I remember it like it was yesterday, that October night in 2010 when I was staring blindly into my computer screen. “AC360” was on the TV in the background when I heard the words, “suicide, gay boy and Anoka-Hennepin.” “That’s our district,” I blurted out, and I shot up from the desk to watch. They were talking about anti-gay bullying and suicides in our school district. I couldn’t believe it; I felt sick.
The next morning I emailed the school district, hoping this was some awful mistake. This would be the first day of a battle with the school board that is still going on today. At issue are the demands of a small, but very vocal, religious group whose religious beliefs are dictating policy. Their opposition is to the notion that being LGBTQ is completely normal and inherent. They firmly believe that if schools were to openly validate and affirm LGBTQ people that it will lead to teaching sexually explicit materials to their kids. That fear has been articulated at numerous school-board meetings. They fear it could cause their children to “experiment with homosexuality or to become gay.”
They argue that their religious freedom and rights as parents would somehow be abridged if the district were to validate LGBTQ people as normal because it conflicts with what they are teaching their kids at home. In my opinion, their religious beliefs should not be dictating public-school policy. While schools cannot dictate what is or is not done in the home, when children come through those doors they should know unequivocally that they are safe, accepted and protected exactly as they are.
Homelessness, drug abuse, sex trafficking and suicide are prevalent in our community. All four disproportionately affect LGBTQ youth, especially those who are rejected by their families and faith communities. Nowhere was that more obvious than in the Ohio case of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender girl, who after being rejected by her family decided suicide was the only way to escape her pain.
So now we come to my confession. I wasn’t always the affirming person I am now. It is with incredible shame and regret I admit that when my now 28-year-old daughter Lyz came to me in ninth grade to tell me she was bisexual, I dismissed her as just trying to get my attention. When she tried to tell me that teachers and kids were giving her a hard time at school about who she was and for trying to start a support group for LGBTQ kids I dismissed her again, saying “Why would you tell them anyway”?
I didn’t get it. Worse yet, I didn’t even try. As time went on I realized it really was who she was and it was completely normal. She has taught me so much about what it means to be accepting, to stay true to your spirit and to not let others define you. Her courage to be who she is and not let anyone (including her own mom) prevent her being authentic and having the life she deserved is awe inspiring.
For four years I have been outspoken against the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s history of and continued policies of exclusion of LGBTQ people, implying it was about “doing what is right for the benefit of other people’s families,” but that wasn’t entirely true. I was too ashamed because I was one of those “unaffirming moms” who didn’t listen to or hear her child when she was asking for help and acceptance, and it could have been my child in those statistics.
While I couldn’t go back and undo the past, I could make things right going forward. I didn’t deserve her forgiveness, but my daughter Lyz did forgive me and we are closer now than we’ve ever been. It is with her blessing and encouragement that I write this now.
There is a saying, “The greatest gifts we can give our kids are roots and wings.” I would say the “greatest” gift we can give our kids is the assurance that we will always love and accept them as they are, with our whole hearts, everyday, no contingencies.
Melissa Thompson is an Anoka-Hennepin parent, an anti-bullying advocate and an LGBTQ ally. She and her husband have four daughters, two still at home.
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