My Turn: Why I’m a straight ally

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Why am I a straight ally? Hasn’t the world changed? Don’t most of us accept gays and lesbians? I wish the answer were yes, but it’s not. I want to share my experience and my deep belief that equality needs to be practiced, not just assumed.

When asked to march in a Gay Pride Parade back in Boston, I said yes, but quaked in my boots. What if the people watching thought I was gay? What if rocks were thrown, or ugly slurs yelled at us? That fear made me realize that indeed, times have not changed. Not enough. Not if I’m afraid of how people will treat me if they think I’m gay.

By the way, the parade was a jubilant celebration of color, diversity, and equality, and I’m really glad I went.

It’s a choice for me, whether I stand up when someone is put down. The off-color joke, I don’t have to laugh along with everyone else. I can say, “That’s not funny to me.”

Here’s why. My cousin Bobby moved away from Torrington, Conn., to New York City to get away from the disgusted look on his father’s face for picking the dramatic club over football in high school.

“He’s not a man’s man,” my Dad once said of Bobby.

I didn’t know the word gay meant anything but joyful in 1965, but that’s what Bobby was. He died after being beaten and kicked down the stairs of his fifth-floor walk-up. We didn’t use the term “gay bashing” back then, either.

Then there was Walter, the only boy I liked to play with in the neighborhood. He liked to watch TV and ride bikes like me, and wanted me to teach him how to play piano when I started taking lessons.

Unlike Joey, his cousin next door, Walter would never pull the legs off insects or tie Gail’s shoelaces together. Gail had Down syndrome. No, Walter was kind.

The Joeys of the world looked down on him, called him names. He was my friend, but I didn’t know how to be a friend in the face of that meanness. What if Joey came after me?

As a young adult, I wondered if our colleague, Ralph, had a girlfriend. “Ralph is gay,” I was told. I liked Ralph. I later met his partner of 10 years, Tom, and they became my daughter’s godfathers.

Another teacher friend, Maureen, never came out of the closet. She died when she was 38 from cancer, technically, but I think her chain smoking and drinking — statistically higher for gays and lesbians — as well as loneliness, had a lot to do with her early death.

These were good people, and they just happened to be gay. I’m grateful to have known them.

Back in Massachusetts, I worked at the Department of Education, and my cubicle was right next to the people on the Safe Schools Project. Gov. Bill Weld had appointed a task force when confronted with the startling statistics that students who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning their sexual orientation made up 35 percent of the teen suicides in our state.

In addition, parents of these same teens were starting to sue the school systems because principals and teachers weren’t protecting their children from bullying and harassment of kids targeted as gay: they were just ignoring it.

One such case involved a freshman who was picked on every day in school. At a Friday night football game, he was chased right off a pier in Boston Harbor by a gang of kids, running for his life. He could have died. 

Later, as a middle school health teacher, I addressed issues around sexual orientation in the seventh-grade sexuality unit. After school, a student came to see me.

“Am I gay?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “I know you’re tall and smart, but I can’t tell, no. Why do you ask?”

“Because I love Bobby.”  Bobby was the shortest kid on the basketball team, an irresistible class cut-up.

“Yeah, everybody loves Bobby,” I said.

“But if I tell him how I feel, I think it would ruin his life.”

I didn’t give him advice. I just listened and wished it weren’t so hard for Sam to be Sam.

That’s why I’m a straight ally — to practice being the change I want to see in the world, as Gandhi taught. It’s good medicine.

Eileen Wiard is a resident of Ranchos de Taos, a writer, musician, and member of PFLAG.

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