• Susannah Colt

REFLECTING ON PRIDE MONTH and strides made in right direction

NJ HS Valedictorian, Bryce Dersham speaks his truth

As Pride Month comes to an end, there is good news to report. In my June 9 My Turn column in the Concord Monitor, I was pessimistic, raising red flags about attacks on LGBTQ civil rights. Part of my angst was the impending passage of HB544, which I still have concerns about, but am now bolstered by the belief that it is going to backfire on the right wing Republicans.

Censorship tends to embolden those expected to suppress their views. Isn’t it true that if you ban a book, it raises its profile because people want to find out what all the fuss is about? What about that social experiment called Prohibition back in the 1920’s? Didn’t that just inspire clever ways to get around it?

There was an article in The New York Times about a valedictorian speech delivered by a queer youth at Eastern Regional High School in New Jersey on June 17, 2021. Bryce Dershem was standing at the podium wrapped in a rainbow flag and began to speak about coming out as queer in his freshman year, when the principal of the school unplugged the mike, walked up to the podium, and took a piece of paper (Bryce’s speech) off the podium.

The principal told Bryce to stick to the speech that was approved, but Bryce delivered the speech he wanted to give, having committed it to memory. It was a powerful speech about overcoming obstacles such as depression and anorexia, reaching out to friends and teachers, and being true to one’s self. The audience was clapping and encouraging Bryce to continue. It was a powerful speech, uttered from the heart and hopefully gave that principal something to think about.

There has also been some blowback on those attempting to restrict transgendered people from living their true selves. The U.S. Supreme Court delivered one of those blows on June 28, 2021, when it declined to take an appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in a case involving a transgender student, Gavin Grimm, at a Virginia high school who wanted to use a bathroom that aligned with his gender identity. The school board denied him the right to use the boys’ bathroom. Gavin Grimm sued in 2014 and, after a long court battle, won. The Court of Appeals ruled the school board had practiced sex-based discrimination and violated the 14th Amendment. Judge Floyd of the 4th Circuit wrote, “How shallow a promise of equal protection that would not protect Grimm from the fantastical fears and unfounded prejudices of his adult community. It is time to move forward.”

The decision came on the 52nd anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which has been called the galvanizing event that started the gay rights movement. In the dark hours of the morning of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, NYC, a popular hangout for gays, lesbians, and transgender people of all colors, the police raided the bar on the pretext of a liquor license violation. Having been subject to these kinds of raids all too frequently, the proprietor and patrons decided to stand their ground and a protest ensued, leading to five days of rioting.

The march toward progress has been long and slow, but I’m feeling somewhat encouraged by recent events. While many state legislatures around the country are trying to restrict transgender athletes in high schools and college, one governor recently threw down the gauntlet. I applaud Governor John Bel Edward of Louisiana for vetoing an anti-trans athlete bill. The governor issued a statement saying, “discrimination is not a Louisiana value, and this bill was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist. . . . Even the author of the bill acknowledged . . . there wasn’t a single case where this was an issue.”

I challenge any parent to prove that his daughter is being cheated out of a fair competition by a transgender athlete. When facing stiff competition, doesn’t that actually raise a person’s competitive spirit and make them a better athlete? Why would any parent want to deprive their child of that?

Speaking of athletes, last week Carl Nassib, a member of the Raiders NFL team, came out as gay. According to news reports he is the first active player in the NFL to come out. It is hard to believe that in the year 2021, 52 years after Stonewall, we are still reporting about firsts of this sort. I applaud Carl’s courage and am relieved to see the outpouring of support for him. I hope to never read in the newspaper that someone tied him to a fence and beat him for being gay or shot him, claiming the “gay panic” defense. I hope we have moved beyond the irrational fear and turned to acceptance, understanding and respect instead. I would like to live to see the day when “coming out” is no longer a news item.

My optimism is not even tempered by the small setback from the U.S. Supreme Court on June 17, 2021, when it unanimously ruled that Philadelphia could not require Catholic Social Services (CSS) to provide services to same-sex couples looking to be foster parents. It should be noted that CSS also won’t allow unmarried straight couples to be foster parents. This was not unexpected and fortunately a narrow ruling only applying to the contract between Philadelphia and CSS, so it did not have sweeping negative ramification on federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

I accept the fact that the freedom of religion allows people to continue in their narrow-minded beliefs. Respecting differences and agreeing to disagree peacefully is what democracy is all about. We’ve set up mechanisms to resolve the thornier disputes. That is why there are three branches of the government for checks and balances. As long as we can protect our right to free and fair elections, we should be alright. The LGBTQ community enjoys far more rights than it did 52 years ago, when we were considered psychologically damaged and criminals. I end Pride Month on that upbeat note and believe it will only get better down the road.

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