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“Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve!” I recoiled from the sweaty, gas mask wearing protester screaming his mantra into my face. It was a blazingly hot beautiful summer day in Knoxville Tennessee, I was 19 years old, and it was my first (and the city’s first) Gay Pride March.
My experience of being a gay teenager was difficult, as it was for many of my generation. Neither of my parents understood my sexual orientation, viewing it as a choice meant to hurt and embarrass them. I was the “school gay” in my high school years, and subject to intense bullying at the hands of other students, even resulting in one point in a beating just after school. It was clear that most of my teachers and the school administration had no clue how to deal with this situation. I remember sitting in the Principal’s office, nursing a bloody nose from a punch thrown by one of the school’s popular athletes. He asked me if I wanted him to do anything but, that, of course, he would have to call my parents and let them know why I had been targeted for the beating. Wouldn’t it be better if I just accepted an apology from this troubled young man and left it at that? In shock and scared of my parents’ reaction I agreed.
This was two years before I left my small rural North Carolina town to attend the University of Tennessee Knoxville. I joined around 30,000 other students and at the time, and it seemed as big and bustling as a major metropolis. On my first day, I sought out the Gay and Lesbian Students’ Union. Over my adolescence I had been reading voraciously about gay life, history and culture, but until that moment I had never spoken to another openly gay person. Within a year, I found myself elected president of the what had become the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Students’ Union and helping to plan Knoxville’s first Gay Pride March.
There is so much to remember about that experience- threats of violence, the amazing passion and compassion of so many people, the members of the community, some of them very ill indeed in the awful peak of HIV/AIDS, determined to march to show their pride and support. On that day the GLBSU announced an outreach and education service to other students, with members of the Union available to speak about our lived experiences as LGBT+ people in any lecture on campus.
About a year later, I was speaking about my experiences growing up gay in a large lecture hall to a large group of sociology students. I spoke about my experience of feeling isolated, and how I was embarrassed that I did not stand up for myself on the day my principal asked me to stay quiet about being beaten.
After the class, a quiet student, about my age, came to the front and handed me a piece of paper. He asked me to read it later and quickly left the lecture hall. This was not unusual, and I expected a note letting me know that he appreciated the talk and was possibly scared of coming out.
“I hope you don’t remember who I am. I was that boy that hit you in the face that day. At first, I was proud of what I had done. I was a big man to my team. But since then I have felt so guilty, and hoped to have the opportunity to see you. Hearing you talk about your side of what happened has shamed me even more. I have learned to be tolerant of gay people. Please keep doing what you are doing- it does help.
I am so sorry for what I did to you. I hope you can forgive me.”
Why is it important to keep pride alive? Because of young people who are much like I was, many of them in far worse situations, who believe it will never get better. Pride and education about the lives of LGBT+ people is so important to give them hope. But it is also important for people who believe LGBT+ people are “less than” or deserving of bad treatment. They can be reached and have the capacity to change their hearts and minds.
I was never able to contact the young man who wrote me that note- but if I could I would hug him and thank him for providing proof that change is possible and that finding the energy for hope is always worth it.
Frank Jordan is Head of Staff Development at the University of Northampton, where he is also co-chair of the LGBT+ Staff Network.