Front and center on the Great Falls Tribune a few days ago was a story about one of my former students (briefly) from Cut Bank (a “white” town) and her dad who taught in Browning (a reservation town where I did most of my teaching.) It was a bit of a gob-smack, but not a total surprise since Amie Shea was obviously gifted and tough. Probably more so than her dad, but that was because of the support from her dad. Her big grievance in those days was that she wanted to go to school in Browning where students were not so, well, homo-cultural. The pressure to conform in Cut Bank is high. What that meant was emphasis on social status, money, athletics, drinking and violence. It meant conformity to the Rock Hudson and Doris Day world, woefully outdated in a time and place when the sons of oil roughnecks were “extreme fighting” in the back alleys while grown men bet on them. I was delighted when Amie escaped to California.
You can see what’s she’s been up to at www.gaydadproject.org. Or you might catch her on one of the pop talk shows, like “Ricki Lake” where she and her partners are scheduled this week. One of the things that she DID learn while surviving in Cut Bank was to find the others like her -- not gays, but artists, thinkers, and eccentrics. There was a lot of pain among these kids, but also a lot of fun.
Another dynamic that helped was the exchange student program. Amie’s year in Stockholm presented an entirely different take on how people can live. But the exchange student who came to Cut Bank fit into the Cut Bank culture all too well. I don’t know what country he was from, but I always figured he was sent by the Mafia. He came on to Amie in a very confusing way.
Pete Shea stopped at my house one afternoon because I wanted to give him books by Patricia Nell Warren, author of the beloved “coming out” book called “The Fancy Dancer.” I was interested in her, not because I’m gay (I’m not.), but because she’s one of the most authentic Montana-born authors you can imagine since she was born and grew up on the Grant Kohrs ranch, a national historic site, near Deer Lodge. http://wildcatintl.com/pnw.cfm The humanities scene in Montana totally ignores her and Pete didn’t know about her either, not even “The Front Runner” which is probably slightly more famous than “The Fancy Dancer.” When I mention “The Fancy Dancer” unexpected people light up with enthusiasm.
Cultures that go by high school standards of social acceptability depend on open secrets. That is, everyone knows or suspects who is gay or whatever, but everyone pretends they don’t know. Then they feel they have power over the outsider. Sometimes stigmatized people make major contributions to other people’s lives or possibly are so gifted that their achievements can’t be ignored, so the stigma is suspended unless something triggers it. Pete was lucky. And he was a contributor. Other teachers and professionals in the area were not. Some are deeply enough hidden that no one suspects, mostly because observers have inaccurate and childish ideas about sexual orientation anyway. For instance, a high school boy informed me “gay” means “weak, ineffectual, a loser.” I wish I knew a Leather Lit personality around here who could explain otherwise to him. Maybe a motorcycle master with a bowie knife in his boot.
The arts famously ignore color lines, ethnic origins, morality, and even income levels. Therefore within their group most stigmas are suspended. What counts is originality, intensity, deep truth about humans. Therefore artists often love reservations, esp. those with tribes that have a cultural background that isn’t locked into the bipolar assumptions of high school culture that require everyone to be either this or that, no gray areas, no new categories, no exceptions or creativities. IN or OUT. High school culture tries to eliminate nonconformists by using force and slander, the same as political parties that aspire no higher than contests.
Pete was surprised when I told him what I knew about gays in this area -- the open ones, the hidden ones, the past ones, the NA ones and the white square ones. In part I knew because of Bob Scriver being a sculptor, so Scriver Studio was a place other artists visited when passing through Browning. In part because my undergrad work was in theatre where students and professors were quietly gay. And in part because my mother was a Portland teacher and gradually we realized how many of my high school teachers had been quiet lesbians. One, an elegant lawyer’s daughter who wore a string of pearls, was the president of the NEA. Of course, I spent ten years as a Unitarian Universalist minister. That denomination has been friendly to GLBTQ people for a long time.
I’m ashamed that I didn’t reach out to Pete and Amie when I was teaching at Cut Bank High School. It was a dangerous place in 2002 and I was still off base from an early retirement to Valier and from trying to understand what had happened to the multi-million-dollar estate of Bob Scriver. I left the teaching job in November -- under pressure -- and the crisis WAS related to this issue of nonconformity, though not over who was gay. Quite the opposite. It was over athletic-star boys who couldn’t manage their testosterone levels -- partly because the coaches didn’t want them to. Everyone insisted they didn’t use steroids, but some had a lot of rage. They were not bad boys, even the ones who justified my quitting. I did not quit because of THEM but because of the way they were treated. They fit the stereotype, but it didn’t do them much good. They were exploited.
Stigmatized students and hidden-identity fathers in a small frog-puddle town have a hard time realizing that they are part of a network around the planet, but now Amie and her friends, Jared Karol and Erin Margolin, know that. The Internet totally changes the terms of culture, putting people in touch who are like each other and able to respond with understanding. These young adults have seized both the day and the way. When you look at their website -- and part of the deal is being able to look at it privately -- you’ll see that they are calm, wise, and supportive. This will suit some people and not others. Some school and library net-nannies will not let you look online. But they will have a hard time suppressing that issue of the Great Falls Tribune or Rikki Lake.
www.indiegogo.com/gaydadproject. if you want to donate.