Arlene Istar Lev
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people; transsexuality; gender; marriage and family issues; parenting; adoption; youth.
Q: How has the environment changed for the LGBTQ community in the United States -- for better or for worse?
A: When I was a young teenager, I had no role models, no adult out lesbian or gay people (let alone bi or trans people) who I saw living productive lives. Being gay often meant living a clandestine life, and denying who we were. Today, I work for an institution that recognizes domestic partnership benefits for my spouse and children. My children attend neighborhood schools where their families are recognized, and we can live out, visible lives without shame.
However, the recent tragic deaths of young people -- six suicides within a few weeks -- reminds us all how far we yet have to go to make our communities safe for LGBTQ people. For these teenagers and young adults, they were so ashamed of their sexual orientation that death was easier than living with the exposure. Same-sex love is still so potentially toxic in our culture that death seems to offer freedom. How much worse is it for young trans kids?
Q: UAlbany counts among our alumni Harvey Milk, one of the most important gay activists and civil rights leaders of the 20th century. Yet it was not until much later in life that he was able to "come out." Given the recent tragedy at Rutgers, what changes can schools and colleges make today to create a more welcoming environment for students from all walks of life?
A: The first thing we need to do is end the silence on LGBTQ issues. I know that Harvey is cheering from the grave when I say those words. There is an enforced silence, especially in public schools. Young people need to know that same-sex relationships exist, that transgender people exist; it is a simple fact of life. Students in their classes have gay parents, gay siblings, trans relatives and neighbors.
The second thing we need to do is enforce anti-bullying and zero tolerance cultures in our schools. The expression "that's so gay," and derogatory name-calling needs to be swiftly addressed by teachers and administrators. Administrators need to be the leaders on these issues, which will empower the teachers to stand up against bullying.
As horrible as the suicides and bullying are, we need to remember that young people who are doing the bullying do not act alone. They behave the way they do precisely because our culture creates an atmosphere where homophobia can thrive. If Tyler Clementi had not jumped from the George Washington Bridge, but still endured the experience, who would've stood up and said, "Stop! What you are doing is cruel."
"Lynching" the bullies after the fact may ease our cultural guilt, give us a target for our sadness and rage, and but it will not solve the social illness that caused the suicides. All of these children are our children, the victims and the bullies, and all of us are hurt when we allow the violence of homophobia and transphobia to continue.
Q: National Coming Out Day was on Monday. What is the most important thing for us to come away with regarding "coming out?"
A: Sometimes for those of us who have been out a long time, we forget the pain of the closet, how hard it was to tell our parents, our friends, and the thought that we would never get hired at a job, not if people really knew who we were. We thought we'd never been able to have families, to marry and have children, and of course, there is the ever present fear of violence.
However, as many of us have come to know, being closeted is much harder than being out, and that's what National Coming Out Day celebrates. For those of us who survived the homophobia and transphobia of our earlier days, being out is delicious. We have friends and family, meaningful jobs and careers, and good lives. Coming out is good for the soul.