I showed up for the Louisville Youth Group’s Forum, hosted by the Metro United Way, which brought together 40 organizations and a packed house of individuals from Kentuckiana who are working to counteract anti-gay bullying by finding ways to support our LGBT youth. Well more than 100 people, from grandmas to teenagers, church members to political activists, straight, gay and everything in between, gathered to offer their support and the support of their communities. We heard from some teens who shared their stories of hardship and growth, from adults who work to protect kids from abusive situations, and from people like me who just want to help in any way we can.
There is a ton that needs to be said about anti-gay bullying, as it deserves to be a continuing dialog in all parts of our city. I could write about how JCPS needs to step up and address the issue within the school system, or I could suggest that you help us pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a federal bill that would prohibit bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. I could tell you how much more likely it is that gay teenagers will grow up to abuse drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the low self-confidence ingrained in them by society.
But what I want to share with you most is one honest conversation I had with a woman I had never before met that damn near brought a tear to my eye. She was looking for ways to help LGBT youth from within her church. “As a straight person,” she asked me, “How do I open up a dialog with a teenager that might be gay?” My initial response was to suggest she use the old “Hey, kid, word on the street is you’re gay” tactic — maybe not the best answer, but I make jokes when I’m nervous. Truth is, her question deserved some thought, and I took it as an opportunity to use some of my life experiences to find the answer.
I remembered when I was a 14-year-old struggling with my lustful desire for Liesl, the oldest sister in “The Sound of Music.” She was 16 going on 17, and I wanted to be her Rolfe for life. (Kids, if you’re reading this, I am talking about a musical from the ’60s. Check it out.) I didn’t know who to talk to about my hormonal urge to merge with Liesl and thought that surely I was the only girl in the world who felt it. At that time, people didn’t walk around saying things like “same-sex” and “LGBT youth.” I remember feeling confused, trapped and, for a brief moment, like I might be an alien. When I finally came out to my dad, he said one of the most important things to me at that time in my life: “You don’t ever have to hide anything from me.” My teenage brain translated this into, “So, if I am indeed an alien, my dad will still love me.” And that has made all the difference in the world.
If you can have an open door policy with the teenagers in your life, if you can let them know simply that they can tell you anything and you will listen and love them just the same, then you are a special kind of hero in my book. It takes a brave soul to honestly listen to someone without trying to change them, even if it’s hard for you to identify personally with what they are saying. Any teenager would benefit from the open ears and open arms of a trusted adult. And our LGBT or questioning youth is no exception.
So, to you, Louisville, I say: Way to show up for our kids. Let’s do that more. As a 30-year-old who has spent her entire adult life as an out lesbian and who gets to write about it in this column, one of the best things you have ever done for me was listen.
For more information on how to get involved, visit www.louisvilleyouthgroup.com.