Sunday, July 5, 2009
A common set of questions student journalists often ask in my office is “How do you do this job when things sometimes seem so depressing and discouraging? What do you think the future will hold for LGBT people? Do you think things will change for the better?”
My reply is usually “Hey, I’m the LGBT coordinator – I’ve gotta have hope. If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be able to get up out of bed each morning!”
And I do – I do get out of bed each morning, and I do have hope for a better tomorrow. Some days bring great progress; others not so much. Mostly it feels like three steps forward, two steps back. But that’s still forward motion, lurching toward a better tomorrow.
Harvey Milk knew all about the power of hope, and spoke about it frequently. He gave his “You Cannot Live On Hope Alone” speech shortly before he was assassinated in 1978.
A few days ago, an event took place in that slow tottering stride toward a better tomorrow. President Obama hosted a White House reception celebrating LGBT Pride Month. Several hundred people were invited guests, including a few who have also spoken at Ithaca College in recent years such as Robyn Ochs and Shannon Minter.
It wasn’t the first time lesbian and gay people were invited to the White House. (That was in 1977).
It was the first in which a sitting president addressed the crowd by saying "Welcome to your White House." And, it was the first after a presidential proclamation had been signed announcing June 2009 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month. In it, President Obama also declares “I call upon the people of the United States to turn back discrimination and prejudice everywhere it exists.” Read the full text of the presidential proclamation.
During his remarks, President Obama evoked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and quipped “The truth is when these folks protested at Stonewall 40 years ago no one could have imagined that you -- or, for that matter, I -- would be standing here today.”
And all this made me think of something else – a connection of sorts. This summer, like many of our incoming first-year students, I’ve been reading President Obama’s book Dreams From My Father. The book is this year’s First Year Reading Initiative selection.
It’s the story of Barack Obama’s search to understand and honor his identity in a world not interested in messy ideas. A world usually rooted in simplistic understandings and binaries, without time to be bothered by all those ideas - and people - that do not so easily fit. The book poses many questions –
- What is family? Who is family?
- What is belonging? And who decides to where one belongs?
- What is community? How can it be reconciled with freedom?
- How do we transform power into justice? Sentiment into love?
And it covers much ground, both geographically and figuratively. From his stepfather’s compassion for a cross-dressing employee, to his own realizations as a young adult of ways “simple” solutions may be not applicable to much of the world, to the insidious ways racism and hate operate in the US and abroad, the book is filled with observations that dwell in all those messy places that can provoke complicated feelings.
Throughout its pages, there is an emphasis on outliers and outsiders. Indeed Obama describes himself at times in the book as an outlier, an outsider, and even a freak.
What does all this have to do with the White House reception? Perhaps everything. Especially when the President hosting the reception understands what it is like to feel like an outsider. What it's like to search and struggle to understand oneself, and to meditate on the meanings of belonging and identity.
Are things for LGBT and allied people difficult and complex, with so many disappointments and mixed messages along the way? No doubt. Do I have hope for a better tomorrow? You bet I do.
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