10/12/2011 08:59 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Resistance to Homophobia and Transphobia: Marking Change on the Ground

A movement that, at its heart, seeks justice for those denied it can be measured in many ways: political progress through enactment of laws and governmental policies; a steady increase in representation in numbers of elected officials; rising support evinced through public opinion polls; and more friendly policies at institutions like corporations, churches and schools at all levels.

Another measure of a social justice movement is when, whether and how people not directly identified with the movement's cause recognize and resist discriminations, insults and defamations.

Like many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, I can sometimes feel just plain discouraged by public expressions of homophobia and gender policing. Recent examples:

  • Our recent national survey of transgender people reveals that 90 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job, or hiding who they are to avoid it.

  • A high school student hangs himself after relentless taunting for being different.
  • Governments in other parts of the world actively support homophobes who seek to shut down Pride events.
  • LGBT people in two states (Minnesota and North Carolina) must now endure 2012 campaigns to enact constitutional amendments to ban marriage for same-sex couples.
  • Yes, there are often purely political considerations that move elected leaders to push anti-LGBT laws and public policies, and there are often minorities of elected officials who oppose the codifying of homophobia and transphobia but do not have the votes to actually stop the public attacks. A federal law to ban employment discrimination against LGBT people has gone nowhere fast in this Congress.

    Teachers and school administrators can be poorly trained, intimidated or indifferent. Public gatherings of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people remain subject to government-sponsored and nurtured homophobia.

    LGBT people suffer these insults, injuries and attacks not silently but with perseverance, resilience and determination to overcome the fundamental homophobia and transphobia that too often holds sway.

    In the day-to-day swirl of homophobic and transphobic remarks, harassments and hurts, I can forget that we have allies and friends living and working among us who do resist when homophobia and transphobia lead the way. If these inspiring examples of speaking out against injustices received as much attention as egregious anti-LGBT expressions, I and we would experience the efficacy of our movement for LGBT social justice in a different and more upbeat way.

    I was recently contacted by a college student who coordinates an off-campus service project to provide out-of-school tutoring to grade school students from immigrant families. She was alarmed because one of her student tutors had related to her a story of homophobia at her tutee's school.

    A speaker had come in to the classroom to participate in a civics lesson. The speaker noted that some public officials in the state and city were openly gay or lesbian. When the speaker departed the classroom, the teacher, according to the tutee, made a dramatic show of cleaning off the chair in which the guest had sat, saying that the speaker was infecting the classroom with pro-homosexual ideas. The tutor was appropriately appalled but didn't let it end there.

    The tutor related the story to the program coordinator, who in turn contacted me for advice. What to do? I provided the best advice I could: take the issue to the school principal, making sure the student's identity was not revealed, and follow up with principal to ensure that he or she had done due diligence to find out if the reported incident had occurred and action was taken to make sure it never happened again.

    I was happy to provide the advice, but even happier to have been contacted by the program coordinator. I was happiest to learn that the tutor, instead of ignoring the story from the tutee, had brought it forward. As a participant in the tutoring program, she could easily have regarded the story of in-classroom behavior as something far beyond her specific task of out-of-school academic support. But she didn't.

    Even from a distance, I feel supported, buoyed and elated that the tutor, a young college student, felt motivated and empowered to intervene in the alleged homophobic behavior of her student's teacher. These small acts of resistance and intervention happen every day, but this isn't what we read about in the papers or on blogs. Nonetheless, the women and men and children who see homophobia and transphobia and call it out do themselves and all of us the great service of changing the environments we live in every day.

    Political machinations to stymie and stall our progress in larger ways will be with us for a long time; and so will the daily insults and hurts. Republican candidates fail to respond to the boos and catcalls from an audience when a gay service member asks a question of the candidates and, with their silence, support the homophobic derisions arising in the room.

    We who seek social justice for LGBT people are indebted to folks who go out of their way to notice routine homophobia and transphobia, and to challenge and change its unconscious and conscious expressions. These small acts of resistance and grace are as important as our ongoing efforts to secure macro political climate change for LGBT people and, because of the up close and personal nature of the resistance, may be even more enduring.