Annual Day of Dialogue seeks to inform about LGBTQ+ identity
April 14, 2017
The annual Day of Dialogue assemblies to raise awareness of and discuss LGBTQ+ rights took place on April 12. The assemblies ranged from students telling their stories to transgender activists speaking about their legal work surrounding trans rights. Due to the growing popularity of the event and the lack of space to allow all the classes that would like to attend the assemblies to come, the Brookline Interactive Group live streamed the event.
A-block: Telling our stories
The Roberts-Dubbs auditorium filled with students eager to hear their peers and faculty share their stories at the 2017 Day of Dialogue. The A-Block assembly consisted of six students and one teacher who spoke about their own experiences with gender and sexuality identity.
First to take the stage was senior Travis Morgan.
“He’s strong and a weightlifter, isn’t he the straightest person ever?” Morgan said, predicting the audience’s thoughts.
The rest of the speech was in second person in an attempt to make the audience understand what Morgan goes through every morning choosing what clothes to wear, the desired dress but the expected T-shirt, and the panic that seizes Morgan when stubble appears on their chin.
The next speaker was senior Maddie Emmerich, who spoke about her adventure with the gay side of Tinder and how she was afraid someone would find out. Emmerich said that Tinder ultimately helped her discover her bisexuality.
Following Emmerich was Nick Collins, a junior who feels that the high school accepted his bisexual identity more readily than his previous school in Illinois.
“When I moved here at the beginning of my junior year, I was swept off my feet by the incredibly supporting and welcoming LGBTQ community,” Collins said.
Following Collins, junior Chris Fontenot performed a poem titled “I’m me,” which said that many people may not like the way he acts or his sexual orientation, but that no matter what, he is still him.
“Yeah, you make think I act weird or dress a certain way, but that doesn’t give you the right to shut me down because you don’t like it,” said Fontenot.
Up next was senior Nick Lewitt who told his story of being bisexual. He compared coming out to kissing a girl, but a lot harder.
“If you get rejected kissing a girl, it’s a blow to the ego. If you get rejected coming out, it’s a blow to the head,” Lewitt said.
Lewitt also added some humor to his speech by explaining the irony of the saying “no homo” and how it can sometimes results in someone hiding their sexuality.
After the five students, ExCEL science teacher Amanda Lehman spoke about her own experience being lesbian and her transgender son. She compared her coming out story with her son’s and said her story feels like “old news.” Lehman said she agonized over how to tell her friends and family.
On the other hand, Lehman said her son showed tremendous courage. She told the story of when her son was at summer camp and he informed the camp director that he wanted to be called Jack, identified as male and should sit on the boys’ side of the bus.
The final speech of the morning came from senior Mercedes Paulino. Paulino came out not only to the entire school as bisexual, but also to her twin brother, who was in the audience.
Paulino revealed that coming out caused her so much stress that she attempted to commit suicide in March. Paulino said she has rebounded with therapy and wanted the audience to know that mental health is real, and to tell someone if you are struggling.
“Go talk to someone. Talk to me. Ask me questions; I won’t get offended,” Paulino said. “I’d rather you ask than assume. Go to a GSA meeting, even if it is just to listen.”
She reached out to the audience with her finale.
“Cry. Laugh. Scream if you have to. It could save your life, it saved mine,” Paulino said.
B-block: LGBTQ+ community leaders
The B-block assembly in the auditorium featured a panel of prominent LGBTQ+ leaders who spoke about their experiences as activists and encouraged students to be ambassadors for change.
Rebecca Perez from the high school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance introduced the assembly and gave each panelist a chance to introduce themselves at the podium.
First up was current Cambridge mayor Denise Williams, who is the first openly gay female mayor in the country. Next, Nick Teich, who founded and directs Camp Aranu’tiq for transgender youth, introduced himself. Also on the panel were Priscilla Lee, a teacher and community organizer; Benjamin Perkins, who works for the American Heart and Stroke Association and has done work with AIDS and HIV and Ellyn Ruthstrom, the director of LGBTQ speakers’ bureau Speak Out Boston.
Perez started off by asking the panel how their race, gender or sexual orientation affected their future. Lee said that when she was younger, she had a tough time being both Chinese American and bisexual, so she wanted to work somewhere where she felt safe.
Teich added that he first came out as a gay female, but felt as if he was missing something. When he told the camp he worked at that he was transitioning to male, the camp said he would not be a good role model for campers and that he was no longer allowed to work at the camp. Teich said he wanted transgender kids to be able to have a normal camp experience, which drove him to found Camp Aranu’tiq.
Simmons then addressed the audience with a question.
“How many in the room are activists?” Simmons asked. “How many of you have ever stood up for someone or against something that was wrong? I asked that question because more often than not, there’s an activist inside you.”
Ruthstrom added that she didn’t know she was bisexual when she was younger; she started identifying as a feminist when she was a teenager.
Perkins said that before he accepted his gay identity, he went through four years of conversion therapy. It didn’t work, instead he wound up hooking up with another guy in the program.
“Painful experiences in life can make you better or bitter,” Perkins said.
C-block: Chris Edwards
The C-block assembly in the auditorium featured Chris Edwards, prominent advertising executive, author and transgender speaker.
Edwards said that from the age of five, he knew he didn’t feel like a girl. He grew up praying every night that he would become a boy and everyone would realize that they were wrong, not him.
“Unfortunately, puberty hit and my body betrayed me in the worst possible way I could imagine,” Edwards said. “And I knew then that I was stuck; I was stuck inside this body that I hated and stuck being a girl for the rest of my life, and I became deeply, deeply depressed.”
According to Edwards, he realized that he liked girls in junior high and thought that he was gay. In retrospect, he said he realized that there is a difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. At the realization that he might be gay, Edwards said he felt traumatized, because in the 80’s, especially where he lived in Wayland, no one was openly gay or transgender. Edwards continued to struggle with his identity, which only intensified when he felt pressured to dress up and go to friends’ bar and bat mitzvahs.
“It was a miserable, miserable existence. It got to the point where I just couldn’t envision a future for myself, at least one in which I could be happy. So senior year in high school I made a decision: I was going to go to college and party it up for four years and kill myself after graduating,” Edwards said. “When you get to a point in your life when you don’t want to live it anymore, you basically have two choices. You can either end it or you can change it.”
Edwards said he feels fortunate to have a loving and eventually supportive family, which is not the case for most other transgender people. This is why, according to Edwards, the suicide attempt rate in transgenders is 50 percent.
Edwards said his therapist helped him realize that he could control how others see him. By changing how he acted, he shaped how others reacted. He described the steps of his journey transitioning as “Rebranding me,” “Evaluate the landscape,” “Rebranding myself, rebranding the whole category,” “Determine the message,” “Establish personality” and ”Develop a solid communication plan.”
The step “Develop a solid communication plan” consisted of coming out to his colleagues. He planned to come out using a technique in the advertising community known as “word of mouth advertising.” He came out to 12 friends and encouraged them to spread the word to everyone. His method worked, and by the next day most colleagues poured into his office with positive remarks. Not all the reactions were positive though; some people just ignored the news and others were negative.
Edwards said that at work, there were a few problems like which bathroom he would use. The “solution” was that every time he needed to use the bathroom, he had to walk blocks away from his office to use the only unisex bathroom close to the office.
The next step was the question of surgery. Edwards said that a lot of transgender people don’t have surgery for many reasons, but he always knew he wanted to go through with the surgery to feel “truly complete as a man.” He went through 22 surgeries to complete his transition.
“The most painful part of my journey wasn’t all the surgeries, it was the 25 years leading up to it when I had to pretend to be someone that I wasn’t. I had one long term goal when I started this journey and that was not to let my transition define me. I just wanted to get through it and be the man I always knew myself to be,” Edwards said. “It took time, as all successful rebranding campaigns do, but in the end I achieved that goal. I am not my parents’ transgender son. I am my parents’ son, Chris Edwards.”
F-block in the MLK room: asexuality 101
Students and teachers listened to a panel led by Dawn Ash and Madeleine Thomas Brackett about asexuality during F-block. Both Ash and Brackett are members of the New England Aces, an organization that raises awareness about asexuality and supports people who on the asexual spectrum in New England.
The panel started with two videos that gave a sense of the myths surrounding asexuality. In the first video, founder of the New England Aces David Jay was on a talk show trying to spread awareness of asexuality. The talk show hosts including Whoopi Goldberg challenged David Jay’s opinions on why asexuality is an important issue that society needs to talk about more.
“If you’re not having sex, then what’s there to talk about?” Goldberg said in the video.
The panel had plenty of things to say about asexuality and why awareness is important. A presentation was given on basic terms that are needed to discuss this topic such as asexual and demiromantic. According to the panel, asexuality is often overlooked because it is not represented in the term “LGBTQ” and because there is little awareness spread in society.
After the short presentation, the panel was open to questions of varying topics about asexuality and the speaker’s lives. One large topic that came up was about how health curriculums don’t go over asexuality and can instill fear in people who don’t experience sexual feelings or don’t want sexual feelings.
“In health curriculums, you are told, ‘This is going to happen to you. It is inevitable. You are going to develop these feelings,’ and I got really scared. This is going to happen to me? But I don’t want that to happen to me,” Ash said. “So I lived with this really unnecessary level of fear for years because I believed this thing was going to happen to me that I didn’t want, and that I was going to have these feelings for people I didn’t want.”
The panel also tried to debunk myths that abstinence and asexualism are linked. According to Dash, she plans on having kids even though she is asexual. She said that there is no correlation between being asexual and having kids. Many refrain from having kids for many different reasons, from not being financially stable to not wanting any in the first place.
According to Brackett, because asexuality is not very known to people, parents whose children come out as asexual often think that they are just “going through a phase” or “haven’t matured enough.” When asked what to do when someone questions your identity, Brackett responded by saying that you need to trust yourself to know you best.
“Someone is always going to think they know your identity better than you, but you just have to accept that I know who I am, and you might not believe me, but that’s okay,” Brackett said.
F-block in the auditorium: LGBQT homeless youth
The F-block assembly in the auditorium featured a panel of adults who work at the organization Youth on Fire and some of the teens they support. The room quickly switched from the chaos of hundreds of adolescents to a sympathetic space of listening.
The block kicked off with three young panelists named Karma, Junior and Kay sharing their stories. After a warm welcome of applause, Kay introducing Youth on Fire, for which she works, which she said services homeless and street-involved youth between the ages of 14 and 24.
She proceeded to talk about herself. She has been homeless for about one and a half years. She described her experience on the streets to the students.
“It’s been tough, living out on the streets, being a transgender anti-sexual and having to deal with homelessness on top of all of that. It’s very tough trying to survive on a day-to-day basis, in terms of getting food, finding a place to sleep, getting clothes, and dealing with the ridicule of other people on the streets,” Kay said.
Kay went on to speak about how difficult it really is to get off the streets.
The next speaker was Junior, who introduced himself with a smile.
“My name’s Junior, he him his, trans youth,” he said. He paused for a few seconds and then continued, “five weeks on T.”
Scattered applause quickly became the loudest of the hour in support of Junior’s journey. He said he felt that he best explained his journey and his struggles through music, so that was the way he told his story. He performed an acapella version of a song he wrote inspired by his experiences, comprised of eight verses.
“I want to be that inspiration for the kids that are like me,
So you tell it for the ones that aren’t easy to see,
And what it is that you go through the things you probably won’t believe.
Why don’t you come take a walk in my size seven Nikes,” were the first four lines of the second verse.
The next speaker was Karma, who has been transitioning from male to female for a year. According to Karma, her mother beat her with a belt multiple times. Karma’s mother was always after her to get a job, despite the fact that she had no disability or restriction, yet chose not to work.
She lived with her mother until last July, until she ran away to her uncle’s house after a “really bad fist fight.” Karma said she eventually left due to the high rent her uncle charged her, which kept her from saving up any money and trapped her in her current circumstances. She has been staying at a shelter and has applied for housing. Karma spoke very openly about an upcoming surgery and received supportive applause from the audience.
When Karma finished speaking, the managing editor, Katherine, and clinical coordinator for Youth on Fire spoke about how common homelessness is in LGBQT teenagers and young adults. According to Katherine, studies including the True Colors Fund and the Williams Institute indicate that LGBQT youth make up between six and 10 percent of all youth but make up 40 percent of homeless youth.
A Q&A followed the brief speeches.
E-block: Sharing our stories
The final block of the day was a Telling Our Stories assembly where students and staff spoke about their experiences surrounding gender and sexuality in deeply intimate and honest ways.
The first speaker was junior Emily Jack, who spoke in very charismatic and giddy tones about her experience as a lesbian and and about her girlfriend Alice Jennings, who is currently transitioning. She spoke about how she had crushes on boys in middle school but how she couldn’t control herself from crying after kissing them, which is when she realized she had to do some serious thinking.
“Boys are fine, but girls are really fine!” she emphasized, making the whole audience laugh. “They’re pretty, and smart and nice.”
Jack talked about her girlfriend’s transition from non-binary to female, and how she is supporting her through it but it is also not easy. Jack drew a huge round of applause for her candor and charisma.
The next speaker was sophomore Vera Targoff, who said that the show “Glee” and its lesbian couple showed her that a woman could be lesbian but also be girly and feminine, which hadn’t occurred to her before.
Targoff then spoke about how when she came to the high school, at one point a friend came up to her and told her there was a rumor spreading around that Targoff was bisexual; the girl offered to shut the rumor down but Targoff was confused as to why, as she was never trying to hide it but she never felt the need to tell the world either. After this incident, Targoff posted an Instagram picture with a caption describing her sexuality and her belief that it didn’t define every single aspect of her.
“The gender of the person you love should not determine anything except for the person you love,” Targoff said.
The third speaker was Steps to Success adviser Tony Wells, who came on stage and started belting out the song “Brave” by Sara Bareilles, which had the whole audience clapping along.
Wells spoke about how being Black affected him just as much as being a gay man, and that those two in combination left him eternally in the corner. He said that all of the faces of the gay movement were white and handsome, and since he didn’t fit those characteristics, he was “made to be kept in the hole.” Wells ended by telling the audience to trust themselves and that they matter, as well as coming back to the point that you can not separate your identities.
“I will always be Black, I will always be gay and I will always be proud of being Black and gay,” Wells said.
Grace Hannibal, the next speaker, talked about her asexuality and the stigma surrounding it. She also spoke about how she still deeply loves and cares for her friends; she said she is not incapable of connecting with humans, she just doesn’t feel sexual or romantic feelings towards any person.
“My name is Grace Hannibal, I am asexual and aromantic, I love animals, and my favorite color is green and I am not broken,” she said fiercely.
Paul Lauro-Priestly, the copy center teacher, spoke about his youth in the seventies. When he walked into the high school cafeteria, students would shout “queer,” “faggot” and “gay” at him, and one day he had had enough and asked a teacher to tell them to stop. The coach replied by saying, “Well you do act kind of funny,” and Lauro-Priestly remembered being infuriated.
Later in high school he joined a band and was less bullied; he realized this was because being a “musician” was a box the other students could put him in, it was more socially acceptable to be a musician than gay.
Lauro-Priestly ended his speech by emphasizing love.
“I combat all forms of hate and oppression with love,” Lauro-Priestley said. “I hope my words encourage everyone to combat hate, prejudice and oppression with love.”
Junior Biaja Milton read an original poem entitled “The Ride” about the secret love she harbors for a girl and wishes she could share.
“A dream,” Milton said with hope at the conclusion of her poem that described her isolation from her family and church and the worry she has about offending her friends. “No longer being scared of being looked down upon. Maybe she’ll realize the love I have for her is unexplainable.”
Senior Dhamiril Nunez spoke about being gay in the Dominican Republican and how it is not an acceptable thing. Nunez also spoke about his father and his womanizing ways, describing a highly sexualized culture.
“When I came out to my sister, she said ‘No.’ One day, I was holding my arm in the air and my mother said to put it down because I looked gay. Whenever people asked me if I was gay I would get angry because I felt like they were dissing my masculinity.”
Nunez said that not learning from ignorance is what differentiates between what makes someone an ally or an enemy.
The last speaker of the day was Jennings, the girlfriend of Jack (first speaker). Jennings spoke about how growing up in England, she didn’t get along with the boys or the girls in her class. Jennings said she thought she was just a shy boy. Junior year, Jennings said she was out as non-binary but still did not feel completely comfortable.
She thanked Jack for her unconditional support, which has kept her optimistic about her future as a trans woman, and addressed audience members.
“You should stick around,” Jennings said. “We are a community of people who love our bodies through our faults and our genders for all of their complexities.”
D-block: Trans politics
During the D-block assembly, transgender activists Mason Dunn and Chastity Bowick spoke the legal work they do to obtain more rights for transgender people.
Dunn, the executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, spoke first. He said the coalition was originally started because of the lack of focus on trans rights within LGBTQ work. The organization started off with local ordinances but later moved to a state-wide focus on helping trans people.
Dunn said he has been fighting for full protection under Massachusetts law for trans people since 2001, when the state passed laws that provided trans people with partial protection, neglecting to cover the topic of public accommodations such as bathrooms.
According to Dunn, despite public accommodations being given to trans people in 2015, some people in Massachusetts still struggle to fully accept trans people, so the fight is not over. Dunn said that in the last couple of months, the country has regressed in terms of trans rights, particularly with youth.
“Federally, our government under this new administration in the White House has unfortunately worked to roll back trans guidance, particularly in schools,” Dunn said.
Bowick, the AIDS Action Transgender Health Coordinator for the TransCEND program, spoke next. Bowick works with African-American, trans women to help them throughout their transitions with changing names, applying for benefits and everything else that comes with this difficult process.
Bowick said that the most difficult part for her is the the intersectionality that she faces between race and gender. She said that being both Black and trans, she faces conflict from many different sides. Bowick said that in her Black community, she is seen by some as the bottom of the barrel.
According the Bowick, people must come together to stand as allies of the trans community and realize that more can always be done.
“I can’t do it alone. Mason can’t do it alone. Right now, we are in a critical, critical stage within this political climate. Yes, in Massachusetts, we are better than some other states, but as a trans women of color, I have to be cautious as I leave this state. So yes, I have these protections in Massachusetts, but I should not be confined to Massachusetts.”