Cook: My heroes are gay, disabled and obese

Cook: My heroes are gay, disabled and obese

August 15th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

This column is dedicated to each and every Hamilton County high school student who doesn't fit in.

School began five days ago. For some, the August-to-May calendar feels more like survival than education, especially if you are a student who is not attracted to the opposite sex, or whose body doesn't work or look the way you wish it did.

So if you are gay, disabled or obese, I'd like to add another word to your identity: hero.

"National research tells us that the populations of students that are disproportionately targeted for bullying are gay and lesbian, obese and disabled students," said Karen Glenn, STARS executive director who oversees Hamilton County's anti-bullying programming.

As a teen, enduring the violence of taunts and threats is heroic work. Obese teenagers suffer higher rates of suicidal depression. Gay teens are five times more likely to commit suicide, recent studies show.

"Our schools are focused on having safe environments," Glenn said. "We train school personnel to recognize the signs and respond quickly."

Bullying can cause alienated teens to create a survival map of sorts: which hallways are safe, which students are not, which teachers are allies and which turn a blind eye.

How to dodge words as poisonous as rattlesnakes.

"I was told I would die and go to hell. I've had death threats before," said Loxley Landrum, 15, and openly gay. Loxley, who used to attend Loftis Middle, told me during our phone interview that she was called "a faggot" while at school.

"It was torturous," said her mother, Beana Landrum. "We sought counseling. We switched schools."

To counteract bullying, many U.S. schools have created Gay-Straight Alliances. Designated as a club, GSAs allow gay and straight kids to form community, solidarity and understanding.

By the end of the year, there ought to be a GSA in every school in Hamilton County.

Twice last week I emailed the nine Hamilton County school board members, asking their opinion about the idea. I heard from only one.

"Any form of bullying is unacceptable," said District 6 board member Joe Galloway. "In all of my years in education, I have never had student or parent address this issue ... with me."

I wonder what our city's church leaders would say.

"Jesus didn't say jack about homosexuality," said the Rev. Brad Rice. "As a matter of fact, he welcomed everybody to the table."

Rice, who grew up gay in a hostile Southern Baptist home, is the pastor of The Rock Metropolitan Community Church, a Rossville Boulevard church with more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Christians than straight believers. A pastor there for 14 months, Rice gracefully articulates his own journey from religious exclusion to being a beloved - and gay - child of God.

"No one can take away my deeply rooted belief in the radical inclusive and radical hospitable love of God," he said. "My experience with God has been one of wholeness and healing."

One of Rice's congregants is trying to heal our city. I'll call her Zoe, as she asked me not to print her name. She's involved in litigation over losing her job because of sexual discrimination.

No laws in Tennessee protect workers from being fired for their sexual orientation. (I spoke with at least two Chattanoogans who have lost jobs, they believe, because their boss discovered they were gay.)

Starting a few weeks ago, Zoe plopped open her Yellow Pages of Chattanooga, thumbed to the section on "Churches," picked up her phone and began calling every single church in our city.

By my count, that's 563 churches.

"I invited them to spend one day together in fellowship," she said. "Regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, let's have one day where we can accept each other."

It's called Hands Across the Lake. Beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27, at Lake Winnepesaukah and lasting until the end of the day, the event will offer speakers, free food and live music.

As of last week, Zoe couldn't name 10 churches that had agreed to come.

But they should. There should be miles of Christians lined up for the Cannonball roller coaster that Saturday. Because every human in this city - gay, straight, obese, star athlete, disabled or deaf - should never, not once, feel like a leper, an outcast for being who they are.

"I want them to know there is support. I embrace them fully as they are," said Rice. "This is not a Miss America answer. I mean every word."

Maybe that's what it means to be a hero: saying such words, and also believing them.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.