Sunday, October 23, 2011

Straight, but not Narrow

Happy Sunday! As content on the blog!

So what have I been doing with all this time I haven't been writing? Lounging on the couch eating bon-bons and watching soap operas? I'm not even sure what a bon-bon is, and I think all the old soaps my mom used to watch have been cancelled, so no, but I've found there are tons of things to do when you're avoiding something, and some of them are even worthwhile.

Our high school offers a wide variety of clubs...Youth Impact, Rocket Club, Spanish, German, French, and Japanese Clubs, Drama, Key Club, Young Democrats, Young Republicans, Chess Club, Art Explorers, Psychology Club, and the alphabet soup clubs, FFA, FCA, FCCLA, BETA, DECA, FBLA, FEA. There are more, but I honestly can't remember them all. Our school is even more accommodating in that we provide time during the school day once a month for these clubs to meet. Participation isn't limited to those who can stay after school and get a ride home.

The club list keeps growing because students are continually thinking of new ones to add, and as long as they can find a teacher to be the club sponsor, they're good to go. This year we added a Hantis club. (Yeah, I didn't know what Hantis was either until the club produced a promotional video. Imagine ping-pong on steroids.) A group of kids discovered it, rounded up a teacher-sponsor, and now play Hantis on club day.

Another group of kids wanted to form a club at the end of last year, but they had a more difficult time getting it off the ground. They wanted to create a local GSA, or Gay-Straight Alliance. The group was small at first. Pop culture messages notwithstanding, it's hard to be gay or even a vocal supporter of gay rights in high school.

The administration told them the same thing they tell every group of students who want to form a school-sanctioned club. Find a teacher willing to be your sponsor, and this is where they ran into trouble. Many teachers supported the idea, but for various and sundry reasons said no.

Some were simply too busy. Club sponsorship is one more demand on a teacher's time.

Some were too new. Regardless of how you feel about tenure, it does provide a measure of protection. Without it, a teacher can be dismissed without cause. I like to believe in the better angels of human nature and in the people I know to be of good character in our administration, but yeah, it's easier to believe in those things because I have tenure.

The group was unsuccessful in finding a willing teacher before school ended, but they were undaunted. Over the summer, they grew in number. They elected officers and determined to meet in the evenings at the public library if they couldn't find a sponsor. The leaders of the group are honors students taking AP classes and involved in a variety of other activities including band, chorus, drama, and sports. They even contacted the local newspaper.

Meanwhile, a couple of teachers who had declined sponsorship quietly sent the students in my direction. "Mrs. Owens has tenure and would probably be supportive of your cause." They came to see me the day the newspaper printed the article about their plight.

I didn't say yes immediately. I knew the club was a good thing. I knew the student leaders were exceptional kids. I also knew I was busy. I meet myself coming and going on a regular basis, but if I'm being honest, busy wasn't the reason I hesitated. I wasn't afraid for myself. I knew I might take some heat, but I'm a big girl. I have a good reputation as a teacher, support from administration, and yes, tenure. I can take the heat. I hesitated for 24 hours because my youngest son is still in high school. I wondered if he would have to take heat for my decision, if he could handle it, and if it was even fair for him to have to handle it.

In the end, I decided I wasn't doing my son or anyone else a favor by saying no when my conscience knew the only answer was yes. Studies vary on the suicide rate among gay teens, but most indicate that it is higher among gay teens than their straight peers. I don't need the statistics.

Darren Hall is not a statistic. He was my friend. We both played trumpet in our high school band, and we battled every year for first chair. He always won, and even with my psychotically competitive nature, I was okay with that. He was flat out better than me. He never rubbed it in though. In fact, he gave me helpful hints on how to improve.

We were in school plays together. He played my dad in our senior production of "The Rainmaker." He had to shake his finger at me, and it took everything both of us had to stay in character. Neither of us could take that pretend relationship seriously.

At 17, he totalled his Honda. I was sitting right next to him, straddling the gearshift because we had way too many people in that tiny car. His car was trashed, but his only concern was whether I was okay.

Our senior year, we went to prom together. We had a ball...way more fun than I had with the guy I was actually dating my sophomore and junior years. Darren and I were best friends.

We mostly ran with a whole pack of friends, but we went on "dates" sometimes too. The one kiss we shared ended with both of us laughing hysterically. It was so obviously wrong. We never used the word "gay." It was 1983, and coming out of the closet in our Kentucky town just wasn't done. I took a lot of heat off of him our senior year. Most people thought we were dating. I was fine with that. He was good-looking, smart, hilarious, and easy to be with. Heck, I wanted him to be straight. He would have been the perfect boyfriend.

His parents wanted him to be straight too. They were evangelical Christians. They viewed homosexuality as a burn-in-hell sin. Our last year in high school, I took the heat off with them. They loved me because they thought I had "fixed" Darren. I will never forgive them for believing that Darren needed to be fixed. He was one of the best people I have ever known, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he did not choose to be gay.

Before we went off to different colleges, Darren and I made a pact. If we were both still single at 30, we'd get married. He was nervous about leaving. I had been a safety net in high school, and I think he imagined me being a safety net for the rest of his life. I wasn't, and our pact was never realized. I wasn't single when I reached 30, and Darren was dead. He put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger long before he reached that milestone.

Darren's upbringing and his own parents taught him that his very existence was an abomination. The love of his friends wasn't enough to overcome that message. Writing this many years later, I still feel the weight of that guilt.

I feel guilty that it took me 24 hours to say yes to the awesome kids in our school's GSA. I did say yes, though. We currently have almost 80 members and we're still growing. My kids have created a support network for their peers who are feeling alone and lost. They are planning an "It gets Better" video and a "Straight, but not Narrow" video. They have big plans for "Day of Silence" in the spring. And on top of all of that, they are giving back to the community. They are collecting cans for our school's big Thanksgiving food drive and have a Toys for Tots plan in the works.

I am proud of my kids, especially the brave few that stepped out on a limb and made this club happen by sheer force of will. I can't change the past. I can't bring Darren back. I can honor his memory by doing everything in my power to make kids see their value as human beings. If someone has a problem with that, I have three words.

Bring it on.

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