For the month of June, the Dignity & Respect Campaign has focused one of our initiatives on LGBT teenagers. We’ve developed both reading lists and discussion guides in order to better understand how we as a community can reduce bullying and make the world a better place for this population to live in.
However, our nation was recently shaken by the devastating tragedy in Orlando – a shooting that killed nearly 50 individuals in a gay nightclub. In the wake of such an occurrence, it’s easy to be met with a range of emotions. All across social media, people from varying backgrounds are posting and sharing their diverse beliefs and feelings about the matter – everything from stances on Islamophobia to the ever-controversial matter of gun control.
But regardless of the issues that have arisen from this event, one thing is very clear: now, more than ever, we as a country need to focus on how to treat one another with dignity and respect. We need to remember that our differences are only barriers if we allow them to be.
So in the spirit of removing barriers, we feel that one of the best ways we as a campaign can honor the victims of Orlando and the LGBT community as a whole is to continue talking about it. We recently interviewed Alison Taverna, a young, up-and-coming writer who is a member of the LGBT community and writes frequently on the topic. Taverna is from Massachusetts and was gracious enough to talk to D&R about her experiences as a teenager and coming to terms with her identity:
D&R: What was it like growing up as an LGBT teen? What were some of your struggles?
AT: I never considered myself an LGBT teen. I didn’t come out until I turned 19 and was attending an all-women’s liberal arts college in a city far away from my own. I grew up in a small farm town about forty minutes west of Boston; the Charles River trickled through the back woods, and that was about the extent of any real movement I ever saw. I didn’t identify as gay because I didn’t have the space to, but the real problem was I didn’t know I didn’t have the space to. The summer before my junior year of high school, I traveled to D.C. for a ten-day leadership conference. It was the first time I had ever been on my own. My roommate came from Texas and brought with her a stuffed animal. I remember teasing her about it, asking, “Did your boyfriend give that to you?” over and over until finally she said, “No, my girlfriend did.” That was the moment I realized I was perpetuating this assumption of a heteronormative life that, if I was being honest, wasn’t something I even believed in. After that summer I really started being skeptical of what I thought and who was making me think that way.
D&R: Did you have any role models during the time? Who and why?
AT: I wrote letters to that same D.C. roommate for over a year after we went back to our respective towns across the country. We never talked about my sexuality outright, but we talked about hers and I was quick to ask questions about her girlfriends, the hard conversations she had with her mother, and gay pop culture. Looking back now, those letters are what got me here. I never saw her as an LGBT role model; I saw her as a [fellow] kid struggling to grow up. But at the same time, I knew she was free in a way I wasn’t. And in her I saw a life where I could be open and my friends didn’t become afraid of me, my parents would still keep me, and I’d be able to be a bold voice in a community I cared about.
D&R: What resources could have benefited you as an LGBT teen?
AT: Any type of public immersion into the LGBT culture. I would have loved to see some LGBT writers or artists come into our school to lead workshops, do readings, or have a conversation. I remember sitting in dark auditoriums where people talked at us from a stage about drunk driving and drugs. But what would have happened if we turned on the lights? If we sat facing each other? I needed successful, unapologetic, talented members of the LGBT community in the classroom. I needed teachers who taught about the worldwide persecution of human beings because of their sexual and gender orientation. We needed a Gay-Straight Alliance, a gender neutral bathroom, a higher level of policing those students who spat insanely ignorant comments based in hate.
D&R: What do you wish someone would have told you growing up?
AT: I wish someone would have told me being “other” can be a gift. I have to fight every day to continue being a person many people, often openly, reject. I think when you fight for who you are that ruthlessly you validate your life. And at the root of that validation has to be the idea that breathes you are worth it. I spend most of my days standing in front of a classroom, a classroom that looks almost identical to the ones I sat in when I was 16, and I know what I represent now. I know what people think when they look at me. I’m at a place in my life where it feels like the most important thing I can do is to keep standing there. Without shame. Because I know so many people didn’t and won’t get that opportunity. And man, I wish someone would have told me how beautiful my skin could feel standing like that.
For more information on Alison Taverna’s latest book of poems, please click here. And to learn how your organization can take active steps to better include and interact with the LGBT community, contact our Campaign Manager to learn what D&R can do for you.