Tuesday, October 12, 2010

National Coming Out Day

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. As a straight ally to the GLBTQ community I knew I wanted to say something meaningful about this important day. However, my close friend and role model, Becky Silverstein, said what I never could. Below is a letter she sent out yesterday to friends, family, colleagues, and others in the community. Her message is strong, her words true, and her sentiment honest.

October 11, 2010

Dear friends, colleagues, and family.

Many of you know that as a teenager I attended Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth summer program at Franklin and Marshall College at the Lancaster site.  My time there was some of the most formative of my life to date.  The positive experience that I still remember so vividly today was due to team of educators and residential life staff that worked every day to create a safe space for all of us to learn and grow.  When I returned as a staff member, it was in large part to pay back a dept of gratitude that I felt to those staff members, especially to those who continued to be role models and mentors for me long after I left Lancaster.  My effort to fill their shoes began with the words “My name is Becky.  I grew up in New York.  I am Jewish.  And I am a lesbian.”      

Those words were part of an opening presentation created around CTY’s “Zero Tolerance” policy for bullying.  By outing ourselves in a variety of ways (sexual orientation, religion, cultural heritage), we hoped to demonstrate to the CTY community that CTY was a safe place to be whomever it is you are.  Here I was outing myself in front of 500 people, including 15 young women who would be living on my hall for the next three weeks.   I was terrified.   

Since coming out almost ten years ago, I have come out over and over and over again.  The feeling of terror I felt on stage has slowly moved into anxious uncertainty.  Each time I meet a new person I wonder if they will use the wrong pronoun and if they will be embarrassed if I correct them.  Each time I enter a new community I wonder if I will be the only person who identifies as queer, or if my voice will somehow be dismissed because I speak from a place of minority.  When I was hired to work for a community during the Jewish High Holidays, I felt compelled to make sure they knew my girlfriend would be joining me at services before I committed to working with them.  As secure as I am in myself, I know I can not control others. 

How blessed I am to be able to write this email without that feeling of anxiety.  Today is National Coming Out Day.  I feel so lucky that today, I can come out to you and not worry what you will think – except maybe “duh” or “tell me something I don’t already know.” 

Today I am hoping to continue what I began nine summers ago at CTY.  Our world does not have a zero tolerance policy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t each have one.  Today, I am coming out as someone who recognizes the potential I have to affect another person’s life, the potential I have to help someone realize that they are important and feel safe growing into who they are simply by being present, by being who I am, and by saying outloud “I support you.”  Today, I am asking you to come out as a role model and an ally with me.  I am asking you to refuse to stand by and watch as teenagers kill themselves because of senseless bullying and hatred.  I am asking you to refuse to stand by and watch ss young people choose a life on the streets because they have no where else to go.  I am coming out because I will not let you sit silently by either. 

I am writing to ask each of you to take a moment and consider what you and your organizations currently do to support GLBTQ youth, and all youth – as they begin to discern and grow into their own identities.    All teenagers (really, all people) deserve love and support.  Everybody deserves to look up at school, temple, church, on the playing field, or at the movies and see someone like them.    

Just as GLBTQ youth can’t change who they are, neither can you.  I recognize that not all of you work directly with youth, nor do all of you identify as GLBTQ.  This is a good thing.  Support comes in many different ways and should come from many different directions.  Changing your facebook status to indicate your support is a good start, but it is not enough.  If you need ideas, follow this link to Keshet’s “Ten Things You Can Do Today to Strengthen Our Community.”  Feel free to substitute “pastor” for “rabbi” and “Unitarian," “Christian,” or another faith tradition for “Jew.”  Write or call your high school principal and ask what they are doing at your high school to support GLBTQ youth – even if you graduated 30 or 40 years ago.  Want more ideas?  Check out the GLSEN website, support HRC, or ask me.      

GLBTQ youth and adults are part of your community – wherever you are.  Your community needs you.  How will you respond?

With love and hope.
-- Becky Silverstein 

p.s. Have you seen this video on YouTube?  It’s part of the “It Gets Better” campaign.  Don’t know what that is?  Google “Dan Savage It Gets Better.”  

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