When I graduated from Jericho High School in 1973, I shut the door behind me literally and figuratively, eager to close that chapter of my life and vowing never to set foot in that building again. Why would I ever want to return to that place of torment? Daily I was called Frizz-Bomb and Thunder Thighs. Weekly I was taunted for being “Les the Lezzie.” (My classmates clearly knew something I did not; I didn’t come out until I was 27.) Once, sitting in the small auditorium known as The Little Theatre, I felt something at the back of my neck and was mortified that a classmate had clipped off a snippet of my hair which she then proceeded to pass around the room. No, Jericho High School was a place I was glad to be rid of, once and for all.
Twenty-six years later, in 1999, I was sitting at my desk, writing, as I do every morning, when the phone rang. “This is Mr. Hoffman. Do you know why I’m calling?”
Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Hoffman…… oh my God, my old high school Social Studies teacher. What could he possibly want? Did I still have an overdue library book somewhere on my shelves? Was I being called down to the principal’s office yet again for talking in class or arriving at school wearing a skirt that was too short?
“I’m calling….” Mr. Hoffman said, “to tell you that you’re being inducted into the Jericho High School Hall of Fame.”
I could tell from Mr. Hoffman’s tone of voice that he was just as surprised as I was. “Really?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” he said. “We’ll see you at the induction ceremony.”
A few months later, I found myself back in The Little Theatre. This time I was sitting up on stage. Behind me was my high school yearbook picture, enlarged into a poster that was at least 10 feet tall. I remember waking up at 5:00 a.m. on the day that picture was taken, to iron my hair within an inch of its life. Trying to straighten my hair out in the same way I had tried for years to straighten myself out. Both to no avail.
As I was being introduced, it suddenly dawned on me that the students—all 350 of them—knew I was a writer, but did not know anything about what I had written. In other words, they didn’t know I was a lesbian writer, writing about gay issues. And there was no way to talk about my work, including books like the short story collection A LETTER TO HARVEY MILK and the children’s book, HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES, without coming out to them.
Be brave, I told myself. Breathe. Before I was halfway through my short prepared speech, hands shot up in the air. “What was it like to be gay at Jericho High School in the 1970’s?” the students wanted to know. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell them, as I wasn’t aware of my sexuality while in high school. Why did it take me so long to realize who I was? A big part of it had to do with lack of role models. There were no out gay teachers at Jericho High School (though there was a certain teacher who wore pant suits and insisted upon being called “Ms.” that we had suspicions about). There were no gay literature classes or gay history classes. There were no books that featured gay characters. As a writer, I firmly believe that all children and teens need and deserve to see themselves represented in works of literature that validate their experience in order to enhance their self esteem. Which is one of the reasons why I write books about different types of families, including families that consist of kids with two moms or two dads. Had I had such a book, I might have been spared years of angst and confusion.
But I digress. Back in The Little Theatre, I decided to turn the question around. “What’s it like to be gay at Jericho High School today, in 1999?” I asked my audience.
Silence. Followed by more silence. Followed by a male voice from the back of the room saying, “We don’t have any gay students here,” with an assuredness that left absolutely no room for doubt.
I knew that wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. Certainly Jericho High School had gay students. What Jericho High School didn’t have were gay students who felt comfortable being out. In hindsight, I wish I had had the wherewithal to explain that important difference. But I didn’t think fast enough. And before another question or comment could be made, the assembly was declared over.
But the assembly wasn’t really over. At least in the mind of a young woman who sent me an email a year later. She told me that she was a college student, who had graduated from Jericho High School in 1999. “I was in the auditorium when you came to speak to our school,” she wrote. “I knew I was a lesbian, but high school wasn’t a safe place for me to be out. I can’t tell you how much it meant for me to have you at our school as an out proud lesbian speaking to our entire student body. Thank you.”
And that’s not even the end of the story. Fourteen years later, in the fall of 2012, I got a another call from Jericho High School. This time, the librarian was on the phone. She wanted me to come speak to the students about my book, OCTOBER MOURNING: A Song for Matthew Shepard.
Once again I made my way to The Little Theatre and stood in front of 350 students. Using a power point presentation, I showed them pictures of my childhood and teen years, including one taken while I stood between my two proud grandmothers on the day I graduated from Jericho High. I told them about writing HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES, the first book to feature a happy family consisting of a little girl and her two lesbian moms. I told them about the book being protested from coast to coast, and how I traveled all around the country defending not only my book’s right to exist, but the rights of gay families to exist. I told them how being an activist led me to be invited to deliver the keynote address for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming in October 1998.
I told them that I arrived on campus the day Matthew Shepard died, the victim of a horrendous hate crime. I told the students of Jericho High School, most of whom had never heard of Matthew Shepard, how he had been kidnapped, robbed, brutally beaten, tied to a fence and abandoned, simply because he was gay. How he had stayed out on the prairie alone for 18 hours before being discovered and taken to a hospital. How he had died 5 days later on October 12, the start of Gay Awareness Week, the day I on campus to give my speech. After explaining all this, I read poems from my book, OCTOBER MOURNING, which explores the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder in a series of 68 poems written from various points of view, including the fence he was tied to, the stars that shone above him and a deer who kept him company all through the night.
As I read, the room remained deathly silent.
When I was finished reading, I challenged the students to think of one thing they each could do to end homophobia and to make a commitment to doing that one thing within the week. Students told me they would stop using the word “fag” in a derogatory way. And that if they heard other students doing so, they would call them out on it. One student promised to make a donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. I was inspired by the students’ passion and determination to make the world a better place in Matthew Shepard’s name.
After the presentation, I had lunch with the school’s Gay Straight Alliance. At last, forty years after I had graduated, there was a safe place for LGBT students and their friends to gather. A club whose mission statement reads: “Members of this club work together to ensure the human rights of all people locally, globally, and especially for those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.” I was glad that my work had brought me back to my old high school so that I could talk with the students and see how much had changed. A healing took place on that day. I forgave my classmates who had tormented me. And as the principal thanked me for coming, the words, “I’d be happy to come back any time” flew out of my mouth. And I meant it.
Lesléa Newman is a writer and anthologist for readers of all ages, whose 65 books include the teen novel-in-verse OCTOBER MOURNING: A Song for Matthew Shepard, the middle grade novel, HACHIKO WAITS, and the picture books A SWEET PASSOVER, DONOVAN’S BIG DAY, THE BOY WHO CRIED FABULOUS, and HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. A past poet laureate of Northampton, MA, she is currently a faculty member of Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program.