The photos we won’t show you

The first photo is a group of three McNary High School students in various stages of lounging while movies play as part of an all-day film festival for youth members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) community. Two on the floor, one counting sheep in a sleeping bag – mouth open, no drool, another sitting by his side watching 3 Generations, a movie about a teenager seeking to transition from female to male and the tribulation something as mundane as a birth certificate can create. The third student is sitting in a chair refusing to give up on the available seating inside the Keizer Homegrown Theatre space within the Keizer Cultural Center after three movies, an hour of short films and two more full-length features to go.

The second photo, a group of nine students, some from McNary, others from elsewhere, sitting on the steps to the second floor of the cultural center. Talking about how soon to begin planning the next film festival, the struggles faced at home and elsewhere, how nice it is to not have to worry about those frustrations in the here and now. Laughing about Dungeons & Dragons, inside jokes and all the other things that make humans human regardless of sexual and gender identity.

The last picture is solitary figure looking out on the front lawn of the Cultural Center, watching cars pass. She needed a break – to rest her eyes she told others – but privately wonders how a movie can hit so close to home, how a birth certificate can get things so profoundly wrong and, then, loom so large over all attempts define one’s self.

In my ideal world, these are the photos accompanying this story. But this world, these times and sadly – despite all lip service to the contrary – this community is not ideal. Putting those photos in these pages could make the subjects victims of harassment, bullying or worse.

In a 2018 Human Rights Campaign report on LGBTQ youth, only 24 percent of the roughly 12,000 respondents felt they could be themselves at home, 67 percent reported hearing LGBTQ-disparaging comments from members of their family, 48 percent of those who had told their parents said their parents made them feel bad for identifying at LGBTQ, 78 percent said even their parents did not know of their identity struggles.

I’ve worked with McNary students in an after school creative writing club for the past eight years. Every one of those years, at least one of “my kids” has identified as a member of the LGBTQ community. I’ve read about their struggles, heard from friends and family about other trials and hardships, and, when the stars align, they seek me out as a confidante.

Last year, as the result of a story that is not mine to share, I decided with a few students that we would rekindle the fire of the McNary Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).

Since that time, the GSA students spoke to the entire McNary faculty about the need to end the use of the terms “fag” and “faggot” – we prefer to call them “f-slurs” – in McNary’s hallowed halls and classrooms, and the importance of not mis-gendering students whose gender identity does not align with their physical traits.

Last Saturday, the GSA hosted the film festival and invited all of Salem-Keizer’s middle and high school students to join us in the creating a new segment of this community that is desperately needed. About 15 to 20 visitors – teens and parents – who weren’t already associated with our club turned out. It’s a start.

Our next project is sending greeting cards to LGBTQ youth and adults in the United Kingdom who lack support as their make their way in the world, part of a larger effort named The Rainbow Cards Project (www.therainbowcardsproject.org).

All of this has occurred in less than a year from the day I talked with students about restarting the GSA. My eyes welled up with tears numerous times during the film festival and it didn’t have anything to do with onscreen images.

I thought long and hard about what I wanted to tell the GSA Club during our first meeting. As a member of the cis-gendered, heterosexual, white, male patriarchy, there’s only so much I can do or say that’s relevant to what they are going through. I settled on telling them that the lesson I hoped they learned from my presence as adviser was how they should expect to be accepted, respected and understood in the big, wide world.

Still, I am concerned. I can model what I want them to experience, but I cannot force others to treat them in the same way. It’s also difficult for them to accept my modeling as truth when I was the only adult male in the room last Saturday. A small part of me fears for them and all the things I cannot protect them from, but it doesn’t stop us from communicating with depth and care.

Lately, I’ve taken to telling them that we have to prove we care so other people know it is okay to do the same. The looks I get in response run the gamut from hopeful to incredulous to disappointed.

I get it. Why should we burden our youth with showing, or reminding, us how to care? Wouldn’t it be easier to not care? Shouldn’t caring be the default?

In my ideal world, only the third question matters. The answer obvious.

Yet, here we are, in the struggle every day to reach a day when I don’t have to worry about what pictures accompany a story about young people trying to become the truest version of themselves.

If you want to be an ally to the McNary GSA, let us know at [email protected]. If you want to be an ally to the larger LGBTQ community in Salem-Keizer, attend a meeting of the recently-revitalized Salem-Keizer PFLAG, dates and times are at www.gaysalem.org.