Ellen DeGeneres is married and Clay Aiken is gay, and that's the news for this month. Well, there is the national economic crisis, but hey, we can't worry about everything!
The above sentence was our opening phrase for this article until wham! Right out of left field (well, from the liberal side at least) we received a news blurb saying that the Connecticut General Assembly had voted to legalize LGBTQI marriage, and we thought that news was far more important than the personal lives of show biz folks.
But then again, maybe not, because they are related topics. Just a few short years ago, Ellen wouldn't have had the opportunity to marry, and Clay wouldn't have been so openly upbeat about telling anyone he was gay, much less the entire world.
"It is certainly a good thing to have heroes, athletes, movie stars, religious leaders and other celebrities who are "brave" and "out" front and who serve as examples of how things can be okay."
What seems significant is that Ellen received standing ovations from her TV audiences, and Clay's fans seemed to care not one whit, or perhaps they had already guessed, and it wasn't really news.
But either way, we observed support and acceptance rather than hoots of disapproval. Even the news that Clay was a new father, another choice not possible a few short years ago, seemed to be met with "Ooohs and aaahs," rather than negativity.
We have to wonder if these events are a sign that attitudes are truly changing toward the LGBTQI community, or are they an exception based upon "star" worship?
Clearly, the decision by the Connecticut legislature is more than simple hero worship, and even though the score is a mere three down and 47 to go, it represents three states that recognize and validate same-sex relationships. We've also heard rumors to the effect that New Jersey may soon follow this coastal trend and change its domestic partnership policy to full legal recognition of marriage as well.
If we sound excited, we admit to being a bit pleased with the way things seem to be going -- in our favor for a change. However, we aren't naive, and we know that it will be some time before a majority of the states legalize our right to marry, and we have to wonder if we will live long enough to see such legislation pass in our home state of Indiana.
"The group's National Climate survey asked 6,209 middle and high school LGBT students if they experienced harassment at school, and a surprising nine out of 10 reported in the affirmative."
But more worrisome than the long drawn out legislative process that we anticipate will occur is the evidence we see of increased hostility and violence directed toward members of our LGBT community.
We know from historical accounts and our own personal observations during the civil rights era of the 1960s that when an oppressed group is verging on emancipation, its oppressors become more violent and menacing. And we have no reason to believe that things will be any different if the legal system continues to rule in favor of the queer population.
During this month of October our thoughts returned to that time 10 years ago when Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered. While his story became legend, in large part due to the activism of his mother Judy, who has became a staunch advocate for LGBT rights and safety, there have been many other lesbians, gays and transgender individuals beaten, tortured and murdered whose stories have not been heard.
This is especially true of LGBT individuals who are also persons of color or ethnicities other than white/Caucasian. Is the media still not color blind, or is it that some groups just do not demand the attention necessary to draw attention to their own victimization?
Folks do have to speak up to be heard, but they also need the audience to respond. Now we aren't minimizing what happened to Matthew and the suffering of his mother and family -- not at all. But we know there are others who suffer in silence, and we believe that we cannot truly bring about a change in attitude in our culture if we don't speak up loud and clear and stand united against any and all acts of injustice.
"During this month of October our thoughts returned to that time 10 years ago when Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered."
We must accept nothing less than a policy of intolerance toward discrimination based upon sexual orientation, gender identity, racism, religion and any other reason folks think of to dislike someone else. Are we being negative here? We don't think so. Progress is being made, yes, but is it pervasive throughout our culture, or are we just celebrating mere instances of personal freedom exhibited by those isolated from the mainstream due to circumstance of wealth and/or fame?
Our attention has been further drawn to issues of violence because of an article juxtaposed with the Connecticut marriage news that reported on a recent study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The group's National Climate survey asked 6,209 middle and high school LGBT students if they experienced harassment at school, and a surprising nine out of 10 reported in the affirmative.
Eighty-six percent said they experienced harassment; 73 percent reported hearing derogatory remarks such as "faggot" or "dyke" frequently; 61 percent felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation; and 33 percent admitted to skipping a day of school because of unsafe feelings.
These alarming statistics indicate that the school situation is still critical for a large proportion of LGBT students and that they currently experience being bullied and victimized in large numbers. One consequence of such abuse by their peers is evidenced by grade point averages of 2.4 for those who do experience harassment versus the 2.8 for those who don't.
"Just a few short years ago, Ellen wouldn't have had the opportunity to marry, and Clay wouldn't have been so openly upbeat about telling anyone he was gay, much less the entire world."
Some schools offer positive intervention and support systems with the presence of positive staff and gay-straight alliance organizations. Typically the instances of harassment or feelings of fear were decreased by about 18 percent in those more positive environments.
However, statistics revealed that less than one-third of the schools surveyed allowed gay-straight alliances. And, even worse, there are only 11 states and the District of Columbia that have safe school laws to protect students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation, and just seven states protect students based upon gender identity/expression.
The first National School Climate Survey was conducted in 1999, and this most recent one in 2007. The results demonstrate very little improvement (a margin of 13 percent improvement) over the past eight years.
Given this report, how do we justify saying that our social climate is improving? Can we even compare what works in Hollywood with everyday folks in their ordinary lives? We think things are better in the more liberal pockets of our culture but perhaps not so much in the average American city or town.
It is certainly a good thing to have heroes, athletes, movie stars, religious leaders and other celebrities who are "brave" and "out" front and who serve as examples of how things can be "okay." But we must remind ourselves that everything is not okay for everyone, everywhere.
It would help immensely if we had legislative leaders at both the federal and state levels who were willing to be just as out and brave. We need leaders who will set a tone of tolerance and acceptance, not one of divisiveness and discrimination.
The message must come from the top, and maybe someday the score will be 50 down 0 to go and a victory for all!
Helen Harrell and Carol Fischer can be reached at and .