On June 28th I found myself picking up my two teenagers in New York City to spend the rest of the summer with me in Chicago. It happened to be the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and a big Gay Pride weekend. My friend, community activist Isabel Grayson, and I decided to take our kids up to Greenwich Village to see the parade.
We emerged from the train right across from the Stonewall Inn and quickly became aware of how times have changed. The announcer shouted out that Governor Paterson was in attendance, followed by Mayor Bloomberg and other city council members. Then we saw gay police officers marching and, most impressively from the announcer’s perspective, the NYC police marching band in full uniform.
The atmosphere was joyous, peaceful, happy and creative. People were selling rainbow flags on every sidewalk. (My daughter bought two.) Only the occasional protester wondered out loud why New York state recognizes gay marriages performed in other states, but has not yet legalized them in their own.
Times may have changed since Stonewall but the U.S. is still very much in the transition phase for the full acceptance of equal rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people. As states battle over the gay marriage issue, and political parties, religious institutions and universities tangle with it, educators retain a crucial role in helping to end the prejudice against LGBT students and families.
After the parade, my teens and I ate brunch with a group that included a grown lesbian woman and her parents, who had attended the march with their daughter. One of the other women at the table had not yet 'come out' to her parents about her lesbian partner, and she was worried about their possible reaction to her news. The table offered her suggestions and encouragement for speaking openly with her parents while my teens listened.
Children are aware that cultural attitudes about sexuality have not yet changed completely. My son describes how his male friends frequently say “fag” and “gay” to each other, both in jest and in anger. I remind him of how 'white boys' in the '60s and '70s stopped saying “nigger” in the same manner that his friends now say “fag.” (And then we have a discussion about rap music and postmodern irony…). Importantly, my son points out that his public high school, similar to many others, now has a GSA (Gay-Straight Student Alliance), and that many students feel safer and more comfortable with being open about their sexuality at younger ages.
We can teach the history of Stonewall to our students and our children, but it won’t make a big social difference until we can help them to change their friends’ inappropriate behaviors (which is probably connected to their parents’). When parents participate in marches or insist on integrating private country clubs or protecting the safety of the gay neighbors on the block, they provide important role models of respect and equality. As civil rights movements have demonstrated throughout the past century, vocal, non-violent and creative forms of protest eventually do make a difference. Especially for our children…