Cathy Renna

Back to High School for a Day

Filed By Cathy Renna | April 08, 2008 8:08 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Brooklyn, lesbian activist, LGBT youth, social justice, teaching, youth groups

I graduated from high school in 1983 (don't strain yourself, I am turning 43 later this week). So when I ventured to speak at a high school class in Bushwick yesterday as part of their "Social Justice Awareness Week," I wasn't sure what to expect. Anyone who works with me know I can never say "no" to requests like this, so when the folks at Live Out Loud, a terrific youth group in NYC called and asked, I agreed. Then I got on Mapquest to figure out where I was going.....

Bushwick is a pretty tough part of my home borough of Brooklyn. As my intern and I went through the metal detectors and had a school police officer give us directions and escort us to the elevator, I realized high school is a very different place than when I was there. And I was about to go talk about being a lesbian activist. For someone who regularly battles anti-gay activists on television I admit I was more nervous than walking into Bill O'Reilly's studio.

It was pretty much what I expected - a raucous, somewhat confrontational and tough group of kids. But underneath the tough exterior there was a great deal of savvy and understanding about diversity issues in general, and LGBT issues in particular. The school has a Queer-Straight Student Alliance and one out lesbian student came into the class to see how it all went down.

Yes, there were a heck of a lot of very, ahem, personal questions. But I expected that - isn't what our lives are like really what people want to know about? I think having a sense of humor and not getting (or even feeling) defensive went a long way.

So we talked about the transgender man having a baby (these kids watch Oprah) as well as how my wife and I created our family. I drew the line at questions about my sex life - but only because they wouldn't tell me about theirs first. Turnabout is not only fair play, but a wonderful way to demonstrate a double standard.

One young man in particular, who confronted me about my non-gender conforming appearance (he thought I was a guy at first) gave me the chance to bring up stereotypes. As a young black man in a baseball cap and hoodie who has people make assumptions about him all the time, he soon realized we had more in common than he thought. By the middle of the session, as we told our coming out stories, he was the first to pipe up that a parent rejecting their child because they are LGBT is "so not cool," and if his kid came out they would "always be my kid and I would love them." If that isn't progress I do not know what is, folks.

One young woman in particular really seemed to have a problem with LGBT people, in a very not nice way, either. She confronted my intern Ben when he said he had always been attracted to men. "What if a gorgeous blonde girl walked in the room right now, you wouldn't even look?" she asked. He was a bit flustered but I saved him. "I think he'd be a good intern and send her my way," I said. We all got a much needed laugh and even she smiled at the response.

I made sure to do two things while I was there. One, I showed them a picture of my daughter. It was a way to make real my life and my family and as the picture was passed around, I could see change in their faces as they saw me not as a dyke in jeans and boots, but a Mom. The second thing I did was pass out my business card. I very specifically made sure my last words to them were that these kinds of conversations are very important but also can be hard - and if anyone had a question they did not feel safe asking in front of the class they could call or email me. You could have heard a pin drop. And the teachers were a bit shocked - then came up and thanked me, congratulating me on handling a rather tough crowd. It was exhausting - emotionally and physically - and it gave me a whole new respect for teachers. But if we do whatever we can to have these conversations we'll see more understanding, less bias and more respect for our differences.

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Cathy Renna Cathy Renna | April 8, 2008 8:21 AM

the last few words on this post were lost, should be:

But if we do whatever we can to have these conversations we'll see more understanding, less bias and more respect for our differences.

Congrats on handling a tough situation with grace, calm, and intelligence. I came out about 1-1/2 years ago after a long marriage, and I've also seen signs in my kids and their peers that acceptance of alternate lifestyles has broadened considerably in my lifetime. I applaud your work with the kids and wish you the best!



I've had a few experiences like your young man in the hoodie too, Cathy. Sometimes when we speak to groups like this, the kids really shock you. Some of the nice "normal" looking ones are the most homophobic, while the "crazy" or "gang bangers" who are "supposed" to be homophobic actually aren't.

Great post and it sounds like you would be an amazing teacher. The way you deflected questions but also opened yourself up to these students will really have a strong impact on them, probably even more that you will expect.

Coming from someone who was out while teaching, it was not the easiest thing to deal with sometimes. In the end, teaching students that came from rural parts of Indiana that being gay isn't a reason for hate, was far more rewarding than the occasional pain and stress.

I did that a few times at an Adventist college in Eastern Washington. It's interesting to see how people react to it.

diddlygrl | April 8, 2008 1:51 PM

Kids can be a tough crowd.

The group I am in regularly does outreach to the schools in our area on trans issues. There are still areas around here though where it is just not accepted to be gender varient. In the county just north of us, a mother had to pull her daughter out of the school when she came out. The princibal would not allow her transdaughter to dress in feminine clothing. She also faced harrasment by some of her fellow students.

Someone who I used to have group therapy with, worked at a private school in the Austin area. Eventually the harrasment she faced from the students contributed to her commiting suicide.

Yep, kids can be a tough crowd.

John R. Selig | April 8, 2008 1:57 PM

Great story Cathy! When we share our stories on a personal level it is much harder to demonize us. As I always say that it is much harder to hate somebody you know or love than a stereotype. As we come out to family, friends, coworkers and even strangers and share our stories we become real and not just people demonized on Fox News and by the religious fundamentalists.

Our foes hate it when we come out and share our stories because they know the more we do so the faster we will become accepted by society and the faster they will lose the battle in denying us our rights.

Those that know me are aware that I have been substitute teaching in the public schools in Dallas, Texas since the middle of January. It has been one of the most eye opening experiences in my life. I have written about it and delivered a 20 minute commentary on my experience on a recent episode of my John Selig Outspoken podcast. Anybody who would like a copy, feel free to email me at [email protected] I have been out to all teachers and administrators.

What is taking place in our schools is tragic. Just last week statistics were released showing that the average graduation rate at for high schools in the top 50 cities in the U.S. is only 50%! that means that 50% drop out. the graduation rate nationally is only 70%. Our society is failing our kids and we are not preparing them to survive and succeed in the world. It is no surprise that 1 out of 100 adults in the U.S. is in prison. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world!

One of the reasons that you were so well received, Cathy, is that you took the time to speak WITH the students and not AT them. High school students have it difficult today (all of the and the LGBT ones have it even tougher). Many are treated like prisoners in schools. They are told what to do and what not to do. Nobody asks for their input and few listen to them to hear what they are facing in their lives.

Thanks for sharing your story. You impacted more lives than you will ever know.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | April 8, 2008 7:58 PM

Great job, Cathy!!!

I've done a lot of public speaking and like you, I've found it exhilarating, inspirational, and exhausting!

I never thought of ending that way, though. Brillian idea!!! Next time.

Photos are a great way to connect as a human being, you are absolutely correct. I take part in PFLAG panels that go to elementary through college classes. Regardless of the age of the students, they examine the pixels off of my family photos.

I also sometimes pass around my domestic partnership card when I talk about my spouse. It's a great way to bring up legal inequities. Most students are shocked to realize that anyone needs to carry a card to prove their legal relationship.

You're a brave soul to pass out personal contact info. I'm surprised a school hasn't called you one that, actually. The alternative I use is to write PFLAG.ORG on the board, and let people know that help can be found through that website. ANother trick is to write the phone number of the local LGBT center on the board, and before doing anything else tell students to write that in their notebooks. If they all write it before knowing what it is for, there is no embarrassment in being seen writing it later.

Cathy, way to go! That took courage but I'm sure the difference you made in those kid's understanding made it all worth it.

Marc, I realize that you have only recently come out so you may not realize that "alternate lifestyle" is an outdated and inaccurate terminology for at least two reasons. First, homosexuality, sexual orientation and even sexual behavior are not a lifestyle and second, "alternate lifestyle" or "alternative lifestyle" suggests that homosexuality is an alternative for straight people. This misconception is why many people don't understand homosexuality. They think that homosexuals are just heterosexuals who are being naughty and engaging in an alternative to their natural sexuality (or as THEY call it "lifestyle").

Just thought you might be wanna know.