Tuesday, March 16, 2010

LGBT Youth Fighting for Basic Rights,
Then As Now

The fracas I blogged about on Sunday in Mississippi over a lesbian high school student having the temerity to want to take another girl to her prom—and the school's ensuing decision to cancel the whole darn thing!—reminded me of the famous hubbub caused by Cumberland, Rhode Island high-schooler Aaron Fricke, who in 1980 had to file suit in a U.S. District court in order to take a male date to his senior prom. That was 20 years ago, but to many modern ears it sounds ridiculous, as well it should. Fricke attracted national media attention including, famously, Donahue, and later wrote a tender, moving book about his experience, Reflections of a Rock Lobster

Over 10 years later, in 1993, my Livermore, California high school considered canceling its prom after the Oakland Tribune announced I would be taking a male date. Luckily for the school, my absences and truancies—I was cutting because of death threats and attacks—made me ineligible to graduate and attend anyway, so the prom went on without a hitch. 

But the resulting melee led to more death threats and more news stories, even national TV appearances. But then, that was 1993, the year when there were literally more talk shows on TV than any other before or since. Corny catchphrases were legion ("You go girl!" and others), and even Jerry Springer tried to make his show stand out by ending each hillbilly slugfest with a "Final Thought"—a trite aphorism here, a pinch of advice on how to change the world with nonviolence there. Silly. Lesbian author Linnea Due, author of the wonderful lesbian teen recovery novel High and Outside, said it best when she interviewed me and wrote in her informative 1995 study Joining the Tribe: Growing Up Gay & Lesbian in the '90s:

"There are very few gay youth activists, and even fewer who are willing to talk to the media. Half the Queer Nation members I interviewed in '91, though four or five years older than Brent and already safely ensconsed in college, would not allow their names to be used in the [East Bay] Express.... Prepared for violence, he was unprepared for the fact that being willing to talk about it, particularly if he used clever turns of phrase like preferring to be bashed by others than by himself, would set talk show hosts salivating like Pavlov's dogs." —Linnea Due

Does anyone even remember Gabrielle, the short-lived talk show distributed by Fox (sorry!) with Gabrielle Carteris, the actress who played what seemed to be LA's only brainy Jewish girl (oddly, about 30 years old in real life) on 90210? I was flown to Burbank and appeared on an episode with the family and friends of the late Brandon Teena, whose story was eventually made into the film Boys Don't Cry. Also on the show was Mary Griffith, whose son Bobby, tortured by his family's conservative religious judgments about his own budding homosexuality, threw himself from a California freeway overpass and died instantly. Mary and I had a wonderful teary-eyed three-hour conversation over cigarettes in the airport diner after the show, waiting for the same plane back to the Bay Area, in which she told me about a book she was writing which later became a book and then a film with Sigourney Weaver called Prayers for Bobby. (Why is this film not available for sale? Does anybody know?)
Even the Oprah Show called, but, inexplicably, my school's principal didn't feel like being confronted by me and Oprah in front of millions of veiwers, so the idea was dropped (that was back when Oprah was still blantantly naughty—remember?). I wasn't told straightaway, but a week or two later, the Oprah staff sent me a conciliatory XXL T-Shirt which I still have in a box somewhere (why so large, people?). I guess instead of "Oprah" in big purple letters, it should have said: "I risked my life to be famous enough to be on the Oprah show, but all I got was this lousy T-shirt."  Crestfallen about years of high-school harassment and not getting to meet Oprah, I got my GED, moved to San Francisco, and became a journalist.
Fast forward to the 2000s, and a lot of the same old stuff is going down. Sadly I left most of my old clunky VHS tapes, some of which held footage from those talkshows, with an old boyfriend during a transcontinental move I made back in 2006, and shortly thereafter, during our predictable breakup, he threw out all those precious tapes, in a fit of that kind of ungentlemanliness that many among us have been susceptible to during breakups. (Does anyone have suggestions for how to track down the Gabrielle show, for instance?)

I'll wrap up now with exerpts from a longish review of a very important  contemporary book, Dude, Youre a  Fag. These exerpts, by yours truly, appear courtesy of the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide:
          Today’s teenagers, familiar with the heteronormative images of gays they receive from television, film—and, arguably, from the mainstream LGBT political movement—are now able to tolerate gay men who toe the gender-role line, but fags like Ricky remain fags always. This is what Riki Wilkins has termed the “Eminem Exception”—a reference to the rap artist Eminem, who has attempted to absolve himself of the label “homophobe” by claiming he uses the term fag for men who are weak and unmanly, regardless of sexual orientation.
            Dude, You’re a Fag provides persuasive proof that gender identity should not be seen as an expendable addition to employment nondiscrimination laws, nor as an auxiliary to gay liberation—an optional T in our LGBT community. Gender identity is not a side issue; it is the issue. Until we get this message, which Pascoe’s book so clearly spells out, boys like Ricky will be jettisoned, and only those gay boys who can throw a football and those lesbians who comply with notions of masculine supremacy will be able to enjoy the dignity that all humans deserve.


  1. Brent - I especially like your closing comments
    from the book review that you wrote. We as a community cannot afford to leave ANYONE behind.

  2. Thanks bubba! I'll try to publish the whole review in a day or two, if you're interested!