HAWTHORNE, NJ - Halfway through June, with so many things in the public consciousness, it is easy to overlook the fact that June is also Pride Month. A rainbow flag was hung up in a window at the Hawthorne Municipal Building and other towns have displayed it on poles and other prominent places. Hawthorne Stigma Free Tweeted "June is #LGBTPrideMonth. Let’s celebrate with our friends and family."
Michael Stracco, a Hawthorne resident and Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) advisor at a north Jersey high school, and Jesus Barbosa, advisor to Hawthorne High School’s GSA, spoke to TAPinto Hawthorne to discuss Pride Month, the rainbow flag, and what it represents to residents of Hawthorne as well as society as a whole.
Jesus Barbosa said, “It's different for every person but I think it's a form of recognition of the community out there. Students, parents--the LGBTQ community is out there and this is just a good form, especially for my students. When they see the flag they feel that they're visible and recognized. They're accepted for who they are and that's what it means to me: recognition and a visible sign of support.” LGBTQ represents “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning” and is sometimes written out with other variations, such as LGBT+, where the plus sign is inclusive of others identities or orientations.
In the decade following the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969, which was seen as a watershed moment in the history of the gay rights movement in America, people began to take more notice of the marginalized LGBT community. The colors of the rainbow flag were designed in the late 1970s by San Francisco designer Gilbert Baker at the request of gay rights activist and city supervisor candidate Harvey Milk. Milk ran and won a campaign in 1977 and became the first openly gay politician in California. Milk sponsored an anti-discrimination bill during his short time in office, which passed and was signed into law by Mayor George Moscone, known as “The People’s Mayor”. Supervisor Dan White, who had a “mixed record” regarding gay rights, had resigned from his position, frustrated with what he called political corruption and then later tried to reverse his resignation. Milk and other California figures urged the mayor not to reappoint White, although he had initially agreed to do so. When White was denied at the mayor’s office, he produced a revolver and fatally shot Mayor Moscone four times. He then reloaded the pistol, went to the office of Harvey Milk, and shot him five times—the last two rounds directly into his head at point blank range, according to medical reports. Stunningly, White was found guilty of “voluntary manslaughter” rather than first degree murder. The lenient sentence ignited the White Night Riots in May of 1979. White was paroled in 1984 and committed suicide through carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage on October 21, 1985.
The rainbow flag has existed in various forms. The original design by Baker was 8 horizontal stripes, but later reduced to the most commonly seen six: red (life), orange (healing), yellow (sunlight), green (nature), blue (harmony), and purple (spirit). Philadelphia produced an alternative with a black and brown stripe at the top to draw specific attention to people of color who identify as LGBT.
Fast forward to 2020. “Even though it is a small gesture, it is a flag,” Barbosa said. “Ten years ago it probably wouldn’t have been there [at the municipal building] but as the years go on, we have a generation coming up that's more progressive, open, and exposed to LGBT characters, story lines, movies, and shows. It seems to be very positive for movement towards acceptance of the community.”
Stracco said, "During this month, I think this, for members of the LGBT community, is a recognition of identity, acceptance, understanding, and unity. Conversely, the LGBT movement has been going on for 51 years and the fight continues."
On Monday, June 15, the US Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act extended anti-discrimination protection for LGBT workers. In many states, workers identified as LGBT could be fired by their employers strictly on those grounds, but no longer. Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr., who represents Hawthorne in New Jersey's 9th Congressional District, released a statement saying, "For generations, LGBTQ+ Americans have faced ugly, unfathomable discrimination in the workplace. Through this decision, our nation’s highest court is signaling that America will continue to move forward to protect our neighbors."
"The only way people can feel threatened is because they don’t understand," Stracco said. "Our sexuality doesn’t define who we are. I would say someone was 'a math teacher who was gay’ and not ‘a gay math teacher’ for example. I have a rainbow flag in my classroom. When my students see it, it reminds them that this is a safe place for them to be who they are."
Both Stracco and Barbosa emphasized the importance of language as being a tool for understanding and acceptance. "I don’t tolerate phrases like ‘that’s so gay’ and such," Stracco said. "We have to educate and motivate. If you educate, then you can motivate students to have a better understanding. They can understand the movement, the different types of sexuality, and also watch their language. Language becomes an integral part of the education."
"I have seen some students in the day, after school in the GSA club, and they are a completely different person," Barbosa said. "During the school day there is some harassment, it's been less, but kids will say things like 'that's gay'--not in that it's negative towards a person--but that 'gay' is used in a negative connotation. The students complain and try to address it with their classmates to say that's hurtful for the community. Part of what I was trying to do this year is educate the students in Hawthorne to understand the things they say, their behaviors, are hurtful. So we had a bulletin board of things to say instead of 'That's gay', and we'd update it with things to help out."
Barbosa said that they had a flag to represent other orientations and identities in addition to the rainbow pride flag. "There's an individual flag for everyone in the community, a lesbian flag, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, so we had a whole bulletin showing the different flags. When I started this year I was not aware of so many variations of the flag representing individual identities."
"It raises awareness," Stracco said. "For strengthening a better understanding and reason to accept. I want my heterosexual students to realize we’re all human. It doesn’t matter who we love. Deep down inside, we’re all the same. Students today are better about acceptance than they were in the past because there’s more visibility."
"As the years go on I see the acceptance even more," Barbosa said. "The kids devour media more and more. The gay character in the 80s was usually like the gay friend of the main female character: stereotypical and flamboyant, but that's not the case in recent years. The characters are now main characters. Good movies focus on their struggles in a respectful way, not like a parody, addressing real issues. Do we have those who don't accept them? Sure, but I'm seeing that less and less. Obviously older generations aren't as exposed or for whatever reason they don't know someone, or they do and aren't aware. I think it's about being exposed to people, and when people interact they just inherently understand we're all the same."
Education is key to acceptance, but until now there had never been any mandates to include LGBT-inclusive education in school curricula. "Next year starts our inclusion of LGBT curriculum in September," Barbosa said. "The curriculum has to reflect some LGBT important figures in regards to science, history, language arts, and things like that. That starts next year and the students were really happy about it."
Both teachers said their GSAs had some ups and downs getting started but were both active and busy. With the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of schools, Barbosa said he moved his club meetings online for the students. "I'm still having meetings every two weeks or so through Zoom because the students tell me they get from the GSA club that it's the only place in school they can gather and, in essence, be safe and be themselves, surrounded by people who are out or are allies of the community." Barbosa said that he had some "grand plans" for the Hawthorne High School GSA but the pandemic meant some things had to be put on hold.
Remote education has also been challenging, both for the teachers as well as the students and their families. "It's been difficult for some of them, isolated from their friends," Barbosa said, "so I try to make a point of connecting, asking about their mental health, making sure they reach out. The school and counselors have provided some resources for those struggling."
Stracco said that at his school, the GSA recognized some important days for the LGBT community. One is a Day of Silence, in April, where stickers are given out. "One says ‘I will speak up’ and the other says ‘Will you speak up?’ The ‘I will’ is self-identity and the ‘Will you’ is an ally. These stickers go throughout the building. Last time we put out about 500. Kids, faculty, and teams were wearing them in an all-inclusive spirit. We also recognized National Coming Out Day in October. We asked teachers on a voluntary basis if they would leave their closet door open for the day. In it, we had a sign that said ‘Our closets and our hearts are open’. It is a very simple symbol to say it is safe to open your closet door. If students feel that it is not safe to come out to their families, then at school at least there is a non-judgmental and accepting space."
Although there was no fanfare or particular attention drawn to the rainbow flag at the municipal building this year, both Barbosa and Stracco were glad it was there. "It’s good since the town has an LGBT community and it gets some visible recognition and support. That’s all positive," Stracco said.
"Everyone is different and everybody likes to be recognized," Barbosa said. "You need to be visible, you need to know we're here and to show support. The flag should be up all the time, why just one month? But if we get one month we'll take it. It's been fifty years since the first march, so the flag is a global sign of recognition that we accept who you are, we support you, and it draws attention to equality. It's good that there's support but there needs to be more. The Stonewall Riots led to recognition and parallel with what's happening today, it is no different. The riots were because gays were targeted and harassed by the police. We strive in America to be equal, and until that's achieved we have to be visible, we have to fight. Silently supporting someone isn't good enough. My kids aren't old enough to vote but I encourage them to learn about lawmakers in Hawthorne, in New Jersey, and throughout the US. Things don't just come to you, sometimes you have to fight for it. You have to fight for equality, but know there are people who support you even if they aren't part of the community. Pride Month is a yearly recognition of 'this is who we are' and we still have a lot of work to do. People just want to be treated equally."
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