lyrics stuck in my head: "You can be whoever you want to be. You can love whoever you choose." Just think – if that had been the message that Tyler Clemente had been given, or Seth Walsh, they might still be alive today. Working toward that vision is surely worth a little of your time. Stand with me and tell these kids they are not alone and that a better future is possible. Tell them that we have their back. Let’s catch them before they jump.