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Stephanie Michele Headshot

'That Is So #Gay'

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I have an aunt who's middle name is Gay. To my grandparents who named her, gay meant nothing more than being happy. Gay was the perfect name to follow Gail, working in a series of rhyming middle names that all of my mom's siblings have. For as long as I can remember, I knew the story behind the name but would laugh when telling it because I knew the word meant something else.

I will never forget the moment when my friend Robert corrected my nephew after he said, "That is so gay." I knew that I was just as guilty for saying something similar. Words matter and yet it is so easy to use them without concern on how or who they offend especially with all the means to do so via online communication. This is where patterns of cyber bulling begin.

When I reflect on what I was told by the adults in my life about homosexuality, the memories are a mixed bag of intolerance, ridicule and fear. As fast as the topic came up it was suppressed into silence. I wonder now if I was exposed to an actual issue that I needed guidance on, how would the adults in my life have handled it at the time? How would I? I am wondering this now more than ever after watching the HBO documentary Valentine Road.

Valentine Road is about two boys, Larry King and Brandon McInerney. Both boys grew up in Southern California. They are the same age. They survived abuse and experienced things that no child should ever have to go through. They both had drug-addicted mothers. Larry was given up for adoption at age two, was removed from his adopted parents after alleged abuse and placed in a group children's home. After Brandon's mother goes to rehab Brandon is placed with his father who has a history of violence, drug abuse and crimes with firearms. Brandon also suffers alleged abuse at the hands of his father.

The similarities between the boys end when each makes a choice with consequences greater than what any eighth-grade boy has the ability to process at the time. Larry detaches himself from pain and explores how to express himself in loving, happy and playful ways. He experiments with feminine dress and manners. As Brandon reflects on his experience with violence and abuse, his choice is to try to keep his head down and avoid conflict. To him this means not saying too much to adults. He does not have experience with adults being able to help or guide him. He is still however attracted to dominant male figures who are known for using violence. He reads about Hitler and white supremacy. He is introduced by his stepbrother to a young man known to be a white supremacist.

Larry develops a crush on Brandon. Larry shares this with Brandon. Brandon does not reciprocate Larry's feelings. Brandon is embarrassed, uncomfortable and angered by Larry's public gestures and advancements towards him. Brandon may have received guidance on how to deal with a girl's affections but was never prepared to deal with expressed affections from a person of the same sex as him. He is told by staff members at the boys' school that Larry has the right to express himself in the way that he chooses but he is never guided on what he should do about it or how to deal with his feelings of anger, discomfort and extreme embarrassment towards Larry. Brandon's feelings become enraged to the point where he sees the best way to deal with Larry is to beat him up. He tries to convince friends to help him and no one agrees to do so. Without a relationship he trusts to turn to, he decided to take a gun from his home to school one day. In a classroom, Brandon shoots Larry twice in the head at close range. Larry dies. Brandon, age 15 goes to jail and will be there until he is 39.

I can't quite shake the magnitude of what happened between these two boys. I have empathy for both of them because I realize that extreme actions are byproducts of extreme longing. Longing to be understood, cared for, safe and loved. The facts of the story could easily be used to make cases for gun control and mandating tolerance curriculum in schools. More importantly, there is a need to teach our children how to communicate their feelings, use words wisely and use communication for conflict resolution.

I highly recommend seeing Valentine Road with friends, family, children and colleagues and then discussing afterwards. I will risk sounding overly dramatic by saying the following:

The impact of a conversation reflecting on the film Valentine Road could save someone's life.