[Written as part of the Write Your Principal project. Thanks to Katie for her wonderful editing suggestions on two drafts of this piece. This is getting mailed out to Viz tomorrow. So any of you who are connected with the school still are therefore probably seeing this before the principal does.]
November 15, 2010
Mary Ellen Schraeder, Upper School Principal
Visitation Academy of St. Louis
3020 North Ballas Road
Saint Louis, Missouri 63131
Dear Ms. Schraeder:
I am an alum of Visitation Academy, having attended the school from fifth grade through my senior year, graduating in 1991. I am also a proud part of the lesbian/ gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) community.
I have always been incredibly grateful to Viz for the caliber of education that I received there. Your top-notch faculty prepared me for college in a way that I would have been hard-pressed to get at most other high schools in the St. Louis area. I still have fond memories of many of the teachers I had during my years there – Susan Scarpinato, Laura McCord, Dan Monahan, Rita White, Sr. Isabel Clark, Sr. Mary Ann Aubin, Sr. Karen Mohan, Marilyn Fitzgerald, Janet Parsons, and, even though I never had her as a teacher, Mev Puleo. These faculty members gave me academic and critical thinking skills that still serve me today – and many gave me a degree of personal attention that showed how deeply they cared not only for me as an individual but for their students as a whole.
Since graduating from Viz, I have earned an undergraduate degree in International Studies from Vassar College and a Masters Degree in Women’s Studies from George Washington University. I now work as the Grants Manager for the National AIDS Fund in Washington, DC. I also have several published essays and op-eds and one scholarly journal article to my name and am working a book manuscript that I hope to publish in 2011 or 2012.
While the school helped prepare me for the rest of my academic and professional life, however, socially Viz was a much harder place. During my first year at the school, I had no friends at all and often ate lunch at a table alone in the cafeteria. It wasn’t until seventh grade, with the influx of new girls, that I had more than one friend. We were the unpopular students who loved classes, enjoyed learning, made good grades, didn’t drink or do drugs, and had no athletic skills to speak of. Even with this small group of friends, however, I felt somehow separate.
Such semi-isolation would have been easier to deal with if I wasn’t under the constant impression that most of my classmates hated me. I was definitely different from most of them in multiple ways: I was politically liberal, I started identifying openly as a feminist in sixth grade, I didn’t date boys or wear makeup, I was against the first Gulf War, and I stopped shaving my legs and armpits during my senior year. Luckily, I was never physically threatened while at Viz. But there were multiple times where my outsiderness made me the target of name-calling, derision, and ostracism. From my first days in Core 5, I felt separate from my peers, and that feeling continued through the time I graduated. Socially and, especially, emotionally, Viz was not a safe place for me.
I am writing to ask you to take proactive steps to protect the lesbian, bisexual, trans (transgendered), and questioning students who are at Viz today. I am sending this letter, first, in response to my own experiences. Actions such as those I describe below would have created a more open, accepting environment and would have helped me immeasurably.
The second, and much more compelling, reason that I am writing to you is my concern for your current students. As I’m sure you’re aware, the suicides this fall of over a half-dozen gay youth have received much mainstream media attention. The most recent was a boy in Pennsylvania who took his own life on November 5 by walking to an interstate thirteen miles from his home and throwing himself in front of a tractor trailer truck. These boys, who ranged in age from 13 to 19 years old, all killed themselves after repeated incidents of bullying by their schoolmates. In most of these instances, the schools had received multiple reports of the harassment against these students and either did nothing to protect them or denied that anyone had reported the harassment.
The bullying that these boys faced is far from isolated. For instance, according to the 2009 National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network:
- 89% of the 7,200 participating LGBT student respondents heard “gay” used in a negative way;
- 63% heard derisive remarks about their gender expression (not being “feminine enough” or “masculine enough”);
- 85% were verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation and 64% because of their gender expression;
- 53% were harassed or threatened by peers via electronic media;
- 61% of students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 40% felt unsafe because of their gender expression;
- 29% skipped at least one class in the month before the survey because they felt unsafe, and 30% missed at least one entire day for the same reason; and
- LGBT students who were frequently harassed had GPAs almost half a grade lower than students who were harassed less frequently (2.7 vs. 3.1, respectively).
These numbers are backed up by my own research, and they demonstrate that many, many LGBT youth have a significantly worse time in school than I did. Such statistics bear shocking witness to the gravity of the problem facing LGBT students in US middle and high schools.
Although our culture has changed somewhat since I was a student, I have no doubt that there are lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning youth at Viz right now who are being harassed and ostracized by their peers and that occasionally such hatred takes physical forms. These bullied students are at very high risk for self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse, self-mutilation, cutting classes, skipping school, unsafe sex, unplanned pregnancy, and suicide – not because they are or may be lesbian, bisexual, or trans but because they are in a socially and emotionally unsafe environment that leaves them isolated, lonely, and depressed.
Therefore, I am writing to ask you to take proactive steps to protect your lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students. It is necessary for Viz to create an environment where all kinds of differences are respected. This includes not just differences of race, class, and religion (all of which were emphasized when I was there), but differences of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Passively hoping that such openness will happen by itself is not optimistic but is instead insufficient and ineffective.
Viz needs to promote actively this respect through assemblies, workshops, and course material. This does not mean teaching that the Catholic Church “promotes” homosexuality or bisexuality; we all know that that is far from the truth. What it does mean is activities such as the following:
- Including overt mentions of lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgender in assemblies on diversity;
- Talking about the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans individuals in classes such as history, art, drama, literature, and science;
- Discussing how “abstinence only until marriage” sex education curricula affect students who can never get civilly or religiously married to their partners;
- Including sexual orientation and gender identity in the school’s non-discrimination policy and making sure that all students, faculty members, and staff know of that inclusion;
- Including uncensored information on Viz’s lesbian, bisexual, and trans alums in The Visitor;
- Punishing students who are guilty of bullying and working with them to find better ways of dealing with the difficulties in their lives;
- Protecting, nurturing, and helping the healing process of your bullied lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students; and
- Supporting your students in the establishment of a Gay/Straight Alliance – not for the discussion of sex but so that the club members can help each other cope with the harassment and ostracism that they face.
Such actions have proven over and over again to be a tremendous help to LGBT and questioning students throughout the country. Although I was not out while I was there, such changes would have made the school environment much more comfortable for me and would have made my experience there so much happier than it was. Much more importantly, all of these actions will help your current lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students feel welcome and included in the Viz community. They can be couched in some of the basic Christian principles that you teach:
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- Let that person who is without sin cast the first stone.
- Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers or sisters, that you do unto me.
Today, I am a happy, loving and well-loved individual who has a life partner and who tries to make the world a better place in both my personal and my professional lives. I still smart from some of my experiences at Viz, however, and am bitter that the school did not create a more inclusive, welcoming atmosphere during my years there. In fact, if I had to do it over again, I would choose to go to another school with a larger student body in the hopes that that school would be more diverse, inclusive, and progressive – even if that meant sacrificing some of the fantastic Viz education that I received.
I hope that Viz can create a plan to help its lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students. In fostering a more open, healthy environment for them, you will create a better school experience for all Vivettes.
Further resources on how to create such an environment can be found at any of the following websites:
- The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (especially this page);
- The Safe Schools Coalition (especially this page); and
- Teaching Tolerance (especially this page);
I look forward to hearing how Viz plans to become a safe school for its lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students. I would be more than happy to talk with you in greater detail about my experiences at Viz and the ways that you can help other students have a better, happier experience there than I did. Feel free to contact me at any time via phone or e-mail.
On behalf of Viz’s current and former lesbian, bisexual, trans, and questioning students, I thank you so much for your time and consideration.
Shannon E. Wyss, ‘91
My partner Katie, my mom, my sister, and i went to see “Billy Elliot” on Broadway when we were up in New York City this week. It’s a show i’ve wanted to see since it opened – not only because i loved the movie back in 2000 but because i’ve been volunteering with gender non-conforming (hereinafter, GNC) kids for the last two-and-a-half years.
The play did not disappoint. The music is great. The plot is gripping (if somewhat predictable), and the dancing is out of this world. And, really, it is the dancing that makes “Billy Elliot” what it is and is the play’s raison d’être. It’s amazing to see adults be able to dance like that. But to see those sorts of movements come out of the body of a pre-teen is truly amazing. The boys who play Billy have more grace and coordination in their pinky fingers than i do in my entire body. The Billy whom we saw, Alex Ko, left me almost literally breathless sometimes. I would pay to watch him dance any day.
What surprised me, though, is exactly how GNC Billy is not. I’m sure it’s the same in the movie, but i don’t remember the details of the film that much, nine or so years after i saw it. Yes, Billy loves ballet and clearly isn’t into boxing. But that’s about it. Other than that, he’s pretty much a “normal” boy. He lacks the characteristics of many of the GNC natal males whom i volunteer with – the lisp, talking with his hands, being obsessed with princesses or frills or pink, the desire to wear girls’ clothes, overt gentleness, being very quiet, etc. Billy is clearly a boy who loves to dance, not a GNC kid who may or may not be trans. There is, in fact, not a hint of transness about him at all.
This isn’t a bad thing, of course, especially since his character helps open up a space for otherwise “normal” boys to be ballet or tap dancers. But i expected something different, being “surrounded” by the kids that i’m with now. Their selves have obscured my memories of Billy in the film.
There is, of course, Billy’s best friend, Michael, who has a smaller but still important role in the play than in the movie. Michael is most likely gay (it’s not stated but very, very strongly implied that, if he’s not gay, he’s bisexual or questioning) and overtly cross-dresses. In fact, Michael has an entire song about the joys of cross-dressing for boys – including dressing up himself, getting Billy dressed up, and both of them dancing with oversized dresses and skirts. This is quite likely the only song in any musical that truly celebrates male children cross-dressing. It’s quite remarkable.
Also contributing to Billy’s gender conformity is his reaction to discovering Michael cross-dressed. While Billy isn’t disgusted, he’s quite clearly shocked and taken aback. And when Michael starts dressing Billy, Billy is initially quite reluctant to partake. Eventually, however, Billy himself comes to see the fun in wearing girls’ clothes and seems to enjoy it as much as Michael does. This one number serves to affirm boys’ cross-dressing in a way that perhaps nothing else on Broadway does and left Katie and me literally cheering for “my” GNC boys and others like them.
Michael himself does not cross-dress in public and, when around other characters, presents as a “normal,” gender-conforming boy with none of the other overtly GNC characteristics of some of the boys whom i know. This aspect of Michael’s character, however, is certainly very true to the experiences of some GNC boys who keep their gender non-conformity at home and confined merely to clothes, not letting it (or not wanting it to) leak out into other aspects of their person.
“Billy Elliot” is, in some ways, a great commentary on masculinity. Billy comes from a working class family of miners in England. His mother died before the play starts, and he lives with his grandmother, older brother, and father. The latter two both work in the mines and are on strike against Margaret Thatcher’s anti-mining union policies. Billy’s father and brother conform unquestioningly to traditional, working class notions of what it means to be a man. Billy’s desire to – and tremendous talent in – dancing throws into question what “masculinity” means for them. Both father and brother have a very difficult time initially accepting Billy’s dancing and do everything they can to thwart Billy’s talents and desires, wanting him to grow up into what they consider “real” men. (There is, in fact, one very funny scene in Act II when Billy’s father meets an adult male ballet dancer and notices how big the dancer’s penis, seen through his tights, is compared to his own.) Both father and brother eventually come to embrace Billy’s love of dance and support him in his quest to pursue his passion. Billy’s lack of other feminine characteristics makes it easier, undoubtedly, for them to accept him as both a dancer and a boy/man. If Billy would be a flaming gay child, things would likely have gone not nearly so well for him. But the struggle of Billy’s father and brother to accept him mirrors that of many, many (especially male) relatives of GNC and trans natal males.
In some ways, the biggest problem with “Billy Elliot” is that it is yet another example of hero-izing boys and men who do things that girls and women do all the time. Yes, boys and men certainly aren’t supposed to dance, which is exactly what makes Billy so unique and forms the central tension of the plot. But when girls and women dance as well as Billy does, they do not receive the same level of recognition that boys and men do. And this pattern repeats itself over and over again in our culture – with cooking, painting, nursing, teaching, etc. All of these are supposed to be “women’s” fields. But it is generally only the excelling men who get extra recognition. “Cooks” are assumed to be women, but “chefs” are men. Women and girls “do art,” but the image of “sculptors” and “painters” is more often than not an accomplished adult man. Women teach elementary school; college professors are assumed to be men until proven otherwise. So “Billy Elliot” fits quite nicely into the realm of lionizing men who enter a “woman’s” profession and excel in a way that a woman is assumed to be unable to do. As a feminist, this is troubling, to say the least.
But as a queer feminist, “Billy Elliot” is also fantastic. That can’t be denied. Despite its few problems, this is a wonderful musical that may help, in whatever small way, open us the world just a little more to boys out there.
I would highly recommend “Billy Elliot.” Even if it doesn’t present an image of feminine boyhood, its lessons of acceptance of a (slightly) different way of being a boy is laudable, especially in this age of backlash against LGBT rights and against the loosening of childhood gender norms. If you can’t make it to London, Broadway, or Chicago, keep an eye out for a roadshow to come to your area.
One note of caution: while the play has no violence and no sexual content, it is full of language. It very truthfully reproduces the way that people speak, especially in a “non-refined” community of miners and their families who don’t buy into upper-class notions of “appropriate” language. If you can think of a bad word that’s commonplace, you’re going to hear it in this play – and probably multiple times, both spoken and sung, and used by adults and children, boys and girls. There is a sign on the box office recommending that no one under the age of 8 be taken to see the play for this reason. Each parent needs to decide for hirself when this may be appropriate for hir child(ren). But needless to say, your child is not going to go “Billy Elliot” `and hear “Sesame Street”-type vocabulary.
Also, the heroes of this play are striking mineworkers. Before you take your kids to see this show, definitely explain to them the basics of unions and strikes. They also need to understand what a “scab” is and what difficult decisions strikebreakers face as they choose to cross a picket line. You may also want to explain who Margaret Thatcher was since she figures prominently in the play, especially in the opening to Act II. “Billy Elliot” doesn’t occur in a political, class, or economic vacuum. And to understand both the action of the musical and the motivations of various characters, some basic understanding of unions, strikes, and scabs is critical.
Oh, and among the most often-used British-isms in the play is “poof.” Make sure your kids know that this means “gay.”
So, in short, “Billy Elliot” was great. I’m incredibly glad that we saw it and would easily see it again someday. I look forward to the time when there are flaming gay boys and macho-butch lesbian girls on stage in New York City. But until that time, “Billy Elliot” can help tide us over.