THE BUZZ 3: Culture of Acceptance

By on November 29, 2016

Students tackling social justice send a message to the community.

(Left to right): Students George Gervais, Will Kucera and David Gordon review the flyer they created for the LGBTQ+ Pride Party. (Photo: Kate Schelbe)

(Left to right): Students George Gervais, Will Kucera and David Gordon review the flyer they created for the LGBTQ+ Pride Party. (Photo: Kate Schelbe)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Since the beginning of the school year eighth graders at Journeys School have been working on their capstone service project with Parents and Family of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). This partnership is helping to illuminate the myriad struggles young members of the LGBTQ+ community face. The culmination of their work, the LGBTQ+ Pride Party, is 5 p.m. Friday at the Journeys School.

Young people in rural areas across the country crave the visibility and support that events like these can afford. A recent study in the journal Families and Society included interviews with 34 gender and sexual minority youth in nonmetropolitan areas. The primary desire amongst these young people was a “reduction in isolation.” They also wished for greater “social acceptance and visibility; emotional support and safety; and gender and sexual minority identity development.”

In the past, Journeys students have worked with organizations such as The Doug Coombs Foundation and The Teton Raptor Center. This year, however, the class was compelled to address a social justice issue.

Mary Muromcew and Connor Lang are among the students who planned Friday’s event.

“LGBTQ+ youth need more help [in Jackson],” Muromcew said. As a member of the queer community, Muromcew says that isolation and silence are common experiences for many who “don’t see a hugely visible LGBTQ+ community.” A lack of observable support, Muromcew noted, “can cause people to be very quiet in expressing themselves.” This can compound the experience of solitude.

Lang says that throughout the planning of the event, he became more cognizant of the lack of awareness around the experiences of young sexual minorities in town. “There isn’t much recognition for young people in this town and even country,” he said. “In places like Jackson, there is a lot of heteronormativity, and a lot of people feel hurt by that and want to see that they are supported and accepted.”

Muromcew defines heteronormativity as the “tacit assumption that everyone is a heterosexual, cisgender person.” This assumption implicitly suggests that to be otherwise is abnormal. Pervasive heteronormativity can “frighten people into silence, and stints the questioning of identity,” Muromcew said.

In Jackson, and other small, rural towns, there is the risk of the “monotone of heteronormativity drowning out the LGTBQ+ voices that speak out,” Muromcew added. Highlighting those that resist the assumptions of heteronormativity provides space for people who are also gender or sexual minorities, or who are questioning their identities.

Muromcew, Lang, and their classmates “thought that partnering with PFLAG would help shine a light on a group of people that needs more positive attention” and help empower the voices of those who may feel alone. Most in Jackson are accepting and open, Muromcew said, but they need to be exposed to a community that often goes unseen.

“Celebrating the LGBTQ+ community is important in Jackson, as it is anywhere, to ensure all people are welcomed and accepted for who they are,” said Kate Schelbe, a Spanish teacher and head capstone faculty at Journeys School.

As a long-time coordinator of PFLAG, and advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance at Jackson Hole High School, Mark Houser understands the importance of making sure young people who do not identify as straight or cisgender know their rights and where to go for support. The experience of these young people can be particularly challenging in this community, Houser said, when “it can be difficult to assess where the safe places are in their schools and communities.” Houser believes that events like those planned by Journeys School students can help expand the base of knowledge around the resources, support, and safe spaces available for LGBTQ+ people in town.

In recent years, there have been advances in the protections for sexual and gender minorities in both the town and state. In 2014 Jackson became the first town in Wyoming to offer protections based on sexual or gender identity to town employees. In addition, Jackson was one of four towns in the state to introduce non-discrimination resolutions in 2015. The Jackson Town Council is considering implementing tenant rights that would ban discrimination based on gender or sexual identity.

But despite shifts in acceptance over the last decade, there is work to be done. “Social justice change comes when our citizenry is informed and energized,” Houser said. An informed citizenry, he noted, can work for greater protections in legislation, and also continue the increased acceptance for LGBTQ+ issues.

Houser says now is an urgent time to continue this work during a time in the country when “the potential of [LGBTQ+] rights being suppressed is a reality.” In regard to the presidential election, Houser says that some youth are afraid they will experience a diminishment of their rights just as they’re stepping into adulthood. This fear is founded. Homophobia seems to have already been emboldened and justified since the election. On the Facebook page of a Wyoming woman, an acquaintance wrote: “If you get killed for being queer it won’t be because of Trump, it will because of the lifestyle you have decided to live…Hopefully Trump will bring America back to greatness and put you back in the closet where you belong.”

Fear will not quiet Journeys School students, however. If anything, Muromcew says the election energized the eighth grade class to become more aware of the silence and lack of visibility that the LGBTQ+ community faces, and to work to combat the isolation.

Join Journeys School students 5 p.m. Friday, December 2 to celebrate and learn about the young LGBTQ+ members of Jackson’s community. This free event includes food, drinks, speakers, and a screening of three shorts from the movie Insights: Queer Youth Defining Our Future. PJH

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