Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Courage, Tolerance, and Gay Youth in Virginia

There was a touching and informative article in the Style section of Monday's Washington Post, written by theatre critic Nelson Pressley, about an aspiring actress and playwright from Loudoun County.

Sabrina Audrey Jess, a student at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, found herself embroiled in controversy last year when a one-act play she wrote and directed fell afoul of religious-right activists. She based the play, called Offsides, on stories she had heard from friends and classmates who, in her words, "went through a really hard time":

"Some of them didn't tell anybody because of how scared they were. There were some who told people, and their parents said they were going to get kicked out of their house, or they had to go to counseling, and if they didn't go to counseling they would be forced to leave the house -- it was just a lot of stuff. And it didn't make sense to me."
In response to this, she wrote the one-act about a gay high-school football player coming to terms with his feelings and his identity. As Pressley explains,
The play contained a tentative and ambiguous homosexual kiss that was blacked out almost before it began; more unsettling were the physical beating and blistering ostracization the football star then endured from his friends.
Since Offsides was just one of five short plays presented on the program, Jess was caught off-guard by what happened next. Pressley again:
Her play was the hot topic of the next county school board meeting, which was preceded by anti-"Offsides" leaflets and even an e-mail campaign urging constituents to tell school board members that "it is inappropriate to promote homosexuality in our public schools." That came from the office of Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), who later stated that he didn't write the e-mail but was simply passing it on.
Sabrina Jess's story reminds me of an essay written by my friend Richard's escort to the Turner Ashby High School prom a couple of weekends ago. He wrote the piece for an English class, but it ended up published on a high-school-oriented Web site called Youth Noise. Corey wrote, in part:
Maybe if schools start emphasizing the acceptance of homosexuality, groups will start to help make people aware of what it is. A GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) is a great club to have at school. It helps people understand what homosexuality is and whom it affects. They also do other things, like raise money for diseases such as AIDS. They try to reduce sexual orientation discrimination, promoting that you don't have to hide yourself, and they help people understand homosexuality.

Eventually, teenagers may be able to go to dances, like Prom or Homecoming, with whomever they would like. At Turner Ashby High School, they speak over the intercom and tell us that males taking males or females taking females to dances is strictly prohibited. This is discrimination against the rights of all humans. If you want to take someone to a dance because you like that person and aren't allowed to because of the school policy, wouldn't that make you angry?
Corey writes that his school had a policy that prohibited him from taking a male date to the prom. He chose to ignore that policy, with no negative repercussions. Tiny acts of civil disobedience like that help promote the vision (and practice) of tolerance. They require courage but they reap great rewards.

What is particularly heartening about the Loudoun County gay-play controversy is the poise with which Sabrina Audrey Jess responded to it. She told the school board:
"I try to promote tolerance in a school where there is not enough among teenagers and am in turn flooded with the intolerance of their parents. People who are negatively commenting on my play are proving my point."
Asked by the Washington Post what she wanted her listeners on that occasion to know, she replied:
"That it wasn't Mr. Person's fault," she says, referring to Stone Bridge Principal Jim Person and sounding almost apologetic. "It wasn't Mr. Hochkeppel's [her drama teacher's] fault. I did this all on my own, and I'm proud of what I did, and I had something to say, so I said it. And you can't hide your kids from something that does exist. A lot of parents that got upset said, you know, 'My child shouldn't be exposed to this.' Well, news flash: They are. And you need to deal with it. Because if you're not going to deal with it, somebody else is." Pause, and a blush. "And I got a standing ovation for my speech."
As an ex-gay teenager -- or, rather, a one-time gay teenager -- who had to hide my views and feelings in convoluted and veiled prose at the time (see my own high-school prom story, reprinted here on May 7), my heart warms to stories like these. The times are different now, and the closet is no longer the only option available.


Tim said...

Rick, you're a Gay ex-teenager.

kilo said...

Good post Rick.