By Shan O'Connor:
October has always been my favorite month of the year. Even as a child, I remember becoming increasingly excited to say goodbye to the heat and long days of summer and welcome the first hint of crisp, cool air. I have fond memories of my mother making sure I wore a jacket before seeing me out the door to catch the school bus and vivid recollections of the early morning mist settling over the landscape of my country home. It was almost as if the chilly air itself crackled with a different energy with the coming of autumn, bringing in a certain kind of magic with the season. It’s a feeling that I believe still resonates in children to this day. Perhaps it’s something many of us that felt it as children never quite grew out of, and that’s why it remains our favorite time of year into adulthood.
For the members of our LGBTQ+ community, however, the month of October means something far more than just nostalgia, pumpkin spice, apple cider, hoodies, and Halloween. It is a month-long observance of LGBT history. The history of gay and civil rights movements, role models, and community is celebrated in October to coincide with National Coming-Out Day on October 11th. While the first and second marches for LGBT rights took place in Washington in 1979 and 1987, and Pride is celebrated in June, LGBT History Month wasn’t founded until 1994 by Missouri history teacher Rodney Wilson.
The fight for equality and civil rights has been a long and difficult battle for the members of this community, and the battle is far from being won or over. With this election year being the most important perhaps of any of our lifetimes, and now with the appointment of the most recent Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barret skewing the Supreme Court to an unprecedented Conservative 6–3 majority, the future and security of both women’s and LGBTQ rights is uncertain. The need for fighters and allies is now greater than it has ever been.
Rather than give in to despair, I am reminded of a time before 1994, before the founding of LGBT History Month, when I was just a teen in high school, still in that little country town I mentioned at the beginning of this article. This was exactly the kind of place you envision when you hear the words “small town.” Small population, everybody knows everybody. You are in high school with the same kids you were in kindergarten and grade school with. Their parents know your parents. Pep rallies and cheering on the local football team every Friday night at the game was the thing to do, and the jocks were the heroes. If you were not part of this crowd or their followers, you were an outcast. You were different, and different was bad.
It was a kid who was different that sticks out in my memory and prompted this piece. We’ll call him Lee. Lee was a quiet, kind soul who was new to the area, so that in itself drew attention immediately. He had a way of moving through the halls that was unlike the other boys. He had a sway to his hips. He dressed differently, in bold, bright colors, his favorites being neon pinks and blues, and his nails were painted to match. His hair, though short, was a bit long on top and curly and teased in a bouffant, and he had an ear piercing. It was quite clear that Lee was effeminate and gay.
Though Lee tried to keep mostly to himself, being that this was a small town with small-town values and small-town minds, it didn’t take long for Lee to be met with harassment and unwanted attention daily both at school and after. I remember seeing him day after day in the halls, still boldly wearing his neon, flashing his painted matching nails, with his bouffant. I’d see him walking along, I assumed walking home, after school as I rode by on the bus. What I don’t remember is when I purposefully started looking for him, only that I did. Even though I was caught up in my own world of teenage drama and problems and not yet mature enough to grasp what was truly happening in the halls of that little high school, I knew enough to know that I was scared for Lee and that I knew what it was to be different. I wanted him to be okay.
I only spoke to Lee a few times, quick hellos in passing those times I looked for him in the halls and the occasional wave from my seat on the bus. I knew he was kind because I remember his smile. He always had a smile for me, and it was one of those that stretches ear to ear and touches the eyes. A smile with depth and warmth, that speaks without uttering a sound.
One day, I passed Lee in the hallway, as had become routine. I said my hello, he flashed his smile, and that day he was wearing lipstick to match his pink top and nails. I commented that it looked nice. He beamed and thanked me, and we went our separate ways. That afternoon, from my seat on the bus, I saw Lee again on his usual path. He was surrounded by a group of boys from our school donned in their letterman jackets. His backpack was at his feet, and they had him pushed up against the chain link fence surrounding the football field. I rushed up from my seat and told the bus driver about it, unsure of what to do aside from report it to an adult. I remember being terrified for Lee that evening, hoping he was alright. When I arrived at school the next day, I looked for Lee in the hallway at every given opportunity. He wasn’t there. I did see the cowardly letterman jacket–wearing heroes, laughing with their friends and admirers as if nothing had happened. I looked every day for the remainder of the school year for Lee. Eventually I gave up hope of seeing that familiar swagger, the dazzling smile, and bopping bouffant. I never saw him again.
I have often thought of Lee and the horrific scene I saw near the football field that day. All of it is burned into my memory. It haunts me not knowing what happened to him. I can only hope with my entire heart and being that his family moved after the incident to a safe place, and that he grew into adulthood and is happy and still unabashedly himself. Looking back on those days now as an adult, with the maturity and understanding of the bravery Lee displayed on a daily basis, living what surely had to be a hell while still maintaining his kindness, makes me wish I had reached out more. I wish I had been a better friend and ally.
I tell his story now to implore all reading this to stand up, speak up, and be that friend and ally. Today and in the days ahead, be courageous like Lee.
Shan O'Connor is an American freelance writer hailing from southern Louisiana and currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona. She is an environmental and political activist who enjoys sustainable cooking, H.E.M.A. combat and sword training, and all things literary with a passion for fantasy/horror fiction.