In 1978, a conservative California Senator by the name of John Briggs began one of the most homophobic legislative efforts in state history. He sought to ban the hiring of all LGBTQ teachers in California’s public school system.
The initiative, however, sparked the flame of an indomitable gay civil rights activist—Harvey Milk. In the wake of a victory that made him the first openly gay elected official in the state, Milk became the leader of a movement that refused to tolerate the homophobic landscape of America.
Despite early predictive polls that virtually guaranteed his defeat, Milk rallied the troops with a fierce battle cry. He implored his fellow gay and lesbian community members to “Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!” The slogan, lyrics from a Judy Garland song, inspired thousands to risk their livelihoods and free themselves of the bonds that kept them in hiding. People came out in droves, often for the first time as they canvassed door-to-door. The strategy proved effective, because the pendulum of public approval swung in his favor. California chose love over bigotry and rejected the initiative.
Decades later, I am indebted to my freshman English teacher, Mr. C, for introducing me to the vision and passion of Harvey Milk. Mr. C didn’t just school me on the history of the LGBTQ rights movement, however; he bravely continued Milk’s pioneering legacy by employing the very tactic that the late activist executed so adeptly: visibility.
Like Milk, Mr. C wielded love and visibility as a weapon to cut through the ignorance and prejudice of so many Americans. The picture displayed on his desk of him and his husband made me feel that it gets better. I felt safe and protected in his classroom, fully adorned with a rainbow flag and images of Sylvia Rivera, Bayard Rustin and Audre Lorde. Most of all, I relied on his guidance and support as I navigated the trials of high school. I remember many conversations about the hardships of bringing another boy to prom, and his heartfelt words of encouragement to stymie my own insecurities.
Mr. C didn’t just teach me the poetry of E.E Cummings or the novels of Elie Wiesel. He taught me how to love myself. Whether conscious of it or not, he ran his classroom with the same guiding principles that inspired the dark horse victory of a lifetime nearly forty years ago.
Students, and myself included, responded to Mr. C as teachers did to Harvey Milk. They “came out from wherever they were”, and dared to live their fullest lives with pride and self-love. My high school became a more welcoming and accepting environment because of it. There were eight other out gay men in my senior class alone—and Mr. C’s outstanding reputation as a supportive and openly gay educator was no coincidence.
Unfortunately, few students and schools enjoy the benefits of teachers such as Mr. C. In fact, my high school experience was probably as statistically unlikely as Milk’s comeback win. A 2016 report by our longtime grantee Oregon Safe Schools and Communities Coalition indicates that LGBTQ youth are “less likely than their peers to identify a teacher or adult that really cared about them”. Other research suggests that LGBTQ youth are not only significantly more likely to commit suicide but that those with accessible role models report less psychological distress than those without.
I, thankfully, had and continue to have an openly gay role model whose virtues I strive to embody. Pride Foundation eagerly supports nonprofits that work tirelessly to create safer schools and help students find a Mr. C of their own. This year, we awarded grants to ten such outstanding organizations. Here are just some of their profiles:
- Oregon Safe Schools: Located in Portland, Oregon. OSS created the Safe Schools Task Force, which connects individuals and regional organizations that conduct LGBTQ competency and safe space trainings.
- Empower MT: Located in Missoula, Montana. Empower MT runs The Queer Youth and Empowerment Programs, which encourages LGBTQ and allied youth to be role models and change agents in schools through Youth Forward, a weekly confidential support group.
- Children’s Home Society of WA: Located in Vancouver, Washington. CHS runs the Triple Point program, which provides LGBTQ specific counseling, safe space, social skill building, and life skills training for middle and high school aged youth.
Pride Foundation supports these organizations with the words of Milk in mind. One year before his assassination, Milk exclaimed that if a “gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone… it’s a green light”. Thank you to the nonprofits and educators everywhere for providing a green light to a younger generation in need of positive role models. And Mr. C? Thanks for being my green light.
Sometimes, mere existence is a radical act itself.
By: Hunter Sidel
Hunter Sidel is the Communications Intern at Pride Foundation for this summer, and is a student at Pitzer College in Claremont, California.