ishai_wallace (ishai_wallace) wrote,

Judy Shepard does not speak for me

I had the obligation this week of attending a talk by Judy Shepard. I was, both disappointed and angry at her words and left with the obligation to write to her. It's taken me much of the week to cool down enough to write a letter that I hope might encourage her not to put other young people at risk, or in danger with her words.

Here's my letter:

Dear Judy,

What happened to your son was a terrible thing - and I deeply admire your ability to respond to that tragedy with a call for greater justice and understanding. I can not understand what it must have been like to lose a child like that, although as a parent, even beginning to contemplate that is terrifying. I am queer and trans, and have been out as other-than-straight for over 20 years, and out as trans for about a decade. I also work with young people who identify as other-than-straight, and it is from this perspective, as a queer and trans person, and as an advocate for people who are other-than-straight that I write to you. I recently attended a talk you gave in Hamilton, and I need to respond to a number of things you said. I hope you will reconsider your words, as I feel that a number of the things you said do in fact do harm to LGBTT2IQQA people.

I think you can do better, and I hope you read this as an encouragement to greater respect. These are things to which I took exception:
  • Gay is not a choice, because who would choose to be rejected by their family, be left out of society, and be miserable – who would choose that?
  • That gay people can never be happy until they come out, and that everyone should come out.
  • That you knew your son was gay when he was 8 "mother's intuition" you said, but that you did nothing about it until he came out to you a decade later.
  • People should stop trying to add letters and held up GLOW at St. Olaf's as an ideal name, and recommended LGBTQ groups re-name themselves "Gay Lesbian Or Whatever" like them.
  • You talked about how you can not abide the word "queer" and that no-one should use it as it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand-up
  • That we need to respect the courage of people who openly speak homophobia as they have a right to free speach.

  • Gay is not a choice, because who would choose to be rejected by their family, be left out of society, and be miserable – who would choose that?
Whether or not people choose to love, have sex, or enter into relationships with people of the same-sex is not important. My rights to be safe, housed, employed, able to marry is not based on whether or not I "chose to be gay" - they are based on my humanity. We acknowledge faith based rights, and faith is certainly a choice - are you suggesting that my right to love who I love is less than my right to worship as I choose? When you talk about being gay as miserable, you make all of us victims. You make us less than you, and you deny our happiness. I want to tell you that I live a rich and fabulous life. Coming out as gay, and then queer has helped me join a culture full of love, and support, and arts, and richness. To be gay is not synonymous with being miserable, and to tell people that is to damn them.

  • That gay people can never be happy until they come out, and that everyone should come out.
This is one of the more dangerous things you said. You talked a great deal about coming out. You said things like "sometimes the family you were born into is not your real family" and you mocked older gay men who live with their mothers and have not come out to them. You also said that mothers always know.

So first off, coming out is a personal choice. A young man I work with talked about how in considering coming out, you need to balance your happiness and your safety - his are wise words. For some people, the risks of coming out are too great. For some people coming out would mean loosing another part of their identity and that cost is too much. And if coming out means violence, or loosing family, or a loss of housing, or an end to financial support, or being kicked out of a community staying private about one's sexual orientation may be the best choice. You came to my community and told young people to come out. Will you be here to help heal, house and support them if they come out and it goes badly? If you are not, don't tell them unequivocally to come out. It's true that for a great many of us coming out is freeing and empowering. It's true that relieving the stress of keeping one's identity private is often a huge relief. It's true that living openly makes it easier to love a partner, but it is also true that sometimes these rewards are not enough. Everyone's life is different, and everyone's family is different, and we need to let people make their own choices. Not everyone's mother knows, and mocking people who have chosen to keep their sexual orientation private is cruel and judgmental, please do not engage in that kind of public bullying.

  • That you knew your son was gay when he was 8 "mother's intuition" you said, but that you did nothing about it until he came out to you a decade later.
Please understand I'm not critiquing your actions here. You made your choices in your family context for your reasons, and I respect that. It is however clear, that children who grow-up in households where LGBTQ people and our contributions are recognized and valued are more likely to accept others and value diversity, and, come out safely if they are LGBTQ. People look up to you, and there were parents who came to your talk as part of their process towards supporting their young people. Please encourage them to create welcoming supportive homes. Encourage them to speak positively and openly about LGBTQ people and our contributions and accomplishments, encourage them to have books and resources with people who are  LGBTQ in them, encourage them to have LGBTQ people over for dinner. Please use this moment to speak to parents. Changing the culture of our families helps change the broader culture that we live in, and this work remains vital.

  • People should stop trying to add letters and held up GLOW at St. Olaf's as an ideal name, and recommended LGBTQ groups re-name themselves "Gay Lesbian Or Whatever" like them.
Please don't say this. This encourages people who are gay and lesbian people to treat others (people who are bisexual, transsexual, transgendered, asexual, queer, questioning, omnisexual, pansexual and others) as less than. Campus groups can be fertile spaces for bi-phobia and trans-phobia and names like GLOW contribute to this. Multiple studies have shown that people who are bisexual have higher rates of depression, addiction and suicidality than people who are lesbian and gay, and the work suggests that a lack of community, and a discrimination in both straight settings and LGBTQ settings contributes to this. People who are trans also report that transphobia is often common within organizations who claim to be LGBTQ. We need to make places safer for more people. We need to make people feel more welcome, more often, not discounted in the organization's very name. It's true that people use different words for their identities, and that the language is changing, but I think this is a strength and a richness. If we are going to celebrate people, we need to celebrate people as they know themselves to be. Please encourage inclusive names.
  • You talked about how you can not abide the word "queer" and that no-one should use it, as it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand-up.
Please imagine what you said about "queer" but with the word "gay" said in place of the word queer. Does that feel good? Or respectful? Please be respectful of our identities, including queer. You are right, the word queer is one that some of us have reclaimed, and one that some see as beyond redemption. I would not use queer for people unless they had told me that they identify that way, but then I feel similarly about the labels of "straight", "gay" and "lesbian". As with so many issues, you do not have to like the word we have chosen, but you do need to show us the respect you extend to other people.
  • That we need to respect the courage of people who openly speak homophobia as they have a right to free speech.
We live in a homophobic culture, we do not need to respect the courage of people who openly speak homophobia. It is not a courageous act to speak an opinion that is reinforced or rewarded by many institutions. We need to respect that they are people, we need to acknowledge that they have a right to their beliefs, but we do not need to respect their courage for saying hurtful things.

Thank you for reading and listening. I hope that we can come to see ourselves as comrades in creating a world that is safe for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and I wish us success in that work.
Tags: gay, lgbtq, queer
  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded  

  • 17 comments