As the organizers were closing up the main meeting room Friday night at the Northwest LGBTQ Youth Conference for Hope, in Meridian, Idaho, one of them approached me and whispered, “there’s a young woman in the audience who is in tears and she’s asked to speak with you.”
I looked up and saw her. Cute with spiky blond hair, her eyes red from crying. I had noticed her earlier, burrowed into the arms of a tall transgendered woman who was slated to speak on a panel the following day.
The room cleared out and Kyle (not her real name) finally stopped sobbing. She told me she was going into eighth grade next fall and that she just didn’t know what to do. “I’ve lost so many friends, just because of the way I am.”
She had asked for me because I had just facilitated a discussion after screening our film It’s STILL Elementary as the kickoff for the conference. It tells the story of why Helen Cohen and I made It’s Elementary—Talking About Gay Issues in School back in 1996, what happened to many of the students in that original film, and how we had coped with vicious attacks from conservative right wing organizations that had tried to stop the film from airing on public television. (The only other time I have been to Idaho is when I came in 2006 to interview the staff at Idaho public TV about how they handled the pressures around the broadcast.)
The group had stayed afterwards for almost two hours after the credits rolled. It’s STILL Elementary opened up a floodgate of topics they wanted to discuss: Idaho politics (because some of the most heated battles were right here in their state), coming out, organizing Gay-Straight Alliances in schools, reading books with two moms, gratitude for supportive parents, and a wide array of teens’ experiences in Idaho’s high schools today.
“It’s a Christian school,” Kyle explained. “I just wish there was something at my school that was like you showed in the movie.” At her school, there is no GSA, no curriculum that fosters awareness of and respect for LGBT people, and not a single teacher at the school who she could imagine going to with her pain and loneliness. She said she knows there are many kids in the school who are LGBT or Q, but there is nothing to connect or support them.
“My mom is great though,” she said. “She’s here with me.” We agreed that maybe her mom could speak with other parents at the school and see if they could get something to happen.
The next day we screened Straightlaced, and when the audience questions were just about over, a middle-aged man took the microphone and haltingly told us that the part of the film that affected him the most was one of the last interview clips, when a student looks into the camera and reveals that he could lose his Eagle Scout status with the Boy Scouts because of coming out on camera in the film.
“My son was on track to get his Eagle Scout,” he said in almost a whisper, “but he wouldn’t do it because he was afraid they would do something to him. Why? Why would they do anything to my son?” No one in the room made a sound.
“He has all the leadership qualities they want Eagle Scouts to have.” It was clear that his heart had been broken to see his talented son back down from his goals because of the Boy Scouts’ homophobia.
I later learned that this father, who is Mormon, had attended the conference at his son’s request. “It’s amazing that he’s here,” the organizers told me.
When I meet people—like this father, like Kyle and her mom, and like Emilie Jackson-Edney, who proudly shared her experiences changing gender in the workshop after mine—in places as conservative as Meridian Idaho, I feel the arc of change bending. These are all good Christian people, who are struggling with their churches, their schools, and their community groups to ensure that all children are safe and loved.
“Do you think if you made It’s Elementary today that you would face as much opposition as you did in the early ‘90’s?” one person asked. I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.
We’re inching forward, but there is no going back.