Thursday evening in Fort Lauderdale I posted on Facebook that I was:
“doing the Early Bird dinner thing at the gayest restaurant in the gayest neighborhood on earth. After, of course, an appointment with my gay doctor whose office is located next door to a drag bar. Perhaps my life is kind of gay.”
Not long after my post I received a text from, and then subsequently had a conversation with, Robert Loupo, the Executive Director of Safe Schools South Florida. It is here I want to pause and offer information about Safe Schools South Florida… According to their website:
Safe Schools South Florida is the only organization in South Florida comprised of education professionals committed to training other education professionals and school staff, youth service provider agencies, parents/guardians, families and communities how to create safer schools and communities where all students can learn and thrive.
A few months ago I expressed to Robert my interest in becoming involved with Safe Schools South Florida after attending a Miami-Dade Public Schools workshop sponsored in part by the organization. I wrote a Huffington Post – Gay Voices piece about my experience titled Safe Schools for LGBTQ Youth. Robert and I arranged to meet one evening after the workshop but ultimately due to schedule conflicts and the holidays approaching, plus his trip to New York to marry his partner of twenty years, we postponed our meeting until after the new year.
During our recent phone conversation while in Fort Lauderdale he asked if I’d be interested in attending a holiday event Friday night hosted by Homestead Senior High School’s newly formed Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at the American Legion on NE 64th street in my “neck of the woods.” Like many people during the holidays Robert and his husband had another event the same night and he was unable to attend both functions. “Would you,” he asked, “be interested in attending on my behalf representing Safe Schools South Florida?”
“Absolutely!” I said. “I’d be delighted. Getting involved with Safe Schools is why I wanted to meet with you.”
“Funny, isn’t it. This will be your first event and we haven’t had the opportunity to sit down and talk yet,” he said.
“That’s the story of my life,” I said, jovially. “I tend to always get the cart before the horse.”
“I grew up on a farm so I know exactly what you mean. Thank you. This is wonderful. I’ll send an email to Aaron and let him know you’re attending in my place.”
Mr. Aaron Bos-Lun is Homestead Senior High’s GSA sponsor. He’s also a Teach for America teacher. Teach for America is a national teacher corps of college graduates and professionals who commit to teach for two years and raise student achievement in public schools. Mr. Bos-Lun along with his GSA students were hosting the dinner event in order to showcase the positive impact their newly formed GSA has had during its first year at Homestead Senior High and to provide an opportunity for other educators at other district schools to join and see for themselves what exactly can be accomplished by sponsoring a GSA in their high school.
The event began at 5:00pm. Typically I do not get home until 4:30pm or 4:45pm. I told Robert I’d like to shower and clean up – the dinner was a semi-formal affair – and that I probably wouldn’t arrive until 5:30pm. “That shouldn’t be a problem,” Robert said.
When I arrived I was greeted in the parking lot by Mr. Aaron Bos-Lun. “Are you Patrick?” he asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“Good! Great to meet you. Thank you so much for coming. Everybody’s around back participating in a meet and greet. Go ahead and join them. I’ll see you inside shortly,” he said.
As I walked toward the back lawn of the American Legion I recollected the last time – other than it being my voting precinct – I attended an event there. It was once the site of my neighborhood’s Upper Eastside/Belle Meade Halloween Party. Not long after moving into the neighborhood many years ago, when I first arrived at my first Halloween party there, I spotted three drag queens straddling the massive naval cannon mounted near the American Legion’s bayside entrance. I knew then I was in for a good time. This event however, this Homestead Senior High GSA holiday dinner would be different, that was obvious. These were high school kids. What kind of impact could it possibly have on me? After all I was there to support the kids.
The back of the American Legion faces Biscayne Bay. As I approached I noticed students and guests had formed a circle on the lawn between the building and the bay. It was a cool evening, a blustery breeze whipped off the water, there was almost a full moon. The students and adults, teachers I assumed, were in the midst of their meet and greet when I found my spot in the circle. Immediately one teacher to my right and a student to my left explained that students were speaking about things they hoped to “let go from their life tonight.” There was no pressure. If a student wanted to speak they could. I felt pressure to speak. I didn’t know any of the 60 or 70 students and adults in attendance. My mind kept thinking, I need to introduce myself. These people are probably wondering who I am. I need to let them know I’m attending at Robert’s request. My spirit however, kept saying, Shut up and listen. This isn’t about you. It’s about the students.
Shut up. And listen.
Listening to the students, one by one, speak about their struggles, the issues they face, their families, their friends, the constant questioning of oneself during ones teenage years, reminded me of what it’s like trying to survive just being a teenager. Add to the mix being ostracized by those who are supposed to love and protect you. Or never being able to escape judgment and oppression from bullies at school, classmates in the halls. Not to mention being tormented 24/7 via social media only to arrive home and face the disapproval of your parents or guardians. Or going to your house of worship to be told by the pastor and congregation that you will burn in Hell. How does a LGBT teen survive? More than one student expressed his or her having contemplated or a continued struggle with suicidal thoughts. What have I gotten myself into? I thought. Again my spirit said, Shut up and listen.
Most of the adults looked to be a solid 15 years younger than I. However, while the students were sharing their struggles, the things they planned to let go, two men about my age joined the group. I wondered who they might be. Not long after the students finished speaking everyone was invited into the American Legion’s banquet hall. Clearly someone, the students presumably, had worked tirelessly preparing for the event. The banquet hall was decorated in a typical high school holiday cotillion kind of way. Balloons and streamers, round tables, slipcovered folding chairs. There was something familiar and totally Americana about it. I liked it. I also felt the forgotten yet familiar anxiety I once experienced just before the high school dances during my teen years. And like those bygone dances with their paper streamer ceilings and balloon archways, the décor this night could be found in a high school gymnasium, cafeteria, or American Legion banquet hall anywhere. The attendees however, these Homestead Senior High School GSA students could not be found just anywhere. There was nothing typical about them.
In GSA meetings I was told there is often a Who am I? and Why am I here? opportunity to share one’s story with members. The holiday dinner guests were asked to participate if they wanted. The first to speak was one of the men who arrived to the circle on the back lawn after I. He was Representative David Richardson, the first openly gay person in Florida history to be elected to the state legislature. He is working tirelessly on LGBT issues throughout the state including homeless LGBT youth; he’s incredibly passionate about this particular project. He shared his empowering personal journey with the students. It was a delight to hear him speak.
The second was SaveDade board member Mr. Joe Falk, who is also President of his own mortgage firm and a consultant with the law firm of Akerman Senterfitt, as well as Vice-Chairman of the Miami Science Museum’s Board of Trustees. He too shared a personal story and explanation of the opportunity that now exists for these current students to see and have positive LGBT role models. Something that until recently never existed.
I, along with a handful of other guests, participated in the Who am I? and Why am I here? opportunity. It became obvious to me that my spirit knew what it was saying earlier on the back lawn. It knew the time for me to introduce myself to my hosts.
For dinner I was seated with four students from Homestead Senior High – one junior and three freshmen. Their energy was astonishing. More so were the smiles on their faces when they spoke about what the GSA has done for them. Later in the evening certain GSA students also participated in the Who am I? and Why am I here? moment. One of my tablemates, a young freshman boy named Keaton (I’ve changed his name), a small framed, rather shy boy approached the podium to share his story. It was obvious he wanted to speak and yet was fighting with every ounce of his being the fear of speaking to an audience. Now I must again pause for a moment… I’m a mediocre wordsmith at best and I don’t know that I can do justice in explaining the love that emanated from this young man. He was like a puppy in a dime-store window peering at passersby just praying for someone to rescue him, to give him a home, to love him. Keaton’s eyes were wide and bright as if looking for a connection anywhere, with anyone. They were filled with an anxious, searching kind of hope. His smile was infectious, his voice soft. He spoke about what the GSA meant to him. How he was fearful of walking through the door that first time, about his fear that members would judge him and want nothing to do with him. He spoke about his family. He spoke of his parents’ divorce, his father’s refusal to allow him to visit his mother in Georgia. Keaton spoke of his love of dancing. How he had to be careful dancing at home. How his dad would constantly tell him to “stop that gay ass shit.” When I asked him earlier at the table what he wanted to do over Winter Break he replied that he only wanted to see his mom. It’d been several years since he had. Keaton concluded his Why am I here? in tears, grateful for Homestead Senior High’s GSA and Mr. Bos-Lun and the friends he found there. Two student members joined Keaton at the podium and hugged him tight. We holiday dinner attendees erupted in applause and gave Keaton a standing ovation. His courage was remarkable. I cannot imagine what Keaton’s daily life is like.
See, shut up and listen, my spirit whispered. Keaton’s story seeped into my soul.
Several Homestead Senior High School GSA students shared their stories and talents during the evening. It began to get late and I needed to get home. I was grateful for the experience but also felt depleted. I thanked Mr. Bos-Lun and the students with whom I had dinner. The event would end with students releasing balloons on the American Legion’s back lawn, and in taking flight, releasing those struggles they wanted to “let go from their life.”
The weight and impact of my evening last night was not truly felt until I awakened this morning. I don’t know that I’ll ever see those GSA students again. But they did more for me last night than I could ever possibly have done for them.
I challenge anyone reading this blog post to seek out a local GSA. Ask the sponsor if you might attend a meeting or event. Show your face and let members know they have an ally in you. But most importantly, shut up and listen.