Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Starfish

On Day 16 of 30 Days of Blogging, I offer a topic a friend sent me in a private message on Facebook:

You were never this vocal about being gay and issues facing gay people when you lived in New York. What changed when you moved to Tennessee?

This is an interesting question. Basically, there's a short answer, and there's a longer and more complicated one.

Short answer: In New York, there were lots of gay people, and lots of gay advocates, and lots of people working on LGBT rights. I had the luxury of being a small part of a large group, and the burden of work in moving LGBT rights forward was already being done by other, more motivated people. Then I moved here, and I was suddenly a part of a much smaller group. This much smaller group was, and is, often overlooked, and it became apparent that if I did not speak sometimes, then sometimes there would be no one speaking. "Sometimes" became "a lot of the time", and I guess somewhere in there I turned into an advocate. I'm not the only one on campus, but there definitely aren't as many of us as there need to be.

Longer answer: This leads to a simple question: Why do there need to be advocates for LGBT people at all?

To answer that question, I have to repeat a story that I never really liked before I moved here. During my first year as a hall director, one of my supervisors was really, really into this story, so I heard it over and over and over, and can now type it from memory:

A man is out walking along the beach in the morning as the sun rises, and sees a young woman walking along the waterline. She appears to be dancing, bending and spinning on the sand, and as he gets closer he sees that she seems to be throwing something into the ocean.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

She bends over, picks up a starfish, and throws it into the water.

"I'm throwing the starfish back into the ocean. When the tide went out, they were stranded on the beach, and when the sun comes up they will dry out and die."

The man scoffs.

"Young woman, there are thousands of miles of beach, and millions of starfish. How can what you're doing possibly matter?"

The young woman shrugged and picked up another starfish, holding it out to him before throwing it back into the ocean.

"It matters to this one."

I always thought that story was crap, honestly. A bunch of huggy, possibly hippy crap that people like my supervisor printed on posters and hung in their offices next to a full product line of motivational decorations from the Successories catalog. It's one of those stories about how little things make a big difference and the smallest action can impact lives in powerful ways, and I was young and cynical and knew everything, as young and cynical people often do, and I certainly knew bullshit when I heard it.

And then, eventually, I moved to Tennessee.

And I met a starfish.

In the time that I have worked here, five students have told me that I am the first out gay male that they have ever spoken to. Growing up in New York, even in conservative "red state" northern New York, this was initially incomprehensible to me, but it's true. They've probably met some closeted gay men, but out gay men are in short supply on this campus.

And why is it so important to meet out gay people?

Because it lets everyone know that we are people.

For years, polling data has shown that knowing a gay person affects your stance on gay rights. It's very easy to discriminate against "those people"; it's hopefully a little more difficult to discriminate against Joel, the guy you had lunch with yesterday. (Unless our lunch was horrible.) It helps us find allies, which we desperately need in order to move forward toward equality. It helps us find support groups, which we also need when we end up moving backwards instead. Meeting gay people humanizes gay people, and moves us toward the day when we can all just be people without another qualifier in front of it.

Getting back to the starfish, there's also a reason why it can mean so much to an individual student. It's one thing to tell people that it gets better, but it's another thing entirely to show them. We set our self-worth and our self-image by the things we see around us. How do you assign a value to yourself as a gay teenager if you never see any other gay people? How do you know what a normal gay relationship should look like if you never encounter one? How do you know that things will be better when you're an adult if you never meet a gay adult? One student told me that, as a gay male who was also an administrator at this school, I was like a magical unicorn that they couldn't believe they'd seen. That student has graduated and now works in college administration.

It mattered to that one, so it matters to me.


nan said...

Applause!! Great post, Joel.

nan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hope said...

Well said my friend. When I left my previous institute, they gave me a journal signed by students. One student wrote, how much he appreciated me and my partner, being open about our relationship and who we were. We were role models to the young gay man. We showed him a healthy, funny, fussing but most importantly loving same sex relationship. I didn't realize that he paid such close attention to us,who we were and our relationship. It goes to show, you never know who is watching and how your actions affect others. Here in the South we are still open, I introduce my Partner as my Patner and refer to her as my wife, it was a little scary to come out, not sure of the surroundings, but we are who we are and mostly have been accepted. Hopefully our openess is helping another student with who they are and their identity.

Marcheline said...

Amen. Everyone should be free to be who they are and love who they love. And every little bit of help helps.