Monday, December 17, 2007

Elmira: on the leading edge of the LGBT rights movement in New York

Yes you read it right. Elmira is not just the home of Mark Twain and Tommy Hilfiger. It’s also where the “radical” notion of equality and justice for LGBT New Yorkers is being debated and -- from how we see it -- the local LGBT community is winning.

Over the past year or so there have been a number of incidents in and around Elmira that have put our lives and our relationships up on the public stage for open debate and the responses, not surprisingly, have been both positive and negative.

Late last year, a gay man was attacked near a bridge by two men, who were later caught and charged with a hate crime. It was the first such anti-gay bias crime reported in Elmira. In response, Mayor John Tonello organized a community rally to protest hate crimes of any type and urged everyone to accept and value LGBT people.

Then there is Elmira’s Pride celebration. Now in its fourth year, Pride has been a work in progress. Our Field Director Nora Yates attended the first one in 2004 along with several hundred members and friends of the Elmira LGBT community. She told us later that there were also a large number of police present to guarantee everyone’s safety as no one was quite sure what the reaction might be to such an open demonstration of LGBT Pride in Elmira.

This year the Mayor took part in the celebration for the very first time as a continuation of the city’s show of support for LGBT people. On the flip side, the religious right also showed up. Seven protesters wearing T-shirts that said “Liberated from Sin” tried to disrupt the celebration by blocking the stage and putting on a show of praying and scripture reading.

Two months later in a nearby town, a high school student was sent home for wearing a T-shirt saying “gay? fine by me.” The school principal said the shirt violated the dress code. The school district’s attorney disagreed and reversed the decision, but not before a debate began about free speech in schools and whether people really are “fine” with us.

Then in October an insurance sales person put up a sign in the window of his office that said, “Save the kids – Say no to gay marriage in NY.” It got a lot of attention from both supporters and critics, none of whom hesitated to make their views known, including a local lay preacher who spoke out to say religion should not be used to justify bias against LGBT people.

Just about all of this was covered in the local paper, the Elmira Star-Gazette, which would not have happened just a few years ago. The Star-Gazette practically never mentioned our issues or talked about our lives. And on the very rare occasion when it did, such as it’s 2003 editorial on the Massachusetts marriage court decision, its viewpoint was archaic and out-of-step with what any other newspaper in New York was saying.

These days the paper does talk about our lives and our issues. The coverage is impartial, as it should be, and there are actually pro-gay opinion pieces being written by the paper’s columnists. Furthermore, it has also published a stream of letters from readers expressing a whole range of viewpoints in the aftermath of the above-mentioned incidents.

The Mayor deserves a great deal of praise of course for being a real leader and appealing to the better instincts of the people of Elmira. The Star-Gazette is also to be thanked for no longer pretending that we don’t exist.

The local LGBT community, though, is where the most praise must go. They’ve been the catalyst for forcing the change that’s happening. It’s not easy being out in a smaller community and the process of winning broader acceptance always results in push back, which as we’ve seen can come in the form of protests from religious zealots and, tragically, even violence.

All in all though, the public debate happening in Elmira over LGBT issues and LGBT lives is a great development. It’s a vital and necessary step to getting to that place where LGBT people can be out and accepted for who we are.

So our thanks go out to every one of you in Elmira who is working to make your community a better place. You are the leading edge of our fight for equality and justice in New York State and you make us all better.

No comments: