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Making a Difference Back Home

(This story was published in 2002).

Some told me it was brave. Some said that it took courage. To me, it simply had to be done.

When my mother called me in late March and told me that the local PFLAG chapter on the mid-Cape in Massachusetts was going to host a panel discussion about tolerance for gay and lesbian students in my high school, and that they wanted me to come speak, it was a no-brainer.

I wasn’t out when I was young. I don’t remember remotely having a gay thought before I was in junior high school. But, when I was in fourth grade, a girl who had a crush on me decided to try to kiss me. I wasn’t interested in her, so I backed off. That day she and the rest of my classmates decided that I was gay. And for the better part of the next five years, I heard about it.

It wasn’t until I submerged myself in track and cross-country early in high school, and began to make headlines in the local papers and setting school records, that the snickering went away. Somehow, I think in large part because I was suddenly a “jock,” it became less probable to them that I was, in fact, gay. From a different position of power then, as a top athlete, I watched quietly as the younger, slower, weaker kids on the team got teased about being gay–and the vicious cycle continued.

Unfortunately, that cycle became news again the week I was there on Cape Cod, as the Provincetown baseball team caught the brunt of homophobic bullying. Provincetown is about 20 miles from my hometown of Harwich, and has a very large gay population.

Apparently, after a baseball game between Provincetown High School and South Shore Christian Academy, which Provincetown won, 15-3, on April 25, South Shore coach Nicola Nasuti "lisped" a homophobic slur at the Provincetown team. According to the Cape Cod Times, when the Provincetown coach approached Nasuti to tell him that Provincetown, where the game was played, had an anti-hate crime law, Nasuti said, "I'll show you a real hate crime." The police were called and Nasuti said that the Provincetown baseball team was being "hypersensitive." Nasuti has since been fired for his remarks.

With events like this happening every day in high schools, and in my old high school in particular, when that call came from my mother, it was my chance to help put an end to that cycle and maybe help save one kid from having to hear every day that he was a fag.

As chance would have it, my father ended up giving the opening remarks at the forum, held last Wednesday in my hometown. He’s the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen there and, as probably the highest ranking officer in the town, was asked to set the tone for the evening. When he spoke about the history of my hometown, the multiculturalism that has always been there, and the need for further tolerance for gays and lesbians, it was like having my father tell the crowd of 250, “my son is gay and, not only am I OK with it, but you should be too.” My mother, of course, cried.

When it was my turn, I spoke about growing up being teased; I shared my attempts to hide within the confines of the church and, later sports; and I made an impassioned plea to the parents, teachers and students in attendance to help stop the intolerant bullying before one more kid decides to take his life.

The applause were loud, and they were very satisfying. For a kid who grew up scared to admit to anyone, including himself, that he was gay, it was surreal to sit there in the town community center, with some people I grew up with, and tell them that, for many years, I lived with a terrible secret that, suddenly, many in attendance didn't think was so terrible.

One of those people in attendance was my co-captain of the cross-country team from my junior season. When he approached the microphone to give his feedback to the room after the panel had spoken, I honestly thought he was going to come out. I’d always gotten the sense that he was gay, even when I was struggling with my own sexuality in high school.

"I question the right of homosexuals to change the classroom into a battleground of sexual mores,” he said. “Why do those who choose a lifestyle that doesn't let them have children have a say in my children's welfare?"

After about five minutes of reading his prepared statement about his concern for the education of his son, I took the microphone from the moderator.

“We want the high school to address homosexuality in the classroom for the sake of your son,” I replied. “God forbid he's gay and you’ve been telling him he’s wrong all his life. I don’t want your son to become part of the gay teen suicide statistics. Do you?”

He was silent. The crowd cheered.

After I answered his statement, a little 60-year-old lady got up to the microphone. Mind you, many of the churches in town have been the big opponents of teaching about homosexuality in the health or science classes, and Massachusetts in particular has been hit hard by the recent unveiling of the wrongdoings of some Catholic priests. That little lady brought down the house with just five words:

“I’m a recovering Roman Catholic.”

As I sat there and heard further testimonies of an openly gay student in the high school, of a 70-year-old parent who was finally coming out that her son was gay, and of a straight boy who just wanted his gay friend to be left alone, I was overwhelmed and I found myself tearing up a couple times.

I remembered being that scared kid in junior high school hoping and, literally, praying that I wasn't gay; fearing that my parents would disown me if I was; knowing that I'd go to hell if I ever did anything about it.

Yet, there I was, 10 years later, doing my share to break down the myths of being gay; my father offering his support of me in front of the town he served; a kid 12 years my junior having the strength to stand up for himself.

After the forum, dozens of people I knew, and many I didn't know, came up to me to thank me for coming, reminisce about the years I was there in high school, and, oddly, to apologize for those years I was harassed in high school--and these people weren't even the ones doing the harassing.

But I didn't realize the impact that my being there had until a woman I'd never seen before came up to me. She was in her 50's and had moved to the town after I had graduated from high school.

"I don't know you," she said, "but can I give you a hug?" Her daughter had been through the same thing I'd been through. She had tried to kill herself but, luckily, wasn't successful. Having someone there at the forum to speak strongly against bullying and intolerance gave her comfort. For that alone, it was worth the trip.

Today, right now, a kid is being bullied in high school because he's smaller, or he's slower, or he's stronger, or he has a lisp. He's being called "fag," "queer," "cocksucker"--every name in the book. If he's in certain pockets of the country, someone will step in to help him; chances are, though, he's not. When I meet people who aren't out to their families or communities in Georgia, Michigan, Colorado, or anywhere else, I try to impress upon them the importance of changing attitudes not only for their own sake, but for the sake of those kids in their high school right now who are scared to just be themselves.

As I did last week, I hope that every gay man or woman reading this will call someone in their small hometown, or write to them, and come out to them. It may not be easy but, to that gay kid who's just in kindergarten right now, it can make a world of difference.