A few months ago I found myself with a Facebook page. There I was, chatting away with high school friends I hadn’t seen in nearly 40 years. Until then, I hadn’t maintained a connection with anyone I graduated with, which is odd considering that I was always a joiner — band, chorus, yearbook, even class president. Then graduation and nothing. It’s painful to think of the deep, lifelong friendships I might have had. But I cut those ties for a reason: I was the queer kid.
Back then I never told anyone I was gay. I never complained about the jokes. I avoided wearing green and yellow on Thursdays and focused on getting good grades. Painful though it was, I knew if I could just keep up the front until graduation, I could leave Maine to be someone different somewhere else. Back then, a lot of gay and lesbian youth did that, heading to cities like San Francisco, Boston and New York.
I have since managed to piece together information about a few others who fled. One became a nurse. One works in medical research.
One was a musical prodigy who disappeared from our lives and died young. I’ll never know for sure about him. No one wanted to talk about him after he left town. But he fit the profile of so many young gay men lost to AIDS in the 1980s.
And me, now a college librarian. Who knows how many of those who left might have stayed if they had felt welcome in our communities? Who knows what we might have contributed?
Outwardly things have changed a great deal in the decades since I went to college. Gay kids have visible role models, gay characters appear on television, and some schools even have LGBT clubs. Yet gay teens still experience abuse and bullying at school and in the community. They are more likely to be homeless, often after being disowned by their families. They are more likely to take their own lives than their straight friends.
The other day I visited an introductory criminal justice class to clear up some confusion about source citations. In the lull before class, a young woman remarked that she had just read that in India two men could be executed for holding hands in public. A male classmate gave a little fist pump, saying, “Go, India!” There you have it, folks. That young man will become a fine young cop, trooper, parole officer, and someday he will hold in his hands the life of the queer kid who was thrown away by his family and is now surviving on the street by whatever means necessary — stealing, dealing, or turning tricks.
Both are our children and both are learning, at our knee, that some people deserve to be treated differently, that jokes can be told at their expense, that they can be bullied with impunity. Right now the children of Maine are watching as a massive media campaign teaches that gay people are not entitled to equal protection under the law.
On Nov. 3 Maine will decide whether to slam shut a window of equal opportunity for gay people. Why are we fighting so hard for the right to marry? Yes, there are practical reasons, like tax returns and emergency rooms. But ultimately I believe this is about whether we will continue living in a two-caste society.
After gay marriage was overturned in California, a woman interviewed on the radio explained how painful it was to walk down the street the next day, knowing that more than half the people passing by believed she was worth less than they were. Is that the message Maine wants to send to a waiting nation?
I hope this generation of kids will be the first to walk down the street knowing that more than half of Mainers were ready to turn the tide toward full equality. And the next generation? I hope they won’t know what we’re talking about.
Barbara Kobritz graduated from Dexter Regional High School in 1972. She attended Syracuse University and is now a librarian at a community college. She is a frequent summer visitor and expects to retire in Maine.