Malinda S. Smith, Vice-President, Equity
"The increase in lesbian, gay and bisexual characters on primetime television not only reflects the shift in … culture toward greater awareness and understanding of our community but also a new industry standard that a growing number of creators and networks are adopting.”
This is, at least, the hope of Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Yet there is a disjuncture between visual and virtual equality and the everyday lived experiences of many LGBT and Two-spirited people; this other reality has been brought home by the recent spate of LGBT suicides and gay-bashing.
If popular culture was our principal guide, then one might be forgiven for thinking it’s ‘in’ to be ‘out’. There is definitely a rapacious appetite for the glamorous camp and chic of queer, including the gender bending antics of Lady Gaga and American Idol contestant Adam Lambert. It is hard to miss the visibility – even hyper-visibility – of LGBT characters on television and the big screen, from gay characters in Hollywood movies like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to a wide range of ‘gay films’. Ryan Murphy is an openly gay director/writer on the Emmy-winning musical comedy-drama ‘Glee’, which also features the ‘out’ character Kurt. The main protagonist in the popular vampire show ‘True Blood’ is a bisexual character Sookie Stackhouse played by Winnipeg-born Anna Paquin, and the show has featured at least six gay characters.
For five seasons the ‘L-Word’ prominently featured lesbian, gay and trans characters including Jennifer Beals as Bette Porter and Cybil Shepherd as Phyllis Kroll. Following in the path of Sean Hayes who played a camp gay dad of a teen son on ‘Will & Grace’ – the most successful show with principal gay characters – Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet are cast in ‘Modern Family’ as gay dads in a multiracial family (their baby Lily was adopted from Vietnam).
These diverse representations do help to humanize LGBT and Two-spirited peoples. Television characters may chart the possibilities and complexities of LGBT lives, but such popular depictions are not cases of art imitating life. Visual and virtual equality may radically differ from the everyday. Visibility may, at times, mask the everyday challenges of coming out, especially for youth.
The suicide deaths of American students, Justin Aaburg, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Raymond Chase, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas and Seth Walsh speak to the violence and social exclusion experienced by LGBT and Two-spirited youth in a society characterized by homophobia. In Canada, lesbian youths Chantal Dube and Jeanine Blanchette called friends to say goodbye, wrote pain-filled notes for family members – then committed suicide. Death was seen as better than the life they were living.
“These tragedies remind us that while society is working to eliminate prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identified (LGBT) youth still experience overwhelming adversity and many do not see a hopeful future ahead,” argues Cherie MacLeod, Executive Director of Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) Canada.
For years groups like PFLAG have worked to educate teachers and administrators about the harmful impact of bullying and schoolyard violence against LGBT and Two-spirited youth. PFLAG data shows:
• 51% of trans-identified persons attempt suicide;
• 30 % of youth suicides are LGBT or Two-spirited;
• 26% of LGBT and Two-spirited youth are told to leave home.
• LGBT and Two-spirited youth are more likely than peers to be homeless.
School clubs such as Gay-Straight Alliances have developed initiatives to educate peers about homophobia but the challenges often exceed the capacity, as many of these programs are small, voluntary and under-resourced. Numerous videos and documentaries have been produced to help teachers deal with combating homophobia in the classroom and bullying in cyberspace.
Teen suicides tell us that much more needs to be done. A few weeks ago, 18-year old Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his university roommate virally distributed a video of him having sex with another man. His last message was posted to Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry.” His tormentors were charged with invading his privacy, but their actions, so banal, also revealed a stunning indifference to Clementi’s humanity. In a statement by Garden State Equality, Steven Goldstein named the devastating impact of homophobia on human life and talents: “We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind. And we are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others’ lives as a sport.”
It’s hard to believe it was only a year ago that federal hate crime legislation in the United States was expanded to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. President Barack Obama signed the ‘Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act’ in October 2009. Yet, on Monday of this week New York City police arrested Ruddy Vargas-Perez and eight other youth gang members for the brutal beating, torture and acts of sodomy inflicted for hours upon three men before they were murdered. Why? Because in their twisted belief system – their homophobia – the gang members believed it was socially permissible to torment, abuse, torture and even kill those who are gay.
In one of the latest efforts to reaffirm the human rights and dignity of LGBT, people Dan Savage created a viral video campaign with one important message: ‘It Gets Better’. In explaining the campaign, Savage notes:
“Billy Lucas was just 15 when he hanged himself in a barn on his grandmother’s property. He reportedly endured intense bullying at the hands of his classmates — classmates who called him a fag and told him to kill himself. His mother found his body.... I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”
The world for young people is challenging as it is, and even more so for LGBT and Two-spirited youth who face harassment, alienation, and depression. In academe we do have a responsibility to educate, including about the dangers of inequity, hate, violence and social exclusion. University-community programs like Camp Fyrefly aim to empower youth by helping them build personal resiliency and leadership skills. Similarly, initiatives like ‘Interaction’ develop and disseminate knowledge on Two-spirited peoples in Indigenous history and culture. We must also expose the cynicism that allows leaders to claim they support equal rights yet sanction discrimination through public policies that engender ‘separate but equal’ social worlds as in the case of policies like ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’.
I don’t know how effective the ‘It Gets Better’ social media campaign will turn out to be. But I do know that some of the most inspired efforts to combat homophobia and hate crimes against LGBT have come from activists, artists and film-makers, such as Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia (AARGH ). The ‘It Gets Better’ campaign builds on these earlier efforts and it includes a YouTube channel, video clips on Mashable and blogs. There are inspiring video messages from celebrities such as the cast of ‘Wicked’, Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Silverman, and Eve. The power of many of these videos is the compelling storytelling of celebrities who experienced homophobia as youth, struggled to survive and found a way to make their lives better.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We know there are actors, professional athletes, politicians, and corporate executives that remain in the closet for fear of stigma and sanction. Things may get better. But that better world is some distance from the one in which we currently live. In the meantime, our challenge as humanists and educators is to mobilize every means necessary to engender a world in which life is worth living.