an ambassador for human rights

Ellen de Generes spotlighted a truly brave young man today, Graeme Taylor. Not many adults would venture to do what he did in defense of human rights, not only for gays, but in this instance, a straight teacher, Jay McDowell, who stood his ground in the classroom.

When McDowell asked a student to remove the belt she wore because it sported a buckle with a confederate flag, another student opposed the directive. He didn’t agree with the ability for gays to fly their signature “rainbow” flag, and the female student’s inability to wear the confederate flag on her person. In his argument, the student evidently made homophobic remarks so that he was dismissed by the teacher, and sent to the principal’s office. That action got McDowell suspended.

Upon hearing of the situation Graeme and others, traveled to the hearing held before the school board. Fourteen-year-old Graeme, a professed gay, spoke eloquently on behalf of the teacher who refused to allow hateful diatribes against gays, in his classroom. McDowell took action, however small in the great scheme of things, to keep prejudices learned outside his classroom from seeping into it and perhaps, gaining ground with other students. I too commend him, along with Graeme. Unfortunately, the school board upheld the suspension.

Graeme spoke with Ellen of his own “coming out” at age 13. Without hesitation, and with an adult’s sense of humor, he readily admitted to literally walking out of a closet and exclaiming to a couple of close “straight” friends, “I’m coming out of the closet. I’m gay!” As in his speech before the school board, Graeme engaged in confident, comfortable conversation with the talk show hostess, who was obviously impressed with her young guest’s bravado. I was also impressed with his father, a teacher, who applauded his son from a seat in the audience.  

Ellen provided Graeme Taylor, and teacher Jay McDowell, a tremendous public platform for their actions on behalf of  human rights. Three individuals can make a difference. Ellen congratulated her young guest, saying the world needs more people like him. I say we need more people like all 3 who take a stand for human rights, regardless of the repercussions. I hope I continue to learn from them, and speak out on behalf of those who have silently endured too much pain, for too long.

huge hugs for ellen, graeme, and jay mcdowell, who followed his conscience, and his heart…hugmamma.   

putting a “face” on the “unknown”

Glad I stepped away from the keyboard to visit with dear friends last night. Because of them I overcame my reluctance to get gussied up for a fundraising event in the city. My husband knew nothing about the organization sponsoring the dinner; he didn’t know what the letters “HRC” represented. The hours slipped by quickly, as we listened and learned about the “Human Rights Campaign.” 

We’ve attended other fundraisers over the years, ballet balls, zoo events, symphony dinners, among others. At the ballet ball, I remember ending the night rocking to the deejay’s music on the dance floor. At zoo events, I thought it was cool to visit the butterfly house, and witness the jaguar feeding, afterhours. And at a symphony fundraising dinner, my husband bought me my favorite watch, which I wear every day. Unlike these, last night’s event had no gimmicks, unless one considers the guest speakers as the “drawing card.” If so then, in my estimation, they were the most relevant “gimmicks” I’ve ever entailed.

Washington’s U.S. Senator Patty Murray spoke of her genuine efforts on behalf of her constituents. She focused on 2 in particular, who wrote letters asking for  her help. One was sent by a young girl whose dream it is to proudly serve her country in the military, but isn’t allowed to do so while proudly “owning” who she is, because of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The other letter was written by a dedicated teacher of 30 years, who tried to help a young student suffering the harassment of peers after she “came out.” Failing to garner official support for the youngster’s plight, the teacher informed the girl. Three days later, she committed suicide.

In his turn at the podium Joe Solmonese, HRC President for 5 years, brought me “up to speed” on the organization’s efforts to achieve total equality for a segment of the population that has been disenfranchised for too long. I was especially impressed when he emphasized that they are NOT victims, that they will not be deterred in their efforts, no matter what obstacles they encounter as they campaign for their freedom and rights. In the evening’s program, Mr. Solmonese wrote, in part, “Our community’s voice has never been more influential and never have we had a more friendly audience in our lawmakers. With your support, HRC can make our community’s voice heard loud and clear.”

A Child Protection Social Worker, Janice Langbehn, related a moving story of “man’s inhumanity to man,” to coin a phrase from a long ago episode of “All in the Family,” where Gloria attempted to explain a simple truth to her family. While she elicited chuckles from the viewing audience, including me, Ms. Langbehn’s words resonated with both my husband and I. With her legal partner, Lisa, and 3 of their 4 adopted children, they celebrated their 15th anniversary in February 2007, by boarding a ship in Miami to cruise to the Bahamas. While waiting to sail, Lisa oversaw a basketball game the kids were playing. Within 20 minutes they ran to their stateroom to get Janice, telling her that Lisa was sick. Janice and the children made their way to “Jackson Memorial Ryder Trauma Center, where Lisa had been taken. When her family, Janice and the youngsters, arrived they were told by a trauma social worker that Miami and Florida were “an anti-gay city and state” and were not allowed to visit Lisa or receive any news of her condition. Despite securing the couples Medical POA required by the Center, Lisa’s family continued to meet with resistance, until Janice accompanied a priest who gave her partner the Last Rites. The children were also finally allowed a few minutes with their mom. But in the end, Lisa died alone on February 19, 2007. Since then Janice has publicly spoken on behalf of change to homophobic policies like those of Jackson Memorial. In April of this year, President Obama phoned Janice apologizing for “the treatment her family received and described the Presidential Memorandum he sent to HHS to direct Federal Regulations to allow same-sex couples the same hospital visitation rights as other families.”

What makes Langbehn’s story even more compelling is the dedication with which she and her partner committed their lives to helping children. “Their love and life together was defined by their care and passion for aiding special needs children. In 1992 they were the first openly gay foster parents in their county, fostering 25 children, 4 of which they adopted, and all with special needs due to drug and HIV exposure. Janice’s long history of social work and care for children began while employed with DSHS and the State of Washington as a Sex Offender treatment provider in a juvenile prison. She saw a need to intervene earlier in a child’s life and so became a Child Protection Social Worker. Janice completed her first Master’s in Public Administration in 1995 and in 1997 was accepted to the University of Washington Master in Social Work Program. In April of 1999, Janice was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. From 1996 until Lisa’s untimely death in 2007, the two were intimately involved in their children’s lives. They managed HIV appointments, taught first communion classes, volunteered in the children’s school and began a successful Girl Scout troop.” Janice continues to speak out as part of “the educational process that comes with the fight for equality.” To a standing ovation and thunderous applause, she was honored with the HRC Equality Award.

Introducing the final speaker of the evening, was a dentist who shared a childhood secret with us. He had always dreamed of becoming a figure skater. But he put aside his dreams, and fulfilled his mother’s dream instead. Forty years later, thanks to Johnny Weir, the dentist is taking ice skating lessons. Bravo!

The name meant nothing to me, until a video clip showed Johnny Weir in the spotlight, representing the U.S. at the last winter Olympics. He is a flamboyant figure skater, in his style, dress and makeup. He was not my favorite, so I wasn’t as impressed with his performance as I was with some of his competitors. But after hearing his story, I have more admiration for him, as a person. Starting late, he taught himself to ice skate at age 12 on the frozen ponds in back of the cornfields at his home in Amish country, Pennsylvania. With the love and support of amazing parents and younger brother, Weir “hopped, skipped, and jumped” his way into figure skating history, capturing the hearts of millions around the world (he is knowns as the “people’s skater”), and U.S. Figure Skating’s 2010 Reader’s Choice Award for Skater of the Year (Michelle Kwan Trophy). 

Weir makes no excuses for being gay, embracing his “fabulosity.” Having concluded that he wasn’t representative of the image of the U.S. Olympic figure skater, and would therefore not medal, he decided to do his best, for himself. So he brought to his dynamic performance 13 years of hard work, sacrifice and passion for his craft. When he finished skating, and stood up from a back bend, his eyes were met with an arena of waving flags from around the world. I understood his joy, for as a ballerina, my daughter strives to connect with an audience appreciative of her talent, sacrifice, hard work, and passion for her art.

I think in our own personal struggles to come to terms with life, we don’t see that others are also struggling. I’m guilty of such tunnel vision. It’s human nature to think there’s not enough time or energy to be stretched so thin. Some of us are more capable than others, depending upon our own circumstances of health, finances, and commitments. We needn’t all react exactly alike; we can’t, by virtue of our individual DNA. Perhaps what we all CAN and SHOULD DO, is “put a face on the unknown.”    

Senator Patty Murray, HRC President Joe Solmonese, Johnny Weir, the dentist, and most prominently, Janice Langbehn and her children, are the “faces” of the Human Rights Campaign. America’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are no longer the “unknown.” I now know who they are. Each is someone’s child living on the periphery of society, “assigned” rights which are already theirs by virtue of their citizenship in the human race, and their birthright as U.S. citizens. I don’t feel their rights are mine to give or withhold. I believe they’re inalienable, as written in our Constitution. I am a spiritual person, a member of the Catholic church. I think religion offers us sound principles with which to live our lives, but I think we’ve succumbed to using religion as a weapon to pass judgment upon, and excommunicate, those who are non-compliant. I’m not God, and I don’t want to be God. As with Oprah, the job has serious responsibilities which I’m not equipped to handle. Better I leave it to the experts, God in his domain, and Oprah in hers.

I’ve been fortunate to know the men behind the “faces,” good friends we’ve known since moving to the Pacific Northwest. Leon and Ken made me feel comfortable and welcome, when I met them at the first gathering my husband and I attended at his boss’s home, 13 years ago. Before their arrival, I felt self-conscious and awkward, being a stay-at-home mom trying to mingle with career people. The 2 men were interested in knowing more about me, and soon we were joking and laughing like old friends. Through the years, our friendship has remained steadfast, and I’m able to relax in their company as soon as I see them. They’ve never had an “agenda,” other than to know that I’m fine. I always welcome that concern in friends, straight, or gay.

My friendship with Brent and Rick is more recent, although my husband’s known them for several years, because he and Rick are employed by the same company. Although I was acquainted with both men, I got to know Brent better when we accompanied our significant others on a business trip to Victoria, BC. As with Leon and Ken, I felt comfortable in Brent’s company because he made me feel my contribution to the conversation was valuable. Although he’s taking college courses toward becoming a social worker, I never felt like my 60’s college experience was arcane. In fact, Brent complimented my common sense approach to life. That’s music to the ears of a senior citizen! A smart man 20 years my junior is inspired by what I might have to say. Kind of novel in this day and age. Needless to say, I’m very happy to be in the company of Brent and Rick, 2 men with discerning tastes for quality of life for all, including the elderly.

Personally I know that I’m unlikely to be swayed in my opinions unless I can put a “face” on the “unknown,” whatever that might be. Rather than having someone force me to think differently, I’m inclined to change because of personal motivation. I don’t think any of us like being browbeaten into a decision. My husband and I made a contribution to the HRC, because last night we were educated about their worthwhile efforts, and because Leon, Ken, Brent and Rick are real “faces” for the cause of human rights.

Another real “face” is a nephew of mine who “came out” to his parents decades ago. He was a wonderful, young man when I knew him. He played the piano beautifully; he seemed a sensitive soul. Having lost touch, I learned years later that he’d contracted a near fatal disease. His partner at the time helped nurse my nephew back to complete health. He has shared his life with another partner for many years, adopting 2 girls who had been students in my nephew’s middle school class, several years ago. Before they became a family, the youngsters were in and out of foster homes.

Children are my concern, because of my childhood experiences, and because I wish all children would know the unconditional love and support to be who they are, and not what others want them to be. Our gay peers are intelligent, resourceful and hard-working. They will evince long-term change through their commitment not to return to the “dark ages” of society’s earlier days. We can either embrace the inevitable and co-exist, all striving to live our best lives, or we can maintain our isolation from certain segments of society, holding onto historical prejudices. It’s our choice; it’s our freedom. I choose, that others might enjoy the same freedom. I may have an island mentality about driving on freeways, and fear of black bears, but not in matters that are substantive. In these cases, I prefer to draw from the “aloha spirit” inherent in my native fibre, and welcome all as “ohana” (family).

hugs for conquering our fear of the “unknown”, by putting a “face” to it…hugmamma.