Fort Worth is a mid-size city in Texas, sort of at a midpoint between the South, the Plains, and the West. (The city’s motto is actually “Where the West begins.”) The authoritative Almanac of American Politics 2010 suggests that Tarrant County, in which Fort Worth is located, is a very conservative place, having voted about 60% for Senator John McCain for President in the year he lost Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Nevada and Colorado to Senator Barack Obama. Lockheed Martin is a major employer there, and the vast Carswell Air Force Base is actually inside the city. In December 2008, the local Diocese of the Episcopal Church, along with that of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Quincy, Illinois; and San Joaquin, California and several former colonial dioceses went into schism with the broader Episcopal Church. The cause of the schism: The Anglican Church’s ordination of its first openly-gay Bishop, V. Gene Robinson.
A friend just posted a video clip in which a Fort Worth city councilman took about 10 minutes to directly address gay teens. Given the city’s political context, if you are concerned about gay rights (or a conservative concerned about the rights of gays) your likely reaction to the previous sentence was, “Oh God–Now what?” But you would be wrong. The city councilman was Joel Burns, and what he said took courage, and was suffused both with the impact of national timeliness and the tragedy of having come too late.
The title of the video clip, “Joel Burns Tells Gay Teens ‘It Gets Better,'” should clarify what Councilman Burns’ speech is about, and highlights the importance of the message. The Liberal Ironist previously posted on the sudden suicide of a gay Rutgers University freshman less than a month ago, following several days of very public embarrassment by his roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi’s friend, Molly Wei. Shortly afterwards I wrote about another writer’s speculations regarding which present-day institutions future generations would recognize as unjust. In the former post I expressed doubts that teaching tolerance protects people from bullying or humiliation; what is needed is a proper means of uncivil confrontation of those who seek to isolate innocents by making them feel perverse, or vulnerable. As far as the latter post is concerned, the Liberal Ironist would like to think that there will come a day when bullying a classmate for their sexual orientation will seem as absurd as it already seems appalling. For now that seems like a pretty naive hope.
But for that to happen, gays may have to recognize each other. This means simply that, to borrow a stock phrase, they have to know they aren’t alone. There aren’t more gay high school students in San Francisco than there are in Fort Worth, or suburban New Jersey. But the latter places might well have fewer families willing to deal with a child’s homosexuality, or a school culture in which college-focused organization kids show little interest in their classmates, lacking the time to learn that friends are gay–or the moral vocabulary to express to others why terrorizing them is wrong.
This is what underscores the cruel irony that gays and lesbians received protection under Federal hate crime statutes only a year ago. Uniquely-vicious and malignantly-subversive as all hate crimes are, a victim of a racial hate crime can return to the company of others who will make the criminal’s disparagement patently absurd; a Jew, Muslim or Hispanic subject to harassment or intimidation on account of cultural practice or religious beliefs may have no doubts that they are being attacked for their virtues, or that their heritage is indeed a consolation for them and nothing to hide. (Such resilience certainly isn’t assured, but there are obvious grounds for it.) Gays subjected to bullying might have no idea whether their sexual desires are their moral responsibility or, regardless, whether those desires are simply perverse. A conservatively-religious family and morally-inarticulate (but no-doubt very tolerant!) friends may offer, rather than the source of consolation available to other victims of hate crimes, another reason to be afraid.
This is what makes a Fort Worth city councilman’s words of assurance to gay teenagers that “it gets better” so important. The Liberal Ironist realizes that this is one of the few cases of personal confessionalism in politics that isn’t just boilerplate, but actually is the message. He is saying: I’m here. I’m like you. I’ve felt the things you’re feeling, and I’ve got past that. I can say from experience that you shouldn’t abstract from these dark days all that your life will be.
The delivery is uneven, because Councilman Burns’ announcement isn’t a speech so much as an action. Though parts are difficult to listen to, it’s worth watching to the end to see how these words of consolation to the marginalized are received in conservative Fort Worth.