Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Stories of Debating Societies and Tennessee

When I was fifteen my English teacher set up a debating society and encouraged me to join. I was a bit of an opinionated little shit, but at the same time deeply socially awkward, with a history of speech difficulties which whilst mostly cured by that point left behind a lot of anxiety.

We met every Wednesday lunchtime, and I loved every minute of it. I made solid friendships. My confidence increased by an order of magnitude. I was encouraged to take an informal leadership role. I took pride in learning technique and debating from a side I disagreed with (I once gave a speech against abortion rights which I was told later was filled with 'obvious passion' (um, yeah) something I'm pretty sure I couldn't do now). Having previously been terrified of opposition, I took sides in good-natured ongoing rivalries.

I'm aware this is an utter cliche, but it's also completely true.

Two other things were happening to me at this time. One were some quite desperate attempts to repress the fact - which had been obvious since I was very small - that I was very clearly not straight. Explaining the context for this is beyond the scope of this blog post, but to summarise: The country (comments which speculate on the location will be deleted) we lived in was part-way through a two decade long removal of homophobic legislation, from a starting point of absolute illegality, through various age of consent decreases and introduction of anti-discrimination legislation. This had all kinds of interplays with other sentiments I'm only just beginning to understand, but what I did understand was that it was very, very nasty - and before I learned to hide myself properly I suffered a lot. So by this point I was (a) terrified and (b) had about 80% convinced myself I was straight.

The second was a developing interest in activism. This wasn't surprising; though my parents weren't activists I grew up in a left wing environment, and though not much was happening locally, I started to make connections online. I was so totally sure, in that typical teenage way, that I could change the world.

When the society had been running for a while, the teacher concerned asked if I could come up with some new topics - we were struggling to think of them. On a school trip overseas another member and I wrote a long list on the ferry. Somewhere on the list, he scribbled 'gay rights'. I felt sick, but told myself that was ridiculous. It was just another of those stock standard topics - abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, death penalty...

We got to that one a few weeks later. In retrospect I realise the teacher was uneasy about it. I wasn't on either of the teams and I only heard we'd been shut down by a classmate. A parent had complained, and the teacher and parent threatened with the full force of a law that I'd never heard of before, but apparently made discussion of homosexuality illegal. I was utterly on fire with rage, but also convinced I could do something about it, and pulled together a meeting of members. I'd love to tell you that we organised a protest, bowed by youthful idealism, and forced a backdown. What happened was that I yelled impassioned statements to a roomful of kids who looked mostly bewildered. I suspect this is not an alien experience to anyone with any experience of activism - the difference was that there was literally nowhere else to go for support.

When that failed, I penned a letter to the local paper, and collected signatures. That somehow got into the hands of the deputy head, who I had some rather loud disagreements with in the corridor until he called my parents. Blessings I count: lack of homophobia on the part of my parents. What they did tell me about were the huge prison sentences that teachers risked for allowing this to go ahead.

I freaked, I backed down, I apologised to the teacher concerned for putting her at risk - to her credit she told me it was okay. This had suddenly go way too big for me to handle. The emotional effects on myself were huge - I think being in an environment where discussion is dangerous carries its own particular brand of fear. I had already learned not to do anything that might out myself, of course (which possibly makes my actions a little stupid, but), but for the concept to be so terrible we couldn't discuss it had an impact I still can't discuss a decade later.

We never really got debating society going again properly after that.

My parents told me - after I finished school, literally had my bags packed to get as far away as possible - that another of my teachers had told them they should be proud of me. They hadn't said anything earlier because they didn't want to risk problems for him. It was too late by then.

* * * * *
In Tennessee now there's a bill in progress, dubbed the 'don't say gay' bill, which will prevent teachers in elementary and middle schools discussing any types of sexual behaviour other than heterosexuality. Whilst it is not as far reaching as the legislation I'm describing here, it is along the same lines, and there is a fear a lot of the effects - particularly making it harder for schools to deal with homophobic bullying - will be similar.

* * * * *
I should've hated high school. As a queer, fat, anxious kid with an undiagnosed learning disability, it's practically de rigeur. Truth is, for all its faults and problems, I didn't (intermediate* is another matter). I look back on this incident and realise that so many people, staff and students alike, were trying really hard to do the right thing in terrifying circumstances.

This is far from the worst result to have emerged from such legislation. There were people of my acquaintance who literally did not survive, as what I believe to be an indirect result of this law, but I do not know their stories well enough, and they are not mine to tell.

This is the story I can tell. The lessons I learned ten years ago are that my very existence was wrong, that I was alone, that I was out of my depth, and that asserting my right to exist can be a major risk for not just myself but others as well. That legislation was removed recently, and looking back I have some new lessons. That things can change. That legislation like this must be stopped. And that whilst those directly affected are the best people to be at the forefront of the fight against it, for kids in particular that's a scary, dangerous and isolated thing. Which is why we need to be supporting them every step.

*I'm substituting NZ equivalencies for ease of understanding.

1 comment:

Julie said...

Thanks for sharing this, it is a very powerful story.