Jim McCollum, FFRF Life Member and previous “Champion of the First Amendment” recipient, spoke at FFRF’s 36th national convention Sept. 28, 2013, in Madison, Wis. McCollum talked about his role in the landmark McCollum v. Board of EducationSupreme Court decision (1948) in its 65th anniversary year. The suit was filed in July 1945 by his mother, Vashti McCollum, on behalf of Jim in Champaign, Ill.
My father was a principled, quiet atheist, a scientist, who grew up with 10 siblings on a farm in south Arkansas. His parents and grandfather Daniel placed a premium on education and saw to it that all 11 children, all of whom were born by 1920, including five girls, got a full college education.
My mother was raised in a liberal family that encouraged her and her sister to seek the truth freely. Her father, raised a Presbyterian, was well-read — especially books by freethought authors such as Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Clemens and Robert Green Ingersoll — and became what I would call a bible-pounding atheist. Mom described herself as an agnostic humanist.
So what about this plucky lady, my mother “The Sarge,” who stuck to her guns with what became a landmark case all the way to the Supreme Court, losing all the way up, but winning when it counted?
If all that can be said of my mother, Vashti Cromwell McCollum, was the important contribution she made to U.S. constitutional law in the late ’40s, she would still be a shining light in the 20th century. For the 8-1 decision she won set the precedent that applied the strictures of the prohibition of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution to the several states by virtue of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Albeit that decision, written by Justice Hugo L. Black, is currently under intense attack by the radical Christian right, it still stands as a beacon in the annals of U.S. constitutional law to this day, for all cases involving purely sectarian practices in public schools and use of taxpayer money, by states and their municipalities, to fund religious activities, projects, monuments and displays, descend from McCollum v. Board of Education.
In her later years, Mom became an avid world traveler and an accomplished amateur photographer, winning salons at the Champaign County Camera Club on a regular basis. She was in great demand to present her informative and entertaining slide shows to all kinds of audiences, including at the Inman, the assisted care facility in Champaign, where she spent her last years.
Her travels took her to all seven of the world’s continents. She traveled on whatever conveyance was available — ferries, like the ones we read about in Third World countries that turn over and sink, trains and buses filled with peasants and their variety of livestock and worldly belongings, and puddle-jumping airlines, sometimes barely clearing the mountaintops. She was even trapped in the Amazon jungle for a period, while pursuing an adventure on an historic railroad that, unbeknownst to her, had been discontinued shortly before she arrived.
She traveled to places that no longer exist and to others, now too unsafe for tourists. Upon hearing stories of some of her exploits and travails, my father was heard to exclaim, “The woman is fearless!”
It was sometimes difficult to keep up with her, as she was always coming up with another trip to one exotic place or another, many of which were on the spur of the moment. Indeed, I can remember on several occasions where my first wife and I would wake up to a knock on the door early in the morning to find her on a surprise visit or just passing through on another of her excursions.
Mom was clearly her mother’s daughter and knew how to divine the bargains and travel on the cheap. I still remember spending a tortuous night at London’s Heathrow Airport, with her, just to save a £40 hotel bill. That two-week excursion to Scotland cost the two of us less than $4,000 (including roundtrip airfare). Most of her travels were on a shoestring.
Most important of all, she was the best mother one could have. She and my father, John Paschal McCollum, her husband of over 50 years, managed to raise three boys and put them through college, (a lawyer, a historian and a successful businessman), two with advanced degrees and all having made positive contributions to society. A finer tribute cannot be given to anyone!
‘Fair to a fault’
Why did I entitle this talk “My Mother, the Sarge?” Well, she was the disciplinarian in the family — fair to a fault, but there was no mistaking when she was displeased with something we said or did. While I can remember an occasional acquaintance with a flyswatter, generally all she needed to do was to give us the evil eye and that was that. More importantly, she was a consummate feminist and not one to back away from what she held dear — hence the “Sarge” moniker.
Albeit she made heavy weather at being a mother, she was an extremely effective one, never missing the opportunity to guide her sons carefully along the straight and narrow. In the last hours of her time with us, she was still correcting my English if I had the temerity to utter the phrase, “it’s me” instead of “it is I” or similar egregious grammatical transgressions.
She also admonished me to lose weight and get rid the rubber tire around my middle. Maybe feeble, but she still had her edge!
Her moral credentials were impeccable and unimpeachable, and she didn’t need a supreme being looking over her shoulder to “keep her in line.” She and my father made sure that my brothers and I were on the same page.
After the family became embroiled in her famous lawsuit, she would often admonish us to do nothing that would bring discredit to ourselves or the family, as “our detractors are watching.” However, we didn’t really need that admonishment, because our parents were the epitome of good role models.
I often chuckle to myself, remembering her choice comment, “I hope it’s not trivial,” when a prominent demagogue would be outed for some moral or ethical transgression.
Her memorial marker, in a southern Arkansas Missionary Baptist cemetery, proudly proclaims, beneath her name, the citation of the decision of her landmark case: 333 US 203 (1948).
Upon my retirement from the practice of law and move to Arkansas and her retirement from her world travels, we saw to it that one of us would call the other at least once a week, usually on Saturday morning. Her last travels, with the exception of a final one to help her older sister Helen celebrate her 95th birthday, were to visit us in Arkansas to see her “daffy down lilies,” which each February and March pave our front yard in a sea of yellow. In January she would ask us if the jonquils were blooming yet and then find a way to get here to see them, usually by catching a bus by herself to Bloomington and then the Texas Eagle Amtrak to Texarkana, where we would pick her up.
She was avidly independent in life, and even in her declining years, to the extent she could manage, she remained such. On her return trips to Champaign, she would insist we leave her at the Amtrak station in Texarkana in the early evening, where she would wait by herself several hours for the train. In spite of our reluctance, she was adamant about it.
The indelible mark she left behind, both on her three sons and grandchildren, as well on American jurisprudence, lives on!
Jim McCollum received his B.S. in geology and his J.D. in law from the University of Illinois. He served two years’ active duty as an officer in the U.S. Army and another six in the Army Reserve. He retired as an attorney after 34 years of practice and lives with his wife Betty in Arkansas, where he, appropriately, teaches constitutional law.
Vashti McCollum died in 2006 at age 93. Her story, One Woman’s Fight, is available at: ffrf.org/shop/books
Zack Kopplin, 20, received FFRF’s first Richard and Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Award of $5,000 for his impressive work to repeal a stealth creationism law in Louisiana. This is his acceptance speech, edited for print, given at FFRF’s 36th national convention in September in Madison, Wis. He’s now a history major at Rice University in Houston.
hank you all so much for having me here so I can tell you about the fight for science in Louisiana and in the United States. My home state, Louisiana, is addicted to creationism.
In 1987, the Supreme Court threw out Louisiana’s first creationism law in the Edwards v. Aguillard decision, but the creationists never give up. When we passed the misnamed and misguided Louisiana Science Education Act back in 2008, we became repeat offenders. I won’t lie. It was really a pretty clever piece of legislation.
The act never once mentions creationism or intelligent design in order to dodge court rulings like Edwards, which said Louisiana cannot require that creationism be taught in public school science class, or the more recent 2005 case, Dover v. Kitzmiller, in which Judge John Jones ruled that intelligent design was creationism, too, just all dressed up in a lab coat and therefore still patently unconstitutional.
Instead, the law allows and encourages teachers to use supplemental materials that “critique” evolution and other political controversies, including climate change and cloning. The overwhelming majority of scientists support evolution theory. This is only a controversy to Louisiana politicians.
But, because of this law, in our public school science classes, teachers can bring in materials that say the Earth is only thousands of years old. Throughout the bill and the talking points of proponents are references to the importance of teaching critical thinking.
Of course, you don’t need a law to teach critical thinking in a science class — that’s the whole point of a science class! Critical thinking is at the heart of the scientific method. You only need a law if you want to sneak unscientific and unconstitutional creationist supplemental materials into public school classrooms.
When he first introduced the bill, Sen. Ben Nevers let the cat out of the bag, explaining that a creationist group, the Louisiana Family Forum (which, by the way, claims to have drafted and promoted the LSEA) asked for the law so creationism could be taught in public schools.
“I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that some people have these beliefs as well,” Gov. Bobby Jindal told NBC’s “Education Nation.”
When the state Board of Education originally wrote the rules implementing the LSEA, they specifically outlawed teaching creationism and intelligent design. The creationists went berserk and had those rules scrapped. The Livingston and Tangipahoa Parish boards went so far as to use the law to justify making creationism a mandatory part of the curriculum. This isn’t just a Louisiana issue, though. Attacks on science come from all around the country, and the damage from science denial falls on all Americans. A prime example is Texas, which is currently adopting new science textbooks. And because it’s Texas, creationists are attempting to undermine these biology books.
The state board has appointed “expert reviewers” to issue corrections to the textbook publishers. The issue is these experts are not experts. They’re Discovery Institute fellows and members of the Creation Science Hall of Fame.
They have sent reviews to the textbook publishers, insisting they revise their books to say there are no transitional fossils and to include the “creation model” based on “biblical principles.”
We need to stand up and launch a movement to fight for science. That’s what I’m fighting for. We’re standing up in Louisiana, we’re standing up in Texas, and we need to stand up across the country.
Forging a coalition
When I was a senior in high school, I realized I had a voice and a moral responsibility to use it and started a campaign to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act. The first thing I did was contact Dr. Barbara Forrest, one of the country’s foremost leaders in fighting creationism. She happens to live just 25 miles down the road in one of our creationist hot spots, Livingston Parish.
We met and started working on the repeal. The first step was to find a legislator courageous enough to sponsor the repeal bill. The LSEA passed with only three votes against it.
I met with Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, one of the brave three, and she agreed to author the repeal legislation. Rep. Walt Leger agreed to handle our legislation when it got to the House.
When this campaign began, everyone told me that we didn’t have a chance, that we were taking on powerful interests and it wasn’t worth it. Our first repeal bill was defeated 5-1 in committee. We came back for a second try the next year and lost again. This year we lost again in a 3-2 vote but made progress and will be back again next spring. And we’ve done some incredible things along the way. We protected Louisiana’s biology textbooks and now defeated four attempts to throw them out.
Nearly 40% of living Nobel laureate scientists have joined us. Major science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science are on board. Public servants, including the full New Orleans City Council, and tens of thousands of others, have joined our cause.
Despite our progress, our issues have taken a new turn for the worse. It seemed like Governor Jindal had already done as much damage as he could to science education with the LSEA. Wrong.
The state has now passed a program that takes money from public schools and gives vouchers to creationist schools. The program has been ruled unconstitutional, but the Legislature could find a way around it.
I documented 20 private schools which blatantly teach creationism or use creationist curricula that could end up receiving over 1,300 voucher slots, which were initially slated to receive $11 million in taxpayer funds annually. They’ve since decreased the amount to about $4 million. If they manage to keep the program going, they’re going to be funding millions more.
I found schools that teach “Our position on the age of the Earth and other issues is that any theory that goes against God’s Word is in error” and others that call scientists “sinful men.” I found a school that requires students to “defend creationism through evidence presented by the Bible versus traditional scientific theory.”
There be dragons
Mother Jones magazine picked out the 14th craziest lessons taught in creationist schools. My favorite was the textbook that claimed dragons were real (they were dinosaurs with chemicals in their noses, and they lived with humans).
By the way, one of our state legislators who voted for the voucher program now says she opposes it because she didn’t realize Muslim schools could potentially qualify for vouchers. She thought religious schools meant only Christian schools, and for good reason. Besides all the creationism and dragons, there’s even a school slated to receive $360,000 a year led by a man who calls himself The Apostle and teaches prophecy.
As the New Orleans Times Picayune opined, “Vouchers have turned out to be the answer to a creationist’s prayer.”
We’re giving public money to private schools that will fail our students through teaching creationism and bad science. But again, all of you know that this isn’t just Louisiana craziness.
I’ve found that over 300 schools across the country are teaching creationism and receiving tens of millions or quite possibly even hundreds of millions in public money. I found schools bringing students to the Creation Museum and calling evolution “the way of the heathen.”
This fight may be long and it may be hard, but as President Kennedy said when he launched the moon mission, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
We need a new science revolution because our generation faces unprecedented challenges to our way of living and to our survival as a species. Our population continues to climb, but the amount of clean water and living space we have is stretched thin. Our climate is growing increasingly extreme. We’ve discovered “super bugs” which are resistant to antibiotics.
Earth is experiencing a rapid decline in biodiversity, especially in our oceans. The recent meteorite that exploded over Russia is a sobering reminder that we could be faced with a killer asteroid in the near future.
I know these threats sound like science fiction, but they are real and my generation will have to address them. The way to overcome these challenges and ensure the continued long-term existence of our species is through investment in rapid scientific innovation.
We have a choice of two futures. In the first, we keep on our present track. This is a future where science funding continues to stay stagnant or decline. In this future, we teach creationism and climate denial instead of science. In this future, we fall to these threats.
I have a vision where we invest $1 trillion in science in the next decade. Science funding offers a massive return on investment, over 30%. And the great thing about funding science is that what we discover, unlike a tax cut, never sunsets. Unlike a road, it never needs to be replaced or repaved. What we discover will be with us forever.
I have a vision where we teach evolution, not creationism. Where we teaching about radio carbon dating rather than Noah’s flood. Teach climate science, not just plain denial science.
I have a vision of humanity harnessing wave energy and revolutionary sustainable technology like algae fuel. I have a vision where we discover how to turn off cancer cells and even aging.
When I was a freshman in high school, when my dad ran for Congress, I didn’t recognize I had a voice and that my voice had power. I didn’t recognize that with this power, came great responsibility. I have a responsibility to serve my country and my species. We all do.
We have the power to launch a scientific revolution to overcome the challenges we face and we all have a responsibility to do that.
This is our generation’s movement. We need a Second Giant Leap for humankind!
Paretsky is an ardent supporter of separation of state and church and women's reproductive rights and creator of the famous V.I. Warshawski detective series, which revolutionized the mystery world. Paretsky will be accepting a Freethought Heroine award. Paretsky has been a contributor to The New York Times and The Guardian and has given talks at the Library of Congress and Oxford University. In 1986 she created "Sister in Crime," a worldwide organization to support women crime writers. Her memoir, "Writing in the Age of Silence," chronicles her journey from Kansas farm girl to New York Times best-selling author, and includes social commentary. Paretsky lives in Chicago with her husband. "Criticial Mass," her 17th V.I. Warshawski book, debutes in late October.
Arizona state Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, caused a stir nationwide May 21 with his godless invocation opening a legislative session. This is his speech, edited for print, in acceptance of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award at the 36th national convention in September in Madison, Wis. The FFRF award is reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion
irst, I want to thank Freedom From Religion for its work in promoting the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and in educating the public on matters relating to nontheism.
I am honored to accept the Emperor Has No Clothes Award and join past recipients in telling it as it is when it comes to religion. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you all, the story of how I got quoted in the same article as the pope. I need to share this story with you because as defenders of freedom from religion, you deserve a firsthand account of what I can only describe as a culture of corruption.
I believe any prayer before public meetings becomes a litmus test that bars you from the norm, or at worst there’s the fear that if you don’t pass for the norm, your legislation will not be entertained or taken seriously. You can feel it in the indignation they presume and in the fear my colleagues have in losing legitimacy.
Prayer before public meetings ends up becoming a vehicle to deliver a politicized message demonizing and marginalizing entire groups of people. Despite efforts to rotate speakers of different faiths, the practice remains divisive and exclusionary for many who practice less common religions or no religion at all.
Removal of prayer before public meetings poses no threat to the secular nature of our government or society. Only those who gain their cultural capital through proselytizing on our government’s dime are fighting for this. And they are determined on preserving their “heritage,” or cultural capital, at the expense of democracy.
On the floor of the Arizona Legislature, I asked a body of publicly elected officials to forgo the assumed customs of a larger culture and not bow their heads [see sidebar]. I simply asked that they take one moment out of their day, that they look past the fact that we’ve spent months cooped up in a room that should have fit all our egos comfortably, engaged in challenging debates, with many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration.
I outed myself — my humanist understandings, my absence of a faith in a deity — at the risk of political capital simply by omitting a God from a simple yet compassionate, if I might say, invocation or prayer. I quoted Carl Sagan: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
I asked a room full of politicians, the majority conservative, to acknowledge our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution and for our democracy. And that we root our policymaking in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans, regardless of religious belief or nonbelief.
Fallout the next day
The next day, a colleague seated next to me, for the first order of business after reciting our allegiance and offering the prayer (but before condemning Obamacare, which is how we traditionally begin our political business), called for a “redo” of yesterday’s prayer, my prayer. And they did it.
I had offended him and his religion because my invocation did not invoke his god. Or to put it in more politically correct terms, I didn’t use empty, nondescript language. I chose to stand out.
That’s the parallel I’m honored to share with the “Emperor” short story by Hans Christian Andersen. The moral, as I see it, is don’t seek to blend in with everyone else. Don’t adhere to the empty attempts at misrepresenting your values to engage in your community or to engage in the public trust as publicly elected officials.
If prayer before any public meeting has anyone choosing to blend in and agree that they are doing good work while hiding their lack of faith, we’d be saying that the 20% of the population we represent isn’t worthy of the public trust.
Having politicians fear expressing their lack of beliefs only perpetuates the culture that keeps so many of us from coming out of the closet. If we continue to allow for a cultural practice like prayer before public meetings, we’ll continue to allow millions of Americans to feel disenfranchised from civic engagement because they don’t see their values articulated by their government representatives, community leaders, neighbors and friends.
At the very least, we need to be finished with prayer before public meetings so that the people who approach a governing body or official feel equal. Neutrality on certain issues is vital to the government process.
‘No religious test’
The First Amendment grants even politicians the right to free speech. I know because I have a line of tea party activists ready to quote the Bill of Rights to me when I get back home.
But across the country, courts have issued differing decisions on what is acceptable, starting with a 1983 Supreme Court decision [Marsh v. Chambers] that approved prayer before legislative meetings. They did this while also setting no boundaries, and courts have since disagreed on the specifics.
A 2008 appellate decision that applies to Florida, Georgia and Alabama upheld prayers at the Cobb County, Ga., Commission, which invited representatives of various faiths to participate. The prayers were predominantly Christian and often referenced Jesus.
A 2011 ruling says that prayers before legislative meetings in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia should be nondenominational and nonsectarian, using generic words that don’t refer to a specific religion.
Now the Supreme Court is set to hear this term a New York case to determine whether prayer should be permissible at government meetings. A decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway is expected by June 2014.
From my experiences, we need to move away from issues of free speech to issues of equal protection, or more specifically to the No Religious Test Clause of the Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3: “[N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
While prayer at public meetings isn’t administered as a test, my colleagues seemed to think I failed. And when they as the majority find their way into leadership positions where they have total control over the entire agenda, deciding what we talk about, when we talk about it and who gets to talk (and then determining whether any action comes from all our talking), I have to fear whether they see me as qualified to carry out the public trust.
That is the culture of corruption in which I was elected to do business. I knew about this before I got elected, so you don’t have to worry about me becoming jaded.
I want to end with the explanation of a quote I turned up awhile ago: “A person can never hope to be more than he is if he is not first honest about what he isn’t.” It probably has nothing to do with religion, but I take it seriously nonetheless and apply it when I can.
I am an atheist because I’ve found no faith in any deity from Thor to Zeus. I am so grateful for the work the people in this room have done to advance the separation of state and church, to educate communities, to build a culture that made it possible for me, as a state legislator from Arizona, to talk honestly about what I do and don’t believe in.
Together, we are in a position to go further than we ever imagined. We are standing at a moment in history where we truly can dramatically shift our culture toward feminism, environmentalism, human dignity and real liberty and justice for all by electing or reelecting more openminded legislators across our country. We even have a PAC now.
I will never stop fighting for my values, and these last couple of months have shown me that I am not fighting alone. Together, if we choose to be bold and speak the truth, if we choose to be champions of humanism, if we choose to seize this moment, we will win, and what we win is the infinitely precious dignity of all humanity.
Acclaimed author, gay rights advocate and nationally syndicated columnist Dan Savage graciously accepted FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award at the 36th national convention in September in Madison, Wis., where he gave these remarks (edited for print).
By Dan Savage
My dad was also a Chicago homicide detective. So, sort of a “gun in the pulpit” perfect Catholic family special. Two years later, sitting around the kitchen table with my mom and my siblings, we laughed at the idea of the television program returning and doing a “Where are they now?” special. My father had left and divorced my mother and had been defrocked as a deacon. I’d come out of the closet. My brother Billy, my oldest sibling, had gotten a preemptive vasectomy. We had birth control in the house. There had been abortion. My mother was sleeping with a married man.
By that time, when I was 17 or 18, I was a hardcore agnostic because I had a lot of questions. It was my sexuality that brought me into conflict with my faith. I was inquisitive and, ironically, my parents encouraged their kids to question authority. From a very early age, I had been asking the inappropriate or awkward questions.
In some ways I’m so grateful for being gay despite the chaos that that caused when I was 15, 16, 17 years old. If I hadn’t been gay, I sometimes wonder if I would’ve questioned my faith.
But my sexuality was the thread that — once I began to pull on it — ultimately unraveled the garment of faith and irrational belief. Not all gay people do that. Some gay people, after realizing their faith is in conflict with their sexuality, move on to some new faith that isn’t in quite as much conflict.
But for me, faith fell apart because I figured that if the church was this wrong about me — well, it stood to reason that the church was wrong about other stuff. The church, this human institution, was pretending to know things that no human being could possibily know.
And it’s generally a bad idea to trust people who pretend to know the unknowable, to take things — hugely consequential things — on faith alone. Better to acknowledge the unknowable, embrace ambiguity and think for ourselves — and date boys.
I call myself agnostic or an atheist, but sometimes I have to admit to being an agnosti-theist because, well, I do cross myself on airplanes. I flew here today and crossed myself. I have a superstitious hangover.
Remember Ann Landers? I’m sure all of you do. I was talking to somebody in their 20s just yesterday, and I mentioned Ann Landers and she said “Who?” Sometimes, people in their 20s make me feel as old as I am, which is 49, and also make me feel like slapping them.
Anyway, about 10 years ago, I went to an auction of Ann Landers’ effects. Her daughter, Margo Howard, had packed up her mother’s big condo on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago after she died. I read about the upcoming auction in the paper. Included was the desk on which Landers had written her advice column — for 40 years. And I thought, I want to have that desk.
I had just gotten a book deal that paid a stupid amount of money, so I called Margo. We’d been on the radio together after Ann died. A producer put us on together to pit us against each other. They thought Margo would talk about how great her mother was and how important and meaningful her column was. And me, being the author of the rudest and dirtiest sex advice column in the world, would dump all over Ann Landers and say that she sucked.
I can be an asshole, but I’m not going to go on a radio program with someone’s grieving daughter and talk about how horrible her mother was.
Also complicating the producer’s scheme was the fact that I loved Ann Landers and her column. I didn’t always agree with her, but who always agrees with anybody? I don’t always agree with myself! Sometimes I read columns I wrote 10 years ago and I think, “What was I smoking? Or thinking? Or smoking and thinking?”
I wanted Margo’s “permission” to go to the auction because I knew it would get written about as somehow disrespectful. I’m really embarrassed to say this, but I took $10,000 in cash to the auction. I took that much because I thought I’d be bidding against the Smithsonian for her desk, on which so much had been written about the culture, sexual mores and relationships over the decades.
So I took all this money, thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be me versus the Smithsonian because they’re going to want to put her desk next to Archie Bunker’s chair in the museum, but I’m going to get it and take it home.”
I bought Ann Landers’ desk for $197. I know, right? No one was there from the Smithsonian bidding against me.
Then they began to auction off all of Ann Landers’ many awards and honorary degrees, from the American Cancer Society, the American Leukemia Foundation, General Motors, Illinoisan of the Year, Chicagoan of the Year, medallions, plaques, tchotchkes. One award had been given to her by the pope when he visited Chicago in the 1960s, which now sits on my mantel. There is something in my house that a pope has touched, and it’s not a 10-year-old boy. Imagine that.
When people ask me during my college speaking gigs — often I get a card, especially when I speak in the South — “Do you believe in God?,” it’s a game for me to just read that question and say “Nope” and go right on to the next question. Because it’s the people who do believe in God who have some explaining to do, not those of us who do not.
I will take a photo of my Emperor award sitting next to the award from the pope on my mantel and post it on Instagram. Thank you all very much for this, it’s very meaningful. I can’t express it enough.
I was told to not run my mouth too long because they wanted some time for Q&A, which is my preferred format in everything. So I’m happy to answer any questions.
Q&A with Dan Savage
Q. Would you take $500 for the desk?
A. No! I have to write my column on it for four more decades so that there is a hundred or 80 years of sex column-ing and advice columning at this desk. Then maybe the Smithsonian will want it.
Q. How much cash did you have left after the auction?
A. About $9,200. So I took my mother to lunch.
Q. Was it weird having that much in cash?
A. That felt stupid, carrying that much money around. I felt very “First World and starving orphans” at that moment. But what can you do? You give a gay dude a lot of money and he’s going to spend it on stupid stuff. Like this jacket!
Q. Will you tell us more about the It Gets Better project? What motivated you?
A. The story behind why I started it is a downer. A 15-year-old kid named Billy Lucas killed himself in Greensburg, Ind. He’d been very brutally bullied in middle school and high school because he was perceived to be gay. He’d never come out to anyone as gay, so he may not have been gay. Not all victims of anti-LGBT violence and bullying are gay, but he likely was gay.
“Gaydar” is strong with middle schoolers and high schoolers. “Good” Christian kids said because he was sick and sinful, God hated him. They said he was going to hell and might as well get it over with. [Billy was found hanging from the rafters in his grandmother’s barn.] I wrote about it from a place of real rage.
I get really weepy when I try to talk about this. His parents created a Facebook memorial page for him, and the same kids who had been bullying him went to the Facebook page to celebrate his death, to call him a faggot again and to say in front of his grieving parents that they were glad he was dead. I wrote about that from a place of white hot rage.
I was reading the comments on a blog post I’d written, which drew similar outrage and fury. A woman whose handle is Despicable Me cut through everyone’s anger by writing, “I wish I had known you, Billy, and had been able to tell you that things get better. Rest in peace.”
That “things get better” kind of gutted me, along with that desire to have had a chance to speak to him, because things do get better. And they have gotten better — at a macro level for LGBT people and at a micro level personally for so many of us in our lives after escaping high school.
Vicious ‘family’ values
When I came out to my parents in the early 1980s, I was not just telling my mom and my dad. I was not just burning them with mental images that took them years to stop seeing. They could look at my sister’s boyfriend without seeing his dick in her mouth, but they couldn’t look at mine, couldn’t make the same leap with my boyfriend for a while.
But telling my very traditional parents I was gay in the early 1980s meant telling them that I would never marry, never have kids. I would have a marginal career if I had any career at all, and that I could never be a Marine.
And here we are in just the course of my adult life, since age 18, and I am married to the same guy for 20 years. We have a 15-year-old son that we raised from birth together. Now I can be a Marine. I don’t want to be a Marine, much to the relief of the United States Marine Corps. But the kind of gay people who could be Marines and would like to be Marines and would be good Marines can now be Marines and serve openly.
I need to talk to the next Billy Lucas before he harms himself, but I would never get an invitation to a high school to speak to that kid, the queer kid, who most desperately needs to hear from LGBT adults. Kids who are queer are at four times greater risk for suicide. That doubles if their parents are openly hostile.
That is why I say that Tony Perkins [of the Family Research Council] sits on a pile of dead gay children every day when he goes to work. He encourages parents to do what he damn well knows doubles the already quadrupled risk of suicide for their queer kids. Then he points to the suicide rate that he’s helping to drive up as proof that the gay “lifestyle” is unhealthy and dangerous.
I would never be able to get permission from that parent who’s following Tony Perkins’ lead to speak to their kid, to tell them that things get better. Then it occurred to me on the train to JFK that I’m in the YouTube/Facebook/Twitter era and no longer needed permission to speak to queer kids.
I could record a video, use my column and my podcast to encourage other adults to make videos, upload them to YouTube and encourage kids to watch them. And bring the LGBT youth support group to that kid whose parents would never allow them to attend one. And it worked.
A girl in Texas
The letter that most sticks with me was from a 15-year-old lesbian kid in Texas. I usually don’t say the name of the state, so don’t remember that. Growing up in a shitty state with a shitty governor. (See, I could have said Wisconsin, which is a wonderful state with a shitty governor!)
She came out to her parents because she was being bullied and needed their support. She was perceived to be a lesbian, which she is. She went to her parents and came out to them, and they did what Tony Perkins tells parents to do.
They threatened to disown her, throw her out of the house, cut off all her contact with her siblings and not pay for her education if she didn’t go into counseling at their megachurch. They said she had to take it back — not be a lesbian.
So she did what so many queers before her have done. She lied to her parents under duress and told them that she was mistaken, that she was not a lesbian, that she was confused. She went home from her counseling session and put up a poster of Justin Bieber, because that’s as close to lesbianism as she could get for a while. (I’m not making fun of effeminate boys. Anyone who’s ever met anybody I’ve ever dated knows that effeminate boys are my favorite.)
She wrote me at [my column] Savage Love to tell me that she was watching It Gets Better videos on her phone, in her bed, in her bedroom, under the covers in her parent’s house in the middle of the night. That was what we wanted to do. We kicked down her parents’ front door, marched into their daughter’s bedroom and climbed into bed with her. We brought the queer youth support group to her, the one her parents wouldn’t let her attend.
She said that it was helping. She was seeing families of gay people, bi people, and trans people, whose families had the same reaction as hers, coming around. She was seeing lesbians with families of their own and wives and children and colleagues who respected them and friends who loved them for who they really were.
It was giving her hope for her future, and it was getting her through this time when she was being pushed toward suicide by her parents.
You can’t stop us anymore by accusing us of “recruiting” or being pedophiles. You can’t! The culture has to stop pretending that there is no such thing as queer kids. Because there are. We don’t jump fully formed out of the backs of gay bars at age 21, pride beads around our necks.
So I kept saying on TV, “game over.” We’re going to talk to your queer kids whether you want us to or not. And I would say we’re going to talk to your queer kids whether preachers, teacher or parents like it or not. And she wrote, this Texas kid, that not only were the videos giving her hope for her future, they were giving her hope for her parents. Because she was seeing people whose parents were like hers and had came around. She was seeing parents like my parents, who came around. Right?
What she said at the end of her letter, which changed the way I talk about the It Gets Better project on television, was just so shattering.
She said, “Every day I get up and go downstairs and I look at my mother and my father and I love them for who they’re going to be in 10 years.”
Terry and I made one out of 150,000 “It Gets Better” videos. We made one, but because so many other people made them and shared their stories, we convinced her that that was possible, even for her family. And one day, her parents are going to thank us for what we did for their daughter.
She is the success story of It Gets Better. That we reached that kid, at that moment and gave her what she needed to get through it but also gave her the insight that allows her to love her parents at a time when they are failing her. And incapable of loving her.
Thank you very much!