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BRIDGING THE GAPS IN ACTIVISM.

A FORMER WHITE HOUSE AIDE AND A RECENT HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE COMPARE THEIR DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES

Before moving to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute, Virginia Apuzzo was assistant to President Clinton for administration and management--making her the Clinton administration's highest-ranking lesbian official. Her 30-year career as an activist includes a role as cowriter of the first gay and lesbian civil rights plank for the Democratic Party, a stint as NGLTF's executive director, and an appointment as vice chair of the New York State AIDS Advisory Council.

In June, Michael Bisogno graduated from high school in Teaneck, N.J. As a youth activist he revived his school's gay-straight student alliance, founded a local chapter of Gay and Lesbian Youth, and was appointed a gay adviser to the National 4-H Council, an organization of business professionals that reaches out to teenagers.

On an overcast New York City morning, the two recently met to talk about the differences and similarities that separate and unite their generations of activism.

Why don't you each start by talking about the individual journeys that brought you to activism.

Apuzzo: I was called "dyke" and "butch" as a kid. When I was 18, I was convinced that what lay ahead of me was a life that could well end in suicide or despair.

The notion of a movement was nonexistent. I spent three years in the convent trying to figure out, was this so condemning that even my soul would have no future? I concluded that if I ever went to hell, it wouldn't be because of who I loved but because I didn't love. I came out of the convent a month after Stonewall and got involved in the movement immediately. I was 26 years old.

Bisogno: The only connection I had with it growing up was "faggot." It hurt. I was an angry, overweight, miserable little kid.

When I was 14, after hearing the word "faggot" every day, I was admitted to the hospital [for a suicide attempt]. The lust week in high school I was assaulted by 12 teenagers calling me a "faggot." Two weeks later I was admitted again for depression and suicidal tendencies. There was alcohol use and drug use in my life. I was drowning myself in sorrow.

To get out of that took about a year, but then I spoke out in a testimonial for GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network]. And I just kept on speaking, eventually going to Washington to meet with Janet Reno and to the White House. I was 16 years old and was on Ricki Lake, CNN, MSNBC.

Apuzzo: It's delightful to hear the difference in visibility. The thing that is hard to hear is that so much of the personal pain remains. We've worked for 30 years, and kids today are still going through all that.

Bisogno: The youth movement today is incredible. I know of 2,000 kids in northern New Jersey from the Internet who work in activism, advocacy, fund-raising, and organizing dances. But one of our concerns is bridging the gap between the younger generation and the older generation. We're not communicating as much as we should.

Apuzzo: And it's not the radical right's fault that we are not communicating--it's the movement's.

Michael, what do you wish older gay and lesbian people Understood better about today's young people?

Bisogno: We get the impression none of the people with power take us seriously.

Apuzzo: Let me tell you something about power. Nobody's going to give it to you. You've got to walk in and take it.

Bisogno: But we are still in a place where older gays and lesbians have to meet us halfway. There is a psychological, emotional, and financial advantage that older people have. Saying "If you want it, get out and get it" can be empowering. But what about those kids who can't make those steps yet?

When I think of the gay and lesbian movement, I think of that bumper sticker that reads FAMILY ON BOARD. But many of these kids have lost their mothers and fathers. The gay youth in America need that from the community--they need the fathers and mothers of the community to help them.

Apuzzo: The movement needs to transform itself to receive the passion, energy, and vision of all its members. You're speaking to a dilemma that has been true historically in our community--asking ourselves, Who are we leaving behind?

The gay and lesbian movement has frequently been criticized for leaving behind people of color. Michael, you're Colombian. How does that play into your youth activism?

Bisogno: Growing up with two white parents, I always had the impression that I was just a white guy with a really good tan [laughter]. I didn't know if I had a place in the gay and lesbian movement as a Latino. At a lot of these big marches and rallies our movement throws, I look at the crowds and realize this movement really does see me as a white guy with a really good tan. If it didn't, I wonder if I'd have entree to the gay and lesbian community.

Are things better than they used to be?

Apuzzo: I think if you are on the inside [of the movement] looking at it, you feel like we're making strides. But if you are on the outside looking at it and feel it hasn't spoken to you, then we're not moving fast enough.

What is the most pressing issue for gays and lesbians today?

Apuzzo: Depends what community you are talking about. Do we mean the comfortable middle class? Maybe their most pressing need is a grill [laughter]. For the mainstream agenda, I'd say family-related issues. First we are thrown out of our homes; then outsiders say we don't have the right to define our own families. We are being deprived of the right to the single social unit most capable of providing support, love, and self-worth.

Bisogno: For the young community, it's about survival. [We think], If I get thrown out, where I am going to sleep?

Politics, equal rights, all that stuff--What do kids care? When your life is on the line, some piece of paper that some 50-year-old man is signing to make a law that allows longer punishment for some guy who beat you up--well, that means nothing. The important thing is to not get beat up in the first place.

Dahir has contributed to Time, The Industry Standard, and Redbook.
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Article Details
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Author:DAHIR, MUBARAK
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 15, 2000
Words:1082
Previous Article:THE MISSING LINK.
Next Article:STILL SHORT OF THE GOAL.
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