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School of hard knocks.

When I was a high school history teacher, one of my favorite lessons was to take predictions about the future made by pundits of the past and have students compare them with what had actually happened. The pundits were almost always wrong. So it is with great trepidation that I approach this essay: After all, I might go back into teaching and have to use my own words against myself someday.

Still, I think history does offer us some clues as to what might happen in our movement during the next 30 years. The history I refer to is that of the African-American civil rights movement. In the early 1900s, African-Americans who wanted some modicum of freedom fled the South to Northern cities. But in the 1950s a generation of courageous young African-Americans reversed this pattern. They stayed in their hometowns and made schools their battleground, demanding an equal opportunity to get a quality education. They used the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to push for full integration and, together with white allies who also risked their lives on Freedom Rides and at lunch-counter sit-ins, they fought and sometimes died to win equality.

Their elders had mixed reactions: Some joined the youth, while others advocated a moderate "go slow" approach that radicalized some youth to abandon integration and follow a separatist path. Although important victories were won, this splintered and divided movement lost the momentum to a white backlash that still blocks full equality for African-Americans today. Their dream is, at best, only partially fulfilled.

History is about to repeat itself--I think.

As a historian I know it's dangerous to equate different eras, but I see startling similarities between the civil rights movement of the 1950s and our movement today. Taking advantage of the rights won by the post-Stonewall lesbian, gay, and bisexual movement, people of my generation (I'm 34) have tended to flee their often repressive hometowns (mine is in North Carolina) to move to islands of safety like Boston's South End and New York's Chelsea (I've lived in both).

But from my vantage point as head of the only national organization focused specifically on ending antigay bias in our schools, I am seeing a new generation come of age. I constantly encounter lesbian, gay, and bisexual students from across the country who refuse to emigrate to the Castro or South Beach. Instead they are demanding the right to schools, in their hometowns, where they will be treated with respect and dignity. Using their generation's Brown v. Board of Education, Nabozny v. Podlesny (the landmark 1996 federal case in which Wisconsin high school student Jamie Nabozny won a major settlement for his school district's failure to protect him from antigay harassment), high school students like Kelli Peterson in Salt Lake City, Tom Kameika in Georgia's De Kalb County, and Hoa Huynh in Stockton, Calif., are coming out, organizing, and demanding their rights--often with their straight friends by their side. This is a generation of young people who increasingly feel entitled to equality and are fighting for it, in the most unlikely of places.

My prediction is that this generation will seize control of our movement, much as young African-Americans did in the 1950s. As these young people grow more assertive, grassroots battles will break out across the country, far from the view and control of our Washington--New York--Los Angeles--obsessed movement. These organizations will either have to reach out to the young or soon find themselves irrelevant. (Will they reach out? I'm not sure; after all, our community tends to avoid our youth like the plague, lest we be accused of "recruiting." Or, alternately, we treat them like pieces of meat rather than as individuals with minds and beliefs of their own. Our entire "community" of bars and clubs and black-tie dinners excludes youth.) Our movement may fragment, with an older generation pushing for moderate, limited reforms such as protections from employment discrimination, while the young fight (in many hallways, quite literally) for the right to full acceptance in their hometowns and schools.

And these students' rebellion will inspire a right-wing backlash, modeled on Anita Bryant's 1977 Save Our Children campaign, that will sweep the land, with the claim "They're after our kids! " becoming the Right's battle cry. I'm afraid to say that I think most lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults will shy away from meeting this challenge head-on and that our youth will battle on alone, with many adults retreating to lifeboats like West Hollywood or Dupont Circle, hoping to escape the tidal wave of hate unleashed by the Right.

Maybe I'll be wrong. Maybe our community will mature and build important cross-generational links. Maybe gay adults will remember the horror of their own school years and, enraged, will fight for these youth as if they were our own biological children. Maybe we'll rise to the challenge of a new generation that expects freedom.

One thing I am sure of is this: In the next 30 years, the actions of our youth will determine our political future, and history will be made. I just hope adults like me will do the right thing and fight with these incredible young people--so that it won't be history we're ashamed of.

Jennings is executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a New York City-based organization working to end homophobia in the nation's schools. He is also the author of Becoming Visible: A Reader in Gay and Lesbian History for High School and College Students.
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Title Annotation:education of gays and lesbians in the future
Author:Jennings, Kevin
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Oct 14, 1997
Previous Article:Winning the religious war.
Next Article:Teaching our history.

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