By Rick Oculto,
Education Coordinator at Our Family Coalition
Only a few blocks from the White House is a building with giant glass windows. You can see right into the main meeting room from the street and every floor of the building is exposed to the light of the outside world. Even if you wanted to hide, it would be difficult. On the walkway to the entrance the ubiquitous blue and yellow equal sign hangs proudly from its façade. This is the national headquarters of the powerful LGBTQ rights machine known as the Human Rights Campaign. It is not ostentatious, but sleek, clean, and unapologetic… a marked difference from how the rest of the country is accustomed to talking about LGBTQ issues; under hushed whispers in the dark. In many places, gay is still a dirty word.
The week of Halloween, on the top floor of this building, on arguably the most exposed floor were about forty people from across the country dedicated to ensuring that LGBTQ youth and families never had to hide again. The irony of the impending holiday was not lost on me. The fact that many people in LGBTQ communities find solace in this holiday because it allows us to assume identities that are not always socially available to us also did not escape me. As trainers who have put ourselves on the frontlines of addressing issues of difference, we have encountered a great diversity of difficult situations. And now, we were charged with sharing the knowledge on how to do that; how to come out of the closet about our own experience, and how to create spaces that allowed others to do so. The task ahead would not be easy.
As a trainer, you never know what the participants will bring to a discussion. Many times it can lead to very deep and meaningful exchanges and sometimes the intersections of everyone’s identities crash into each other like a multi-car pileup on the freeway. When that happens, just like a freeway, everyone’s got to slow down to make sure we can all move forward together. If not, all traffic comes to a dead stop.
So, here we were eight floors above the ground in a glass room filled with eager minds and good intentions. Each face represented a story of struggle, and hardship, and tenacity to have come to this place to create and sustain inclusive spaces for everyone, but especially for those who have traditionally been unwelcome. And then it happens… as we go into examples of our communities, the inevitable and pernicious stereotypes about the threat each of our communities might pose comes to the forefront; first about gender, then about race. Everyone is on alert. The mood of the room went from jovial to urgent as representatives from each community plead their case for better understanding. Any amateur facilitator would have shied away, changed the subject, and inevitably hampered learning. We slowed it down and leaned into it. After all, we were here to help everyone better navigate identity, not ignore it. No one in the room was an amateur. We moved forward together.
The Human Rights Campaign has been criticized for its myopia and exclusivity, specifically on its actions around transgender issues and people of color. In recent years the organization has taken some initiative to address those shortfalls with some success. The Welcoming Schools Approach and the training of facilitators to address difference is part of the outcome of that effort. For the past five years Welcoming Schools has operated as a program of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation with the mission to make schools more welcoming of diverse families, inclusive of LGBTQ-issues, address biased based bullying, and to support transgender and gender expansive youth. It has been a labor of love that has grown and evolved as the national conversation on difference has taken center stage. It was formed out of the need for representation of LGBTQ individuals and families and has been tempered by the passing of Leelah Alcorn, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Seth Walsh, along with many other events. There has always been an undercurrent of liberation; knowing that the topics Welcoming Schools touched upon would thrust those issues uncomfortably into the light. The visceral experience of the aforementioned events further molded the conversation in ways that were more responsive and inclusive. Our Family Coalition, in conjunction with the other Welcoming Schools trainers, have been at the heart of this cathartic shift.
It was a long three days. There was laughter and tears and conversations that would have never have happened in the dark. The impact of Welcoming Schools had been constrained by a small and dedicated group of about ten people responsible for several regions around the country. After this training there were now thirty more. We have not found the panacea for the disparities we find among our communities because there is no one thing that will address the myriad of issues that impact our different identities. What we have found is a way to recognize, respect, and celebrate our differences without diminishing or excluding one another. With the inaugural facilitator training, these practices will have an even wider reach.
At the end of the week, with few hours to spare, I was able to take my traditional walk down the Washington Mall. Autumn in DC smelled differently than it did in San Francisco. I was joined by a colleague that would become a new trainer a continent’s length away in the Puget Sound area. We passed the White House with lines of children in Halloween costumes visiting the President and First Lady, passed the World War II Memorial and found ourselves at the reflection pool where only a little over fifty years earlier thousands upon thousands gathered together to recognize and affirm the humanity of our African-American brethren. A short while away stood the Lincoln Memorial lit up against the eastern dusk and we realized we were on the same path.
– Abraham Lincoln, July 10, 1858 Speech at Chicago, Illinois