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Conversion therapy still exists in Puerto Rico

Bill would ban discredited practice on the island

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(Image by Nicolas Raymond; courtesy Flickr)

The former governor of Puerto Rico, the Hon. Ricardo Rosselló, in 2019 signed Executive Order EO-2019-16 that “partially” banned conversion therapy for minors on the island after the House of Representatives decided not to vote on Senate Bill 1000, which would have made these therapies illegal.

The executive order requires all medical institutions applying for a license from the Health Department to guarantee that they will not offer conversion therapy. However, this is not enough to address the problem since the order is limited to the executive’s powers. Also, any future governor can repeal it, so it cannot be relied on to guarantee the protection that minors deserve.

Although the EO does represent a positive advance to prohibit conversion therapies, it is vitally important to enact it into law to address them and expressly prohibit them. This legislation should be extended to the religious sector and mental health professionals to protect minors.

Different senators recently introduced Senate Bill 184 to expand protections for minors’ physical and mental health and prohibit the practice of conversion therapy against LGBTIQ+ people. The bill defines conversion therapy as a “practice or treatment provided by an entity or professional who is licensed or certified to provide mental health services that seeks to change the sexual orientation or gender identity in an individual.”

The definition includes any effort or treatment to change a person’s bodily behavior, expressions, or sexual orientation and eliminate or reduce romantic or sexual attractions or feelings towards individuals of the same gender. The bill identifies conversion therapy as a form of child abuse, including “institutional abuse,” as established in the Child Safety, Well-being and Protection Act of Puerto Rico.

However, legislators keep debating the bill’s approval under the assumption these therapies do not happen on the island anymore.

Over the decades, conversion therapies used to “cure” homosexuality included hypnosis, lobotomies, inducing nausea, vomiting, paralysis, electric shock, chemical castration, among other things.

In Puerto Rico, conversion therapies exist, and they are far from being what they once were in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Conversion therapies that are practiced today in Puerto Rico, the United States and around the world occur with the consent and the enforcement of the religious sector and health professionals with faith-based beliefs.

We focus on our minors’ physical abuse, forgetting the emotional and psychological abuse that continues to occur in each corner of Puerto Rico, in doctor’s offices and churches. To forget this fact on purpose and use it to defend the non-existence of reparative therapies in Puerto Rico by our majority legislators (members of the Popular Democratic Party) is irresponsible and ignorant. It threatens the best welfare of our minors and their responsibility as state entities to ensure it.

In 2018, Senate Bill 1000 favored eliminating conversion therapies on the island. It would have allowed the survivors of these therapies to relate their experiences and traumatic processes to psychological clinics and churches. Several victims of these therapies told their stories during public hearings. Some of their stories are the following:

Survivor Caleb Esteban said that he received therapy at a counseling center when he was between 14- and 15-years-old. He later learned that the counselor had no education to give mental health treatment, but she was there because she was a church leader. He said that the therapy consisted of performing exorcism-type prayers to get rid of the “demons.”

Another survivor, Sofia Padrón, said she “was taken at 16 by my mother to a psychologist because I was attracted to women. The psychologist said that he treated me as a pastor, not as a psychologist, that same-sex attraction was a temporary phase and that I was confused. He told me that I couldn’t be happy and that my attraction to women was not normal …”

Alvín A. Rivera was 14 – and 15-years-old in 2014 and 2015 when he was taken by his mother to the church because he felt attracted to men. There, the pastor, who was also a psychologist, performed exorcisms to combat his homosexuality and charged his mother for these services. After several occasions, the pastor told Alvin and his mother that he “was cured” that he “had managed to free him from his demon.”

Alejandro Santiago between 2008-2013 attended his church. There, the pastor recommended fasting and long hours of praying to cure him of homosexuality and “not behaving as a man should behave.” The fasts began at 5 a.m. and ended at midnight. Sometimes they summoned the congregation of the church for a prayer circle to cure Alejandro of his homosexuality. Sometimes Alejandro stood in front of hundreds of people to claim the homosexuality demon had been released from his body. Alejandro suffered from depression and anxiety for many years after this. Today, he is a human rights activist.

The stories mentioned above are just a few of the many others happening in Puerto Rico every day. However, legislators persist in the narrative that conversion therapies do not exist in Puerto Rico. The new position of the legislators confirms again that the stigma and prejudices towards homosexuality continue. Unfortunately, this only creates more bigotry and more significant harm to the most vulnerable.

About 28 percent of LGBTQ youth who have undergone the above conversion therapies have attempted suicide, compared to 12 percent of LGBTQ youth who had not undergone conversion therapy, according to the Williams Institute. Suicide rates among LGBTQ youth who have undergone conversion therapies, such as the ones mentioned above, are extremely high, and these practices in Puerto Rico are a clear example of how the state fails to fulfill its duty to ensure the best welfare of our minors.

The Puerto Rico Supreme Court has upheld the state’s duty to protect minors on countless occasions. The constitutional right to religious freedom or parents’ power over their children is not absolute, and it yields to the state’s responsibility to ensure that our minors do not suffer from emotional abuse, such as those currently caused by reparative therapies on the island. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that these minors are protected, or we will continue to be responsible for the increase in numbers of depression and suicide in Puerto Rico.

On three different occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decisions that allowed New Jersey’s anti-conversion therapy law to remain in effect. The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to hear challenges to California’s anti-conversion therapy law in May 2017 and in June 2014 it left in place decisions from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed the law’s constitutionality.

There is extensive scientific evidence on the harm that conversion therapies do to minors, including those that not physically invasive. Conversion therapies constitute mistreatment of our children, and this must be established through legislation in Puerto Rico. Health professionals and members of the religious sector charge for these exorcism services, therapies, and spiritual sessions. Parents and minors themselves believe that they will have “a normal” life upon completion of these therapies.

These practices promote depression, anxiety, and invalidation in our youth. They are not practices of love or an affirmation of the love of God, and they result in increased suicide rates and low self-esteem in our society. Our minors’ lives and their emotional state are again in Puerto Rico’s legislators’ hands. Hopefully, this time they will listen and vote to prohibit these tortures on the island.

Alberto J. Valentín, Esq., LLM, is an environmental justice and human rights activist from Puerto Rico. He is also the executive director of the Puerto Rico governor’s LGBT Advisory Council. You can reach him at [email protected].

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Bishop fires beloved Gay teacher offers severance with a big catch

Even loving Catholics who abhor their Church’s persecution of LGBTQ people often shrug their shoulders. What can we do, they ask

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Author’s note: I promise you this story is not boring, even though the Roman Catholic witch-hunt against gay staff has become so ordinary that people almost don’t get outraged about it anymore. Even loving Catholics who abhor their Church’s persecution of LGBTQ people often shrug their shoulders. What can we do, they ask. That’s an excellent question Matthew LaBanca wants you to consider. As a member of a large Irish Catholic clan, I ask the same. Will you listen?

By James Finn | DETROIT – I learned about it this morning from Prism & Pen writer John Cormier, who once performed with Matthew in a national tour of the Broadway musical Crazy for You. Matthew is a professional actor/singer who has played principal roles on Broadway, has sung with the Metropolitan Opera, the NY Philharmonic, and who practiced enough to make it to Carnegie Hall. An album he sang in won a Grammy.

Matthew paid a steep price to bring you this question — But this story isn’t about Matthew’s professional accomplishments. It’s about he loves teaching and directing music, which is how earned his living until a couple weeks ago.

Then the Bishop of Brooklyn fired him from his teaching job at St. Joseph Catholic Academy, despite the school principal fighting to keep him. The bishop simultaneously firing him as Corpus Christi Parish music director, despite the pastor fighting to keep him. Matthew lost his only income and his health care — because and only because he’s gay. He grieves the loss of his communities, people who have been family to him for years, who love him and want him back.

In his own words:

But maybe this story is mostly about Matthew turning down severance pay he badly needs — so he could be free to tell his Church family what the Church did to him. You can click on the video above to hear the whole story in Matthew’s own words. Let me please focus on the Church’s effort to gag him, to stop that video from ever getting made.

Bishop’s Nicholas DiMarzio’s gag order is the heart of this story

DiMarzio, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, the man who fired Matthew earlier this month, wouldn’t do the minimally decent thing and offer him severance pay with no strings attached. Instead, he dangled a final pay package on the condition that Matthew promise never to tell anyone why the diocese fired him.

Matthew refused to sign, saying he loves his communities too much to accept the bishop’s hush money:

I was offered a severance package with a gag order that was almost ten pages long, which is a lot of ways to say, ‘Shut up, don’t talk about this.’ Obviously, I have not signed it, because I realized that no price could be placed on my personal integrity.

Matthew says is motivated by love, that he misses his church family and needs them to know what happened. He can’t be with them anymore because of the depths of Bishop DiMarzio’s hatred of gay people, but asks them not to forget him, reminding them he is still their neighbor:

I love you all so much. I miss you. I’ve been missing you… Of course I’m still your neighbor, and I hope that I’ll be seeing you, and I hope that when you see me you’ll offer a wave or a smile or a gesture of support. You will always be in my hearts.

Matthew reminds me of Terry Gonda, a lesbian who lost her retirement last year in a witch-hunt that’s picking up steam

Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who urges gay conversion therapy on his flock despite conclusive evidence it is ineffective and harmful, fired Terry last summer after she had served three decades as musical director and openly gay woman. The archbishop fired her shortly before she would have become eligible for a pension she could have retired on with dignity. When Terry’s bishop discovered she had married her partner, he got rid of her almost at once, just like Matthew’s bishop.

Like Matthew, Terry mourns her communities, bereft and grievously financially harmed. As in Matthew’s case, her parish pastor fought to keep her, fought to protect her retirement, but Vigneron acted with what can only be described as cruel depravity, ironic given Church hierarchy insist on formally teaching that we gay people commit “acts of grave depravity” by loving one another.

Terry and Matthew are far from alone as witch-hunt targets

Mainstream journalists have been reporting for years on a Church purge of gay staff that began with legal same-sex marriage and intensified when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Since then, bishops have used evidence of those marriages to fire LGBTQ people who have been beloved Church employees for years, even decades, people the Church had tolerated or enthusiastically accepted while they were living in unmarried but intimate sexual unions the Church knew all about all along.

Bishops seldom show mercy, rarely act with humanity or decency. Astonishingly, men like Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis deny they’re engaged in witch-hunts, even while Catholic journalists present evidence they are issuing orders to fire all openly gay staff.

Bishops don’t just deny the witch-hunt, they use power to silence truth

Infamously, Archbishop Thompson’s diocese threatened to expel high school senior Dominic Conover weeks before graduation if he did not stop speaking up in defense of his fired gay guidance counselor. Unlike Matthew, Dominic briefly knuckled under. He says the threatened destruction of his college career was too serious to ignore. Who could blame him? He canceled media appearances and stopped writing publicly until he had his sheepskin in hand. Then he went live again with a vengeance, letting Thompson have it with both barrels while telling the nation how the bishop succeeded for a while in gagging him.

The same diocese fired straight school social worker Kelley Fisher for speaking up in defense of her fired LGBTQ school colleagues. She wouldn’t be silent either, so the bishop got rid of her almost immediately. He sent a powerful message that he would fire any staff member, gay or straight, who spoke up against the witch-hunt he denies to this day is actually happening. It is happening, though, all over the United States as the Church regresses, as leaders dig their heels in and rain down hate on innocent, decent, loving people like Dominic, Terry, and Matthew.

So what can we do about the witch-hunt? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Catholic lay people in the U.S. (like in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, and most of the E.U.) are some of the most LGBTQ-affirming people on the globe. The fact that Matthew’s principal and pastor didn’t want him fired isn’t strange, it’s ordinary. If you want friends who support trans and gay rights, look for Catholic lay people. Studies consistently show that U.S. Catholics are slightly MORE LIKELY than the general public to support equality and oppose discrimination.

My Catholic family tell me that’s because the Catholic values they love (the Jesus they emulate) demand love and acceptance. They say their Catholic Christian upbringing forms them to reject the kind of hate that strips a woman of her pension because she’s a lesbian, that forces a high school kid to stop defending his counselor, that deprives a man like Matthew of his communities.

Real power is in the purse

My cousin is a loving mother and Catholic high school social worker who has answered the question her own way. She will no longer contribute money to her parish or to any Catholic charity. She will not leave the Church she loves, but she will no longer help pay the salaries of powerful men whose values she abhors. She sent her pastor and her bishop letters to that effect. She wants them to know why she is resisting their un-Christian behavior. She says her resistance would mean far less if they didn’t know.

She received no response from her bishop, and nothing but a cold shoulder from her pastor, but she says when she lets the collection basket pass by, she knows she is doing what she must do.

What will you do? How will you answer hate and the persecution of innocent people like Matthew? Will you act? Or will your inaction allow evil to flourish?

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James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, a regular columnist for queer news outlets, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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The Darkening, the Republican Skeksis run amok

“We are part of their communities, not enemies to be destroyed- campaigns that pit neighbor against neighbor, is to the detriment of all”

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A evil Skeksis confronting the young Gelfling Kira (Screenshot via The Jim Henson Company)

LOS ANGELES – In the ‎Legend of the Dark Crystal, a young Gelfling named Jen sets out to repair the crystal with a missing shard while the Blight, a noxious energy emanated from the Crystal whenever it was abused or maipulated by the evil Skeksis, affecting the fantasy world of Thra. The Blight manifested itself in the form of a purple light or black vapour, and caused plant life to wither and animals affected by it are poisoned to the point of aggression.

One person on a message board noted; “the most prominent theme we see in The Dark Crystal is the lengths people will go to in order to hold onto their power. There is no line that the Skeksis won’t cross in order to prolong their lives and maintain their rule of Thra and it often comes at the expense of everyone else.”

It was a 1982 fantasy film brought to life by filmmakers and puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz that conveys a message that needs to be heeded in the real world of American politics, contrasted in a stark analogous way when observing the battles between the far-right and progressives.

The real world equivalent to the Skeksis are the Republicans and most assuredly their never-ending assaults on the freedoms and liberties of those people they deplore and in many cases despise.

The real world equivalent to the Dark Crystal are those very freedoms such as women’s reproductive rights and choices, the very existence of transgender Americans, the right of same-sex couples to adopt or have fair access to healthcare and countless other rights. Then there are the ongoing efforts to disenfranchise the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Black Americans and immigrants.

Texas these days seems to be ground zero for the Republican Skeksis in their bid to rid their world of the “Gelflings” represented by the aforementioned groups.

In the most recent example, just this week Texas State Republican Representative James White sent a letter to fellow Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, in which he asked, “Whether Obergefell v. Hodges … requires private citizens to recognize homosexual marriages when the law of Texas continues to define marriage exclusively as the union of one man and one woman.”

White hammers away at his point writing to Paxton in his letter that the Constitution of Texas defined marriage as between one man and one woman and another law in the state Family Code that read “A marriage between persons of the same sex or a civil union is contrary to the public policy of this state.” 

He then argues “The State of Texas has not amended or repealed its marriage laws in response to Obergefell v. Hodges … and the Supreme Court has no power to amend formally or revoke a state statute or constitutional provision — even after opining that the state law violates the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution.”

This inane rubbish follows on the heels of the Texas legislature passing a measure that greatly restricts voting rights in the state directly impacting its minority citizens, less than a month ago the passage of a draconian law that prevents Trans youth from playing sports in the K-12 grades in the state, and of course the battle over abortion rights which has led to the U.S. Supreme Court granting a a writ to hear the case in early November.

Never mind that the rulings in these cases became settled case law that an overwhelming majority of Americans support.

Shannon Minter, the Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in an email to the Blade noted; “The escalating extremism in Texas is a symptom of our national culture, which has become ever more toxic and polarized. Now is the time for LGBTQ people and allies to remind our elected officials and leaders that we are part of their communities, not enemies to be destroyed, and that campaigns to target vulnerable groups pit neighbor against neighbor, to the detriment of all. Whose rights will be next?”

But it is not just Texas. The Republican Skeksis are taking over school boards or disrupting school board meetings with fights over Trans youth, about a theory about race that isn’t even taught in schools, and the ongoing battle of vaccination mandates and even facial masks still.

The hypocrisy of the Republican Skeksis over vaccine mandates is rich in irony. They protest that they want the freedom of choice over their bodies- yet they deny that very right to women. The so-called Critical Race Theory? Actually its a truth of the American experience in the ugly history of the treatment of Black Americans and their ancestors.

Indeed the ‘Blight’ manipulated by the Republican Skeksis permeates every aspect of the contemporary American political landscape. Anyone who identifies as a progressive and dares to suggest a more humane communal/societal approach to problem solving is instantly labeled a “commie” and an enemy of “true American Patriots.”

Worse is the propensity of the Republican Skeksis to engage in violent acts such as the insurrection that was attempted to topple American Democracy on January 6 at the U.S. Capitol. Even if not directly engaged in such action then giving it a pass of approval by downplaying the events or blaming the Democrats.

Again the irony being that the so-called ‘law and order” types were the very people attacking the law enforcement agencies and personnel they claim to uphold and support.

These are troubling times and the Blight is very much a daily factor negatively impacting the ‘Gelflings’- LGBTQ+ people, Black, Latino, Asian, and poor people who value freedom, equality, for all, bereft of the so-called ‘values’ and decrees of those on the Republican right who seek to maintain their grasp on the institutions of government and society.

The most prominent theme we see in The Dark Crystal is the lengths people will go to in order to hold onto their power. There is no line that the Skeksis won’t cross in order to prolong their lives and maintain their rule of Thra and it often comes at the expense of everyone else.”

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Brody Levesque is the Editor of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Commentary

Time for an LGBTQ reality check-queer students face rising tide of bullying

Nothing is going to get better unless we work together collectively against the insidious notion that LGBTQ identity is controversial

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LGBTQ+ Progress Flag

By James Finn | DETROIT – Two teens walk into a high-school classroom during period change. While the teacher yells at them, they rip a Pride flag off a wall then sprint through a crowded hall.

They outrun the teacher and disappear. Soon after, several students film themselves crowding into a school toilet cubicle as they try to flush the flag. When they fail, one of them drops his pants, squats, and defecates on the flag while the rest of them laugh and shout homophobic/transphobic slurs.

This happened in September at Paso Robles High School outside central California’s San Luis Obispo, which dubs itself the “Happiest City in America.” Soon the whole student body was buzzing. Most of them watched the video, which got posted to TikTok, but administrators did not respond for two weeks, saying they were unaware.

The incident surprised nobody.

LGBTQ students at Paso High say the region’s famed happiness doesn’t include them, writing in an editorial that they feel constantly targeted and harassed at school. They’ve told a reporter at the San Luis Obispo Tribune they don’t feel safe, that they face bullying and hatred every day. Sophomore Eve Barajas, president of the school’s Equity Club, says “micro aggressions” are common but physical violence is a real problem.

When the administration finally responded, LGBTQ students, allies, and teachers gasped in collective shock

They didn’t expect leadership to validate the bullying, but that’s what happened. In an interview, Paso High teacher Geoffrey Land called the defecation video, “an act of hate directed at the LGBTQ community,” adding, “And a lot of students felt it, you know, felt that attack very acutely.” He expected administrators to take the strongest possible stand against bullying.

Defecating on a symbol of inclusion is an act of hatred. The symbol isn’t the problem, the hatred is. Banning the symbol endorses the hatred.

So did science teacher and swim coach Evan Holtz, the man who chased the bullies down the hall. He told reporters he wants LGBTQ students to know they’re safe with him and can come to him for support. That’s why he and a few other teachers used to display Pride flags in their classrooms, a popular custom in schools around the U.S., where over half of all LGBTQ students report being bullied, according to a new survey conducted by the queer youth advocacy organization The Trevor Project.

They report that contrary to popular narrative, anti-LGBTQ bullying in U.S. middle and high schools has been getting worse in recent years instead of better, and that the bullying often equals acts of physical violence.

Ian Ring, via screenshot of KREM news report

In a very recent example, 13-year-old transgender student Ian Ring was badly beaten by bullies at his school in Spokane Washington while a crowd of students looked on, laughed, and filmed. Local police have charged one student with misdemeanor assault, but Ian’s mother says she doesn’t know how to keep him safe. She’s considering homeschooling.

Back at Paso High, Coach Holtz says he was happy three students brought him replacements for the stolen Pride flag. He hung one on his classroom wall, but that’s when the other shoe dropped. District Superintendent Curt Dubost banned the flag, not the bullying.

School district claims Pride flag is sectarian and controversial

Dubost sent a letter to teachers saying he opposes bullying, then ordered them to remove any LGBTQ Pride flag bigger than two feet by two feet, which students say is an effective ban, noting almost all commercially available flags are larger than that.

The ban is the ONLY action Dubost announced. He announced no comprehensive anti-bullying programs and no plans to make life better for queer kids in the schools he runs.

In a later interview, he claimed rainbow flags are partisan like “Blue Lives Matter” flags supporting police officers. He did not cite any incidents of teenage police officers being bullied in school or needing to know where they can find support from teachers. Queer students’ jaws dropped at the inanity of his message.

Jaws dropped harder over Dubost’s statement that LGBTQ Pride flags “mean different things to different people,” which students and teachers say they received as an overt endorsement of anti-LGBTQ hatred. In what world, they ask, should a symbol of love, safety, and inclusion mean something different? To add insult to injury, students say the bullies who stole the flag and posted the TikTok received only “minor discipline.”

The upshot is that anti-LGBTQ bullies sent a message of hate, got a slap on the wrist, and then saw their message validated and actively enforced by the school district.

Paso High Senior Danny Perez reacted like this: “My identity has been politicized. Someone defecated on a Pride flag. So the school takes away the Pride flag, not the homophobia?”

LGBTQ student Ava Hughes added, “We’re minors, and they’re forcing us to hide or protest.”

Superintendent Dubost threw away a fantastic teaching opportunity, but students aren’t letting it slip by

Students have announced that in cooperation with Paso High’s performing arts department, they will hold a “Coming Out Against Hate” community forum tomorrow evening in the high school auditorium. Local news media have cooperated with a blitz of free publicity.

LGBTQ students will “share their experiences and visions for a more welcoming, inclusive educational environment,” in person and via a self-produced short film. They say they will focus on personal stories about bullying they face in school. Superintendent Dubost did not respond immediately to an email asking if he would attend. No students are required to attend the forum, which is taking place after school hours and is not an official assembly.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ and allied students have been plastering school walls with rainbow-themed posters and drawings filled with messages of love and support.

They’re sending their bullies and Dubost a clear message: We LGBTQ students matter because we are human beings who deserve a safe education in a nurturing environment. Defecating on a symbol of inclusion is an act of hatred. The symbol isn’t the problem, the hatred is. Banning the symbol endorses the hatred.

Time for an LGBTQ reality check

LGBTQ students, especially transgender students, are facing a rising tide of bullying and violence in U.S. schools. Even on the coasts, queer kids are struggling. San Luis Obispo and Spokane are not as politically liberal as Los Angeles or San Francisco, but they’re still “left coast” communities with reputations for tolerance and acceptance.

They’re not the kinds of places where we expect 13-year-old trans kids to be beaten or school superintendents to endorse anti-LGBTQ hatred. They’re not the kind of places where we expect queer students to write that they feel physically unsafe in school every day. But you know what? This is real. This is happening. Right now.

Nothing is going to get better unless we work together collectively against the insidious notion that LGBTQ identity is or should be controversial. The Paso Robles High School community is doing a great job educating students and parents as they send their superintendent a strong message that he must do better.

What about you and your community? What can YOU do to stem a rising tide of hate?

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James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, a regular columnist for queer news outlets, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

*******************

The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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