LGBTQ Equality: We’re On Our Way, But We’re Not There Yet

Written by John Flemming, Class of 1966; Guidance Counselor at Central High School

The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, (and) are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” During this chapter of the story of the United States of America, I find myself reflecting heavily on this quote. The Founding Fathers challenged all of us to strive for equality for all people. Equality, which ensures that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents, has been an on-going struggle for many Americans; particularly Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) people.

I grew up in the Holy Name (Benson) neighborhood in the 1960’s. During that time, it was a predominantly white neighborhood where everyone was of similar economic means. I could walk outside my house and not encounter a person who was all that dissimilar to myself. Despite the relative bubble of my upbringing, around me, the world was grappling with the struggle for civil rights and recognition. Around me, thousands of LGBTQ persons were demanding to be considered equal in the eyes of God and under the law.

In June of 1969, New York police raided the historic Stonewall Inn, a well-known safe haven for gay, lesbian, and transgender locals. Their presence, and the ensuing conflict, sparked a riot that spread beyond Greenwich Village. Indeed, sparked a movement that spanned the entire globe. This pivotal moment in the history of LGBTQ rights would one day result in a more accepting society; a society that has generally been very welcoming of me since my coming out.

The summer before ninth grade, I convinced my family that I should leave the safety of our little world and venture out. At least, venture out as far as a 15-year-old boy could: I told them I wanted to attend Central High School. I never wanted to be a Benson Bunny, so the notion of becoming a Central Eagle was much more appealing to me. In those days, Central was the ‘metropolitan’ school, positioned squarely in downtown with halls stuffed full of folks of every kind.

Central opened my eyes. This special school taught me that we all walk different paths, we are all unique, we all come from some place, and we are all headed toward our own destinations together.

My ex-wife and I had always raised our children to understand that people are not the same; everyone is unique, and you may not always agree with someone but you can still love them. It was this sentiment that they returned back to me when I came out to them. They were loving and accepting, and I think they’ve always appreciated my honesty and transparency.

Since coming out, I have watched the world change. Where there were once ‘gay neighborhoods’ and ‘gay bars’ there are now neighborhoods with gay families and bars with gay patrons. The turning point was the passage of marriage equality. With that single act, the way I saw my community change was amazing. Where we were once insular and, in a way, solitary, we now found ourselves fully part of society. It’s something the original patrons of the Stonewall Inn could have only dreamed of. “Respect for our unalienable rights?” they might have said. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? We can only imagine!”

Well, today we are very nearly there.

I am a counselor at Central High School now, and I get to witness the relative ease, confidence, and acceptance with which our LGBTQ students are able to grow into themselves. A few years back, the Senior Class President was a gay young man; he was funny, bright, talented, and well liked. And — from the perspective of someone who grew up in very different times — I looked at him and thought, “well, good for you. People know you and they accept you for who you are. Good for you.” I am able to watch how every year two of Central’s counselors, Ms. Hill and Ms. Politi, lovingly sponsor the school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club, and each year they challenge our students to self-govern, self-assess, and take pride in their community. And I am able to see how the entire school community develops an understanding and appreciation for the diversity of their classmates, LGBTQ students included, and it gives me great hope for the future.

However, it cannot go without being said that my experience as a white, cis-gender LGBTQ community member, may differ from that of queer folks of other races, genders, gender-expressions, and ethnicities. Even in an environment as accepting as Central, in a time as seemingly progressive as 2020, I still encounter stories from students who don’t have it as easy. I still hear stories of my peers who haven’t been met with love and kindness.

Today, we are very nearly there. But we are not yet there. The struggle for those unalienable rights continues.

That is why, in our quest for equality for all people, it is imperative that we adopt the following things:

· We vote. Voting is an American right we should all cherish and exercise. In our continued struggle to achieve equality, what we do on election day matters. The way I see it, the worst thing you can do is not participate.

· We spark dialogue. The conversations we have at the dinner table can change the world, believe me. The commitment we make to speak to our friends and families about the struggles other people experience is one of our most important commitments. For your family, you can be the one who sparks curiosity and interest in others through respectful dialogue.

I believe that in order to promote inclusivity and understanding of LGBTQ people in our society, the following things should happen:

· We should develop a course that explores the issues and history of the LGBTQ community. The offering could be cross-curricular to include biology, sociology, anthropology, and ethics; all areas where the concept of a hard binary threatens to limit our understanding of the world.

· Make our History and English content more inclusive. Alternatively, a commitment should be made to better include LGBTQ leaders (of all genders, races, and backgrounds!) in the history courses, and LGBTQ writers in English courses.

· All schools should participate in GLSEN’s Day of Silence. The Day of Silence is a national student-led demonstration where LGBTQ students and allies all around the country — and, now, the world — take a vow of silence to protest the harmful effects of harassment and discrimination of LGBTQ people in schools. GLSEN is an organization founded by a group of teachers in 1990, which supports the role of teachers in creating affirming learning environments for LGBTQ youth.

I have great faith in our American community, and even greater faith in our Eagle community. The people who graduate from this fine institution continue to be leaders in the fight for equality on all fronts. I am proud to be among Dr. Rodney Wead, Rev. J. Scott Barker, and many other Central graduates who demand of the world what we were taught every day at Central: that all men are created equal, and that even though we may come from different places, we are all on this journey together.

John Flemming graduated from Central in 1966. He attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he studied history and education. He served as a Social Studies teacher at Omaha Burke High School for three years. As an American Government teacher at Burke, he became interested in juvenile probation and began working a in the Douglas County Juvenile Probation Office for several years. He earned his Master’s in Counseling from Creighton University and shortly thereafter began a 25-year career in college admissions that took him and his family to Minnesota and Kansas before returning back to Omaha in 1988, when he was invited to serve as the Director of Admissions at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Following that, from 1997–2001, he was the Director of Admission for the Creighton University School of Pharmacy and Allied Health. From 2001–2009, he worked in California for ACT Inc. and the College Board. By 2009, eagerly ready to come back to Omaha to be close to family, he took a position as a school counselor at Omaha South High School. He then transitioned ‘back to the nest’ in 2015 and began working as a school counselor at Central High School. Today, he enters the building through the same door and uses the same hallway that he used to as a student back in 1966.

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