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LGBTQ—the Q is for questioning

This country desperately needs more questioning.

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It is, perhaps, a small bill in the great scheme of things at the General Assembly. Perhaps not. House Bill 1366, the School Violence Prevention Act, is better known as the anti-bullying bill. The House passed it in May. Hopefully the Senate will pass it, too, once the important matters—the ones involving money and bulldozers—are settled. Billions first, then bad behavior.

No one in the House was for bad behavior, of course. But some—including most of the Republicans—objected to the part of HB-1366 that went beyond a general sanction against "bullying and harassing" to spell out why it's happening. Usually it's because—the bill makes clear—the bully doesn't like your race, color, disability, gender, gender identity or expression, physical appearance, or sexual orientation.

Conservative Republicans tried hard to get that last part out. They're against any suggestion in the law that it's all right to be gay or act gay or act like a girl if you're a boy anatomically or any of that funny stuff. Can't we just be against bullying, they said, without digging up a lot of, you know, issues?

The good news is that, by a 73-46 vote, the House decided it was high time the schools got organized to deal with the issues. A former teacher, Rep. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, told why. She recalled one teacher who decided not to help when he saw a student getting bullied because it would "make a man out of him."

The House vote was hailed by Equality North Carolina, the advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights, as a victory for the state's "most vulnerable students." A victory, and the first in memory for gay-rights groups that are accustomed to fighting off right-wing initiatives in Raleigh but not to any sort of legislative affirmation.

The times are a-changin'. Aren't they?

I've been thinking about difference a lot in writing about transgender people. It's not a new subject for me. But I usually approach it politically. Why are we, as Americans, so comfortable with vast disparities in wealth and income? I think it's racial, a lot of it: Our culture is based on haves and have-nots. Why are we so afraid to dissent when our president is selling a crock? We clearly suffer from a herd mentality and tune out the evidence that the emperor's clothes are missing; but why are we so inclined to identify with the emperor?

Our miasma, Laurie Wolf thinks, is rooted in the "male-female dominant paradigm"—to which she added the word "whatever," because it puts people off when you talk about paradigms, but there it is: We've got a paradigm, and men are in charge as long as they're rich and strong-looking, if not strong really. (How else to explain Fred Thompson's appeal? But he is tall.)

Wolf's a gay-rights activist and advisor to InsideOut, a youth organization that, among other things, helps get gay-straight alliances started in schools. She's also a lesbian performance artist who often appears in male garb, and while she's not transgender as in wanting hormones or surgery, she is "somewhat trans" in not wanting to be typecast as anything.

When Wolf was young (she's 53), there was no language for sexual difference except pejorative—"homo, faggot, lesbo. I never saw anything in my life, or my feelings, reflected anywhere." Consequently, she was in the closet until her mid-20s. Now there are nicer words, and even the bigots sometimes remember to be against "discrimination," but there's still a frontier out there where gender is concerned, which is why the language about gender identity and expression is so important in HB-1366, in addition to sexual orientation.

The evidence is sketchy about how many trans people there are in our society, and much depends on the definition. But there is no doubt that some of us are born with chromosomes of one gender and self-understanding (or call it brain wiring, or—well, we don't even have good words for it yet) of the other. Or another. (I'm no expert, but one thing I recognize in the trans folks I've met is their intention to retain the best of their "born identity.")

So now, what about the schools? Without over-generalizing, they simply cannot be allowed to remain places where only the strong survive, jocks rule, boys will be boys and young people who are different are put down or afraid to be themselves because they aren't "the dominant paradigm."

That's what Wolf wants, and it's not a small thing at all: "I support youth being able to have their youth," she says. "If you're not out, if your identity is hidden, you don't get to experience youth as fully as straight kids."

Our schools should start teaching about gender and gender roles and, yes, even do what Laurie Wolf does, which is dress up in a different role and be, for a time, the other sex, the other orientation, the kid who's a girl in a boy's body. The students should do that. Teachers and school counselors, too. Learn how much strength it takes to be different. More than to just go along with the bullies. Or the president.

Brute strength lifts weights. Not people.

Of late, some gay-rights groups have taken to using the LGBTQ shorthand. The Q is for questioning. This country desperately needs more questioning.

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