Offering a Hand Could Save Lives
I'm living proof. But before we dig in to that...In light of recent far-right attacks on the LGBTQ community from Kentucky's Republican-controlled legislature, it's more important than ever to speak up. If you follow me on social media or have worked with me through the years, you likely already know I advocate for my community as a gay man, a lifelong Kentuckian and Appalachian.So I want to stress the importance of what Republican former State Representative Jerry Miller did on Tuesday, March 14, 2023 when he testified in opposition to House Bill 470. It's truly one of the most heinous, bigoted pieces of legislation I have encountered in my more than two decades of reporting on and working in Frankfort.Here are Miller's remarks, courtesy the Legislative Research Commission:
Having worked with him to get Louisville's whistleblower protection ordinance passed in 2014, a result of my reporting on animal torture and whistleblower retaliation by former Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Sadiqa Reynolds (yes, really — Sadie's Law), I know him to be an honorable man. But I didn't expect him to stand up like he has. Jerry Miller is proof that we change as life changes.I am proud to see him and others like him speak up to save LGBTQ youth while so many prominent voices in Kentucky remain devastatingly silent. What he did is a huge deal. Especially as other Republicans spend their time focusing on ruining the lives of LGBTQ senior citizens and making sure transgender kids don't have access to safe, affirming health care.HB470 will kill kids in Kentucky. It would have killed me. I don't believe I would be alive today if the legislation had been in effect in 1996.27 years ago may seem like centuries to some of you but it feels like yesterday to me. Things then weren't much different than they are today. If you're young, just imagine life without having a cell phone on you 24/7. Boot cut jeans were popular and Dr. Martens were more of a thing.Several years ago I learned about a guy who ended his life by suicide over struggles he faced as a young gay man in rural Eastern Kentucky schools. His unnecessary death, a permanent solution to a temporary problem, reminded me of my own journey to adulthood.I was outed against my will in high school, had a knife pulled on me in the hallway, was spit on, got pulled from my classes. It was unreal terror for a teenager. There didn't seem to be much hope in the world for a kid like me. If there was, I certainly couldn't find it in those hills and hollers. I attempted suicide after giving up. After gay bashing, abuse, teacher-sanctioned hatred. After that extreme, obscene moment in my youth, I learned to fight and stand on my own. Thanks to the support of a few quiet souls.After missing 105 days of school and going through treatment, a conservative football coach and principal named Bruce Herdman came to my rescue. One person in my community stood up. One. That's all it took to change my life forever. He stood by me when he didn't have to — when it could have meant the end of his career. HB470 would have made it the end of his career.Not everyone ends up as lucky. When people roll their eyes at gay and trans kids struggling in rural America, it's extremely personal for me. Little has changed in three decades. People are quick to dismiss LGBTQ struggles but they're real. If you know me, I'm living proof. Please don't forget it.If you think gay people can't make it in society? I am beyond openly gay and was accepted by conservative Republicans in the state capitol every single day. Until recently, anyway. I built my career in the early 2000s after encouragement from a Republican governor and several Republican legislators. I digress.When you see a gay kid being bulled or harmed? Or you witness the General Assembly racing to destroy LGBTQ lives for personal gain? Please don't sit on your hands. Speak up. Challenge the powerful. Go to those in need. You could literally save their lives.I still don't know many out gay journalists in Kentucky but, like me or not, I'm proof you can thrive if you get encouragement and put in the effort. When I was pushed aside as the "gay one" at a press conference in 2007, the governor stepped in and gave me encouragement. That sparked something inside me that's still burning today.My point in sharing all of this is that one person saying one thing has the power to change everything, the power to give drive and determination. Merely speaking up to right a wrong can do that.When I was spit on and chased by a guy down my high school hallway, teachers rolled their eyes, only a few students were concerned. For weeks, I couldn't walk alone at school without being assaulted, physically and verbally. Mortifying for a teen to experience. Mind you, I don't present as many in Frankfort seem to expect. My voice is deeper than many heterosexual, cisgender, wannabe tough guys who talk a big game in politics. All of that still occurred. That bigoted behavior was accepted, fostered, encouraged, the norm. One teacher wouldn't even allow me in his classroom as a result of it all. (Hi, George Bellamy!)When every friend I had fled, most teachers showed indifference. Some teachers, like Jane Collett, piled on. The school district turned a blind eye and there were few options. And when a gay kid isn't permitted to attend class and can't walk the halls alone, they stop going to school. That's what I did.When you feel like you can't get an education, have no familial support and no money to escape? You give up all hope. That's what I did. You take enough of your mother's medication to end your life. You give up. You surrender to hopelessness. That's what I did.My mother, a nurse, found me. She read the letter I left her and pumped my stomach. But she didn't stop being a homophobe that day. She was ashamed, wouldn't immediately take me for medical treatment because of that shame, the stigma, the scary gay panic.I survived.I missed most of a school year. Eventually having no other option but to return. I went. Dead inside.To my surprise and utter disbelief, Bruce Herdman (again, tough football coach) yanked me into his office and poured his heart out to me. He spent time telling me about the stigma surrounding it all, how he was advised by the superintendent not to support me and to allow me to be on my own. He refused to back down and stood by my side. Every single day for three years. When no one else would.That man changed my life.His effort to risk standing by the gay kid changed my mother's heart. She became an ally and a courageous woman fighting for equality in her own way. One man's decision to stand by me prevented me from trying to harm myself again (say that out loud) and gave me the courage to make it.If this sounds weak or I'm overwhelming you: my point is one you especially need to try to comprehend. So keep up. Indulge me for a moment.While people have since come around and I now have dear friends from those days, no one would risk friendship at the time. It was too dangerous. Life was so bad that I had no hope. I couldn't turn to my own mother to protect me. Until one person took a risk and changed it all. Because of him, I made it through high school and developed the resilience, assholery and stubbornness I have today.What if he'd stayed quiet? What if he had been forced to stay quiet by HB470?When people tell you not to speak up in support of those in tough circumstances, my teenage years should be proof that you need to do just that.Tragically, Herdman was killed in a traffic accident with his family a few days after I graduated high school but his encouragement reminds me today that it only takes one person to make a huge difference in the world. One adult helping a kid can impact their life nearly three decades later. It can give them the drive to build a business, to be happy, to love.When you see a kid struggling and so much as think that they could be suicidal? It is your duty as a human to step in and help in any way you can. You may be the only helping hand they're offered and you'll never know it. If you don't speak up, it may be their last chance disappearing.If you speak up, you may save a life. You may change others. You may help a family. You may make an impact that forces change for decades to come.I realize that I'm still a hot potato politically but I hope you will put your differences aside for a moment. Take time to think about what it requires for a gay or trans kid from rural Kentucky to move to where I am today. It's monstrous growth. Take a moment to imagine what it takes for any kid, gay/trans or not, to make it when they're having a tough time or being relentlessly bullied.It takes years of life — being fired, kicked out, refused access, struggling in school, experiencing homelessness — to successfully reach adulthood. I'm not sure any of it would have happened without one unexpected person having sense to say enough was enough, to give me a fighting chance.2023 is not 1996, I get it. But I hope everyone reading this will step up for a kid who needs it some day. Even if it's uncomfortable. Just as Bruce Herdman did. Just as Jerry Miller has done.Saying, "Hey, I will help you, I will listen," can and does stop suicide. Standing up against elected officials pushing painful bigotry can and will improve this world. I am living proof.…That's the story I wanted to get off my chest. I hope everyone who has taken the time to read it will think twice when they encounter someone in need.If you are a young LGBTQ person in need or know someone who is in need, The Trevor Project can help.Wondering who I am? Follow me on Twitter: @cattleprod (the same on Instagram) or read some of my past work as it's slowly republished here.
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