Youth LGBT author Alex Sanchez headlines USF Gala listen04/15/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Today marks the fourteenth annual Day of Silence, a day when students of all ages across the country take a vow of silence to draw attention to bullying and hate crimes against people who are gay. Last night more than 100 people gathered at USF to honor activists who promote tolerance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, which still struggles with homophobia. That school’s Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association event highlighted that progress that’s been made in recent decades – and the long way it still has to go.
Author Alex Sanchez is among the first writers in the young adult genre to feature gay characters as protagonists in his fiction. He authored the popular rainbow trilogy as well as the books The God Box and So Hard to Say. USF student Jordan Stafford said Sanchez’s book Rainbow Boys, which depicts a love triangle among three male high school seniors still coming to grips with their homosexuality, had a major impact on him in his youth.
"I snuck the book in my high school and actually grew a quasi-emotional attachment to the book because of what it had in it and what it did to my life. Basically, I got another copy of the book, gave that one back to my high school so I didn't have to give back the original one."
Stafford said he was lucky enough to grow up gay in an extremely tolerant environment, but most kids have to conceal their orientation until they leave home. Alex Sanchez, the Community Gala Event’s keynote speaker, compared being a gay youth to his experience growing up as a Mexican immigrant in the south. He said he initially wanted to rid himself of all the trappings of his home country in order to fit in.
"I stopped speaking Spanish. When I would go out to, like, restaurants or shopping with my parents I would tell them, 'speak only English.' I didn't want anyone to know that we were from Mexico."
He said he discovered he was gay at age 13 after reading an article about a gay and lesbian colony. Before that, he said, he had no idea what being gay was.
"What happened in my case was that I read an article in the local newspaper, we were living in Virginia at the time. It talked about this..this was the early 70's by this point, it talked about this community of gay and lesbian people that was forming. As soon as I read that article it's like I knew that's what I was."
Sanchez said his discovery paralleled the immigrant experience because he felt alienated, but it wasn’t exactly the same. As an immigrant, he could relate to his family, but in being gay he said he was completely isolated.
"As some of you may remember this, this was the time in which the word gay ... it wasn't used that way. Occasionally you might here someone whisper the word 'homosexual'. That was about it, it wasn't something that was talked about. And yet we had the anti-gay slurs, the name calling."
The author read some of the many emails he’s received from straight teens who felt his books made it easier for them to be out. Some were straight, and were even homophobic prior being forced to read his work for a class. Sanchez said he has gotten a little bit of hate mail, but it doesn’t bother him. His books have been banned in some school districts, listed among required reading in others. He said it’s rare that censorship occurs, but when it does happen, it’s usually on the part of a school librarian who doesn’t want to deal with the wrath of conservative administrators.
"They know they're going to get flak. The administrator's going to tell them, 'no, I don't want to get flak with parents. I don't want those books on my shelves.' I've had librarians tell me that. They'll say, 'I wish I could have your books on my shelf but I just can't.' Another one who told me 'In my school district I just won't order anything you write because they're too scared."
Despite the fact that hate crimes against gays haven’t been stamped out yet, Sanchez said he was hopeful, given the progress that’s been made in the promotion of tolerance of LGBT. David Johnson, a professor of history at USF and one of this year’s pride awards recipients, said it wasn’t always like that. In his book Lavender Scare, he writes about a McCarthy-esque witch hunt targeting gay academics at Florida Universities – including USF.
"The committee, which was established in 1956, I believe, by the Florida legislature. Initially to find Communists in the state, particularly Communists in the civil rights movement, this is right after Brown vs Board. They couldn't find any Communists in the civil rights movement so they went after other targets including homosexuals both in the public school system and in the university system. At USF and the University of Florida."
Merrell Dickey is the school’s Libraries Director of Development. The USF alum said there’s been progress even within the seven year’s he’s been employed at the school.
Lavender Scare author David Johnson said he doesn’t feel like a target for conservatives as a gay academic, but that these days there’s a different kind of witch hunt afoot.
"Interestingly, what I do feel stigmatized about and demonized for is not being openly gay now but being a state employee. For being a public sector worker and for being a union member."
The Gala was the seventh of its kind, and occurs on a yearly basis. The University of South Florida is the only school in Florida to offer students an LGBT scholarship.