Back in July, I wrote an article for Newsweek discussing how far we’ve come since I was an openly gay teen in Eastern Kentucky. As an out gay student in the early ‘00s, high school was a daily crucible of homophobia. “I rejoice that things have improved for LGBT teens,” I wrote.
Unfortunately, events over the past several days have left me feeling foolishly naïve.
Over the weekend, Republican North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson went viral after a video of him making homophobic and transphobic remarks was posted on Twitter. “There’s no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality – any of that filth,” Robinson said, before doubling down on his hate. “And yes, I called it filth. If you don’t like it that I called it filth, come see me and I’ll explain it to you.”
Then last night, Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden – who coached the league’s first openly gay active player, Carl Nassib – resigned after it emerged that he had repeatedly called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a homophobic slur in a series of e-mails sent over the past decade. Gruden also lamented the pressure he perceived was placed on the Rams to draft Michael Sam – the first openly gay NFL player drafted – back in 2014.
Also yesterday – which was National Coming Out Day, in case you missed it – DC Comics revealed that in an upcoming edition of its Superman comic, Clark Kent’s son (who is now Superman) will come out as bisexual. Across the internet, homophobes lost their collective minds. “Hollywood is trying to make Superman gay and he is not,” far right Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers tweeted. “Just rename the new version Thooperman so we can all know the difference and avoid seeing it.”
I don’t need Robinson to explain anything to me, because Rogers made it very clear: it’s okay for Superman to come out of a phone booth, but not a closet.
This new crusade against pride flags and LGBT representation in school curriculums is not about politics or ideology, no more than Rogers’ horror over bi Superman or Gruden’s use of a slur is. It is about homophobia, plain and simple.
In 2021, after all the strides we’ve made towards acceptance for LGBT folks, Gruden’s slurs, Robinson’s vitriol, and Rogers’ outrage can seem shocking. Sadly, though it has been lost in the noise about mask mandates and critical race theory, the reactionary right has been waging a war on LGBT students for much of this year. The homophobia and transphobia we’ve seen over the past few days is not an anomaly – it’s part of a wider assault on LGBT equality.
Earlier this year, Facebook friends from my hometown began posting about a young lesbian, Hannah, who committed the grave sin of painting a rainbow flag as part of a school project. The girl and her mother allege the school painted over her design with orange paint, then did not allow her to repaint the design. After they raised a fuss, they alleged that a local church – pastored by the vice-principal, whom I went to high school with – began harassing them.
Hannah’s experience is not an outlier. In August, a district in Indiana banned the display of the pride flag after complaints about its display in a middle school. A Utah district followed suit last month, claiming the pride flag is “politically charged.” In Missouri, John M. Wallis, a high school speech, theater, and world mythology teacher, resigned after a school demanded he remove his pride flag. “There is never a problem when a heterosexual teacher displays pictures of themselves and their spouses in a classroom,” Wallis said, “but I have a flag and all hell breaks loose.”
Displaying the pride flag is not demanding political or religious capitulation. The pride flag does not represent any political party nor any political movement. It represents LGBT people, and we come in all political persuasions. Caitlyn Jenner ran for governor of California as a Republican. Richard Grenell became the first openly gay person to serve at the cabinet level, and he worked for Donald Trump. I vehemently disagree with their politics, but that rainbow flag represents them every bit as much as it represents me.
Homophobes know that, and they are using “religious freedom” and “politics in the classroom” as smokescreens for their hate. As Mark Robinson made it clear when he called us “filth” and as Rogers did with her professed desire not to have to “see” a bisexual Superman, this isn’t about curriculums at all. It’s about not wanting LGBT folks to be visible in the public sphere.
Studies have repeatedly shown that representation corresponds to increasing acceptance for LGBT people. A massive shift in the conversation around gay rights occurred starting in the late 1990s, propelled forward by the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd and the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres. Increasing visibility in the 2000s led to a rapid and historic rise in support for LGBT rights. It has long been known that simply knowing a gay person increases one’s acceptance of sexual minorities.
LGBT rights activists know this. So do homophobes. That’s why they us to go back in the classroom, locker room, and comic book closet.
That isn’t going to happen, though. We live in a pluralistic society, meaning people who do not agree on much must agree on this: we all have the right to basic levels of social tolerance, and we certainly all have the right to access public services without discrimination. Just as I respect evangelicals’ right to pray around the flagpole, they must respect LGBT students’ rights to display a flag which represents their community.
And to play football.
And to be superheroes.
No child should ever have to experience the hate I experienced growing up gay. Just as I refused to let my bullies win 20 years ago, I will not stand idly by today while bullies like Mark Robinson, Jon Gruden, and Wendy Rogers try to stuff our children, our sports stars, and our superheroes back into the closet. That rainbow flag is only threatening to those whose hearts are filled with hate, and hate has no place in American society – whether it be the classroom, the gridiron, or Metropolis.
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