A Speech to Queer High School Activists

by Alok Vaid-Menon, ’13

Note on terminology: Throughout this text I will be using the word ‘queer.’ I do not mean to use ‘queer’ as a derogatory or negative term, rather I use it as an umbrella term for sexualities and gender-identities that are not heterosexual (when one is attracted to members of the ‘opposite’ ‘sex’) or cisgender (when the gender someone is assigned at birth aligns with their psychological feeling of their gender).

Flawed Paradigms

What comes to mind when you think of the ‘gay’ movement? Chances are you think of the Human Rights Campaign and their “gosh-darnit this is so aesthetically pleasing” ‘equality’ sticker – the very sticker you were so proud of yourself for sticking on the back of your mom’s minivan that you drive to school. Chances are you think of marriage equality: of the ‘State’ ‘denying’ gay people their very integrity and going against ‘true love.’ What comes to mind when you think of gay ‘activists’ who compose our movement? Chances are you think of people participating in protests and rallies screaming into megaphones demanding full and equal rights. You might think of a Pride Parade with gorgeous and fit gay people dressed up with all their reckless fabulosity.

But ask yourself: What would change in your life right now if the Supreme Court ruled that banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and that every State in the United States now had to legalize same-sex marriage?

My guess is that after your cried tears of joy, felt a delicious burst of self-affirmation in your heart, texted all your friends, and kept the news on all night, you would recognize that very little in your day-to-day life would change. Chances are you will still get made fun of. Chances are the teachers who called you Satanic for wearing a rainbow bracelet to school will still think you are Satanic. Actually, the prejudice you experience might even increase. Imagine how angry the uber-Republican Coach who teaches you American History will be? Imagine the comments he’ll say in class, imagine the points he’ll deduct from your papers without giving any reason.

It is my belief that the gay rights movement’s major issues aren’t related to your situation. For many of you your sexuality or gender identity is the worst thing in the world to happen to you. You are terribly confused, alone, and scared as hell. Most mornings you wake up afraid to go to school and most nights you ask yourself whether or not you are going to make it to the next day. Sure you are reading these articles online (and clearing the cookies afterwards), but you are far too scared to share them with your parents. But, these images make you think that one day you could grow up and ‘come out’ and become an ‘activist’ and maybe even get married! That one day – once you’re out of this god-forsaken high school you will be able to experience happiness like that; that your life will be meaningful.

We have been made to believe that the only way that you’re going to experience happiness is in the future. We do not believe that we can be satisfied right now. We believe the myths that we are told that it will somehow “get better” in the future because we are terribly lonely. We fear rejection from our schools, from our families, from our religions, from our friends. So we hold on to these images. So we plaster our binders with Equality Stickers and we dream of what it will be like to move to New York City, to find a lover, to get married, to have our parents say, “It’s okay.”

These dominant ideas lull us into complacency and prolong our feelings of inadequacy because they make ‘happiness’ and ‘activism’ as somehow beyond our reach. I want to show you that you have the power to cultivate happiness and engage in activism RIGHT now, that liberation doesn’t have to be after your graduate, that even in your awful and prejudiced high school you have an oasis of hope right now in your own heart and those of your peers.

Adopt your own individual narrative of identity and resistance

The truth is there is not one way to be an activist nor is there one way to be gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or an ally, or queer. Actually, we have to develop, cultivate, and organize around our own definitions. Only by addressing the (sometimes harsh and depressing) realities of our own situation will we be able to overcome them.

You and I have come to believe that the only way that we’re going to be happy is when we come out. But the mandate to come out is actually impractical for many young people. The action of ‘coming out’ associates that there is a space to land once you take those preliminary steps. The truth is many of you cannot afford to be ‘out’ right now. You may step out and find that the ground has been moved beneath you: you could be kicked out of your houses. You may step out and experience violence: You could be beaten up at school. You could lose all your friends. Is this worth the cost?

The mandate to ‘come out’ relies on a particular notion of mobility – that we must ‘move’ away from where we currently reside in order to be liberated. But most of us cannot move (due to the conservativism of our town, our class and racial/ethnic identities, our obligations to family/community). Regardless, why should we have to move? What if we were able to build resistance from our ‘traditional’ homes?

You should never feel pressured to identify a certain way or to follow a particular trajectory. You should not be judged for only telling some of your friends and not others. Do what makes you comfortable. Do not judge other people for not ‘coming out,’ even if you know they are “so bicurious.” Use the words that make you comfortable, or don’t use words at all.  Find frameworks, labels, terms, situations that maximize your happiness right now. Maybe ‘coming out’ doesn’t even make sense to you. That’s completely fine!  Stop focusing on the ‘closet’ as a site of repression and view it, rather, as a strategic tool. View it as an outfit. Don’t let it restrict you. Take it on or off as you please. It can always be there for you in the back of your closet even when you’re technically ‘out.’ You don’t need to be ‘out,’ you do not need move to a city, to ‘the North’ to experience affirmation and find safe spaces. You can create them right now.

Re-imagine language and power

Many ‘LGBT rights’ strategies in high schools have been reactionary. We have an understanding that there is an immediate crisis of prejudice directed against people perceived to be non-heterosexual / gender non-conforming and we want to stop this prejudice as soon as possible. While this is certainly important, we need to make sure that the methods we employ to articulate this prejudice and counter it aren’t actually counter-intuitive to our ultimate goals (ending discrimination). In order to do this must think of the root causes of prejudice – where does it emergence? How does it become cultivated and disseminated? What ideologies ideas and ways of knowing contribute to this?

In order to answer these questions we must not only focus on the experiences of queer students, but we must also incorporate an honest evaluation of the experiences of ‘prejudiced’ ‘bullies’ themselves! Indeed, these ‘perpetrators’ are just as much victims of the patriarchal and heterosexist society we live in. They are struggling with the same gender and sexual boundaries that we are, they just respond in very different ways.

Let’s think about what it would mean to incorporate these ‘bullies’ into our analysis at the level of identity articulation / word choice.

The word ‘gay’ is by no means neutral. Think about how your peers often use it: “That’s so gay” (as an insult). ‘Gay’ becomes constructed as a site of failure, of incompetence, perhaps even of perversion. In marking an individual as ‘gay,’ they become associated with all of the negative stereotypes and may actually experience increased risk of discrimination than they had before they identified as anything. Thus, we have to be careful in the way that we always feel the need to ‘name’ difference because this very process of articulating or identifying may by antithetical to our goals. Sure, you could argue that by proudly identifying as ‘gay’ in high school you have the ability to significantly counter these stereotypes and re-frame assumptions. This is probably the case for close friends and family, but does it have an effect on the most homophobic people in our schools – the ringleaders of violence and prejudice? In fact continuing to push ‘gay’ identity may prevent the very possibility of conversation with these people – conversation that is necessary for changing school climate. In utilizing the word ‘gay,’ we, in turn, create ‘straight’ – we give words, language, verbal ammunition to construct ‘bullies’ who now see themselves as ‘straight.

In a patriarchal and heterosexist, what models do we have for heterosexuality? The type of heterosexuality these (newly straight) people adopt and fashion are prejudiced, exclusionary, perhaps even violent. In dwelling in the language of ‘identity’ based asks and claims we need to think about how ‘homosexuality’ AND ‘heterosexuality’ interact to mutually construct one another as identities and practices. There is actually a radical possibility in ambiguity, in the unnamed. It may feel weird and uncomfortable, but at a strategic level it may permit us access to spaces, conversations, and hearts that we wouldn’t have before.

Finally, what does it mean to advocate for ‘gay’ ‘rights’ in your high school when the majority of people are just beginning to have sexual and erotic encounters? Seeing that there are already so few spaces to talk about sex (in my high school we didn’t even have sexual education!), what does it mean to introduce the topic of homosexuality? First this might actually reduce the number of people experimenting sexually in your high school. As soon as people begin to associate same-sex intimacy/encounters with a very particular ‘gay’ identity,’ they might feel like they don’t identify/look like that ‘identity,’ and stop themselves from experimenting. Also, as research suggests, often the most homophobic people are the people who repress their homoerotic desires the most. If we want to reduce homophobia in our schools, we need to create the conditions for more experimentation, and a ‘gay’ ‘rights’ based framework may not allow us to do this.

Focusing on ‘gay’ advocacy also could be interpreted to create a special category with ‘special’ rights. What if we were to re-focus our advocacy toward sexual education in school more holistically? This would allow us to incorporate everyone into our asks and advocacy. We could use more language like ‘self-determination’ and ‘sexual health’ that is, of course, inclusive of queer identities/practices. In making demands for progressive sexual health/education curriculums we are providing forums to talk about what bodies – not just gay bodies – can do and consent to. Homosexuality can become less associated with a particular type of identity (one that becomes and discriminated against) and moreso a particular type of action.

We will certainly face backlash in making these claims. Conservative parents will think that we are trying to recruit their children with our homosexual agenda. However, the result of actually obtaining progressive sexual education might not be as important as the process and the conversations we get to have about sex, sexuality, and health. The language that we employ and disseminate in this advocacy is what’s important as it sparks consciousness, self-reflection, and capacity for dialogue. These conversations allow students to think about their own sexualities, respective sexual privileges, ignorance about their own identities, confusion, anxieties, and insecurities. These thoughts, these interactions create new capacities for coalition building and solidarity.

The Power of Allyship

As youth queer activists we need to be more deeply concerned and troubled with the way that the mainstream gay rights movement has dominated the language of ‘Equality.’ What does it mean that the word ‘Equality’ has become claimed and marketed by the gay movement when there are so many continuing social and economic inequalities in our society?

We recognize this reality every day in our hallways. It’s not just the ‘gay’ kids who get picked on: it’s the kids of color, it’s the non-Christian kids, it’s the ‘fat’ kids,’ it’s the kids with disabilities, it’s the poor kids. Yes, bullying on the basis of gender and sexual identity is a major issue, but it’s an issue for many. As young people we have a particularly privileged vantage point to understand that inequality still exists against many different social groups. We interact with diverse people daily. Unlike our (older) peers who work at fancy non-profit organization offices in Washington DC and New York City and are able to think of ‘prejudice’ and ‘equality’ in narrowly focused ways that only consider the experience of ‘gay’ students, we encounter multiple-forms of discrimination every day we go to school. In fact, we might even be the cause of some of this discrimination: accepting our LGBT friends but making fun of the kids in Special Education.

If we really want to dismantle prejudice against LGBT people we need to think more about what type of bodies, what type of personalities, what type of identities get stigmatized in our school and how these struggles are interconnected.

My high school presented a really tangible and easily accessible way to understand how heteronormativity intersects with multiple systems of discrimination. Every year the homecoming king and queen looked the same: they were a heterosexual pair, white, Christian, able-bodied, blonde, athletes, upper-middle class, etc. etc. Through the institution of ‘Homecoming,’ we can see how high school students across the U.S. establish the dominance not only of heterosexuality, but Whiteness and Able-bodiedness. Students who do not fit the ‘ideal’ are made to feel insignificant and insufficient.

Considering the overlap of these prejudices at a real and immediate level in our schools, I do not think we should be only focusing on discrimination against kids on the basis of gender and sexual identity. In doing so, we are only fighting for the rights / legitimacy of white privileged LGBT students. Instead, we need to create models of activism that address the needs of all students. Indeed, only by dismantling racism, classism, ableism, sexism, and other types of prejudice can we truly dismantle heterosexism – as these ideologies all are interconnected a complex system of power.

Thus, I believe we should think more about the radical potential of Allyship.

‘Ally’ is an elastic and un-specified enough term that it can apply to multiple different types of discrimination, not simply LGBT-based discrimination. ‘Ally’ unlike ‘gay,’ is not (as easily) associated with a particular race, gender, class, etc. It is a term vague enough that student activists can add meaning to it – make it cool, hip, important for all students. In a culture where students become demarcated and classified into separate groups and categories every day, Allyship provides a necessary intervention: it allows students to self-identify and to transgress boundaries. Allyship permits a space for radical coalition building among groups, among differences.

We need to strip the ‘straight’ from ‘Straight Ally’ and think of Ally more of a space (emotionally, intellectually, and politically) of resistance more holistically to prejudice not only on the basis of gender and sexuality. Being an Ally is a useful framework for political action in your high school. Being an ally means asking your history teacher why the history of women and minorities aren’t covered in your curriculum. Being an ally means intervening in a conversation when someone says “No Homo” and explaining why it’s problematic.

These encounters you have are more important than any demonstration you could coordinate. They confront people with their prejudiced assumptions and present alternative realities, visions, and perspectives that have the potential to radically transform peoples’ minds and directly confront systems of oppression.

The Radical Potential of Emotion

Perhaps the greatest and most effective tactic of queer youth activism is at the personal level. Dominant ideas of ‘activism’ tend to construct it as something external, something necessarily public. What if we were to re-imagine activism as also a personal process, one that happens from within? What if we viewed self-love as a campaign goal? What if we viewed our humanity not as something that is inborn, but that which results from a process of becoming increasingly empathetic?

Indeed youth activists have to work through layers of internalized prejudice. Educating ourselves, meeting diverse people, participating in clubs/groups that engender happiness are all part of this process! Loving yourself and others – especially those who are stigmatized in your schools – is a massive act of resistance. That means playing violin in your orchestra because you love it is a form of activism. That means spending hours talking to your friends on Gmail Chat is a form of activism because it makes you happy. In doing these things, you are bestowing worth to a body, to an identity, to a perspective that has become stigmatized by your community.

One note of caution: as you engage on the process of self and community love, make sure that you never forget the feeling of being stigmatized – that raw, visceral, feeling of exclusion and prejudice that festers in your gut. Sure, nudge it aside with positive energy, but do not lose the trauma; rather, learn to command it, evoke it on whim. Located in this emotion is a radical potential for coalition building. This emotion will equip you with a language to communicate your story to others and build connections with diverse peoples who have been discriminated against in other ways. If you completely dismiss the feeling you will forget what it was like – you will forget the importance of what we’re fighting for.

This is what the older generation of ‘activists’ who dominate our movement is slowly forgetting. They are forgetting what it felt like to hate themselves. They are forgetting what it was like to see prejudice at every direction in their schools, not just directed at them. They are forgetting that they were not holy; that they, too, called other kids names.

This is why I believe that our collective voice, as queer youth activists, is essential for the contemporary gay rights movements. We must disrupt the idea that liberation lives outside of our schools, outside of our young lives. We must disrupt the idea that ‘older’ and more ‘knowledgeable’ LGBTQ folks can ‘save’ us. We must not only critique, but create, and re-imagine new ways of understanding and overcoming our circumstances. This might seem like an insurmountable task – you might feel like you lack the support systems, the resources, the knowledge to accomplish anything substantive, but I believe that you — that we –can do this. Let us focus on what we have, rather than what we are missing. Let us focus on what we can do now, rather than what we hope to do in the future.

Alok is a junior studying queer studies & comparative studies in race and ethnicity. ze can be reached at alokv3@stanford.edu. To read the expanded version of this speech, visit Alok’s personal blog.

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