When I was fourteen, my mother came out as a lesbian. It was 1976 and way before the days of books like Heather Has Two Mommies (1989), one of the first LGBTQ children’s books to gain broad attention. During my elementary school years, no one talked about anything LGBTQ other than guys (mostly) using a slew of pejorative terms to harass any male who did not live up to their invisible testosterone litmus test. One of those boys lived on my block and, not surprisingly, he often found refuge at our home.
Fast forward forty years. In November 2016, a few days before the forty-fifth president of the United States is elected, my almost fourteen-year-old son comes out as gay. I am so happy for him and, as it turns out, so are his classmates and teachers. I am astonished about how nonchalant people are and how vast the spectrum of both sexual orientation and gender identity is for the young people of his generation.
On June 16, 2020 the United States Supreme Court held that both sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a piece of federal legislation outlining who can bring civil lawsuits based on discrimination. I immediately receive a text from a close friend, also a boomer: “tears and more tears…I had to hide for forty-four years!” This is from someone who’s been “out” for most of his adult life, but nonetheless has had to hide his life from the world around him including most members of his very Catholic family, co-workers, and others he has no reason to trust.
I grabbed onto the good news of the SCOTUS decision like a life preserver. This unexpected and long-awaited news fills me with joy. I think about how it will change the nature of my sexual harassment prevention trainings where I’d been showing a color-coded map of the United States to give participants a visual image of which states have laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, and which don’t. There are always some folks in my mostly Bay Area/California trainings who are floored to learn that (prior to the June 2020 decision), it was perfectly legal for employers in some states to discriminate against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
So, where does that leave us? The law has changed, but as we see with discrimination of any kind, including anti-black racism, behaviors and hearts and minds have to change as well. One way that happens is through bystander intervention: simply put, see something, say something. While the words may seem simplistic, interrupting an “ism” takes focus, clarity, and the willingness to move into an unknown sphere:
What will the response be?
What if there’s anger?
What if I lose a friend?
What if family member won’t talk to me anymore?
What if I lose my job?
What if I get arrested?
What if I lose my life?
And the only way to find out is to take some action: Say something whether it be through protests in the streets, writing, community art, letters, policy and advocacy campaigns, courageous conversations, Op-eds, or speeches.
You’ve seen the protest signs, “silence is complicity.” Say something so that my son can hear your voice, my mother can feel your support, and my dear friend knows he doesn’t have to hide in your presence.
Photo by Jiroe www.unsplash.com