A story of how we became us

The storytelling self is a social self, who declares and shapes important relationships through the mediating power of words. Thus, in sharing stories, we have the potential for forging new relationships, including local, classroom “cultures” in which individuals are interconnected and new “we’s” formed.
– Dyson, A. H., & Genishi, C. (1994). The need for story: Cultural diversity in classroom and community. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

In the spring of 1995, I was informed of a request for proposals that had come out from the Wisconsin Division of Health Services which was seeking ways to improve the outcomes of HIV prevention education in Wisconsin by assuring that gay youth would get access to information and skills development. I called together a handful of gay teens to learn from them what their lives were like, what they knew about HIV transmission, and what they thought adults needed to know about them. They told me story after story about the rough patches in their lives: homelessness, bullying, hiding, school failure, and more. At the end of our time, I asked what they wanted people to know about them. They answered that they were not all white like media portrayed them, and they were not as fragile as many people thought. In short, they were diverse and resilient.

In the ensuing 20 years, there have been many more stories. There were stories from teens who were jailed and stories from teens that went on to earn advanced degrees. Some stories came from teens that changed clothes in alleys so they could present their gender accurately at school. There were stories about drug use, scholarships, failed relationships, family abuse, seminary, and court. Characters in the stories included parents, pimps, parole officers, pastors, pageant organizers, and police. The stories were set in bars, back alleys, schools, shelters, synagogues, restaurants, and community centers.

Gary at MHS2 1975The we that was formed through the mediating power of these stories is a cadre of more than 50,000 LGBT teens and adults that has considered their own healthy development and that of their peers. Among those, there are perhaps 1,000 – likely more – that have taken on, at least for a while, some responsibility for teaching others what they have learned. This community now resides in California, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Washington, Georgia, Florida, New York, and Wisconsin.

Like many stories that help form community, this one from youth I convened in 1995 has some back stories as well. I chose to call together that first group of story-tellers because I was schooled in Adlerian psychology in my undergraduate educational psychology course. Throughout my teaching career in public schools and at the university, I convened listening groups during which students share their aspirations and goals for class. I was taking those ed psych classes because I had been denied access to declaring clinical psychology as my major because I was openly gay. I was openly gay as an undergraduate because when I was sent to a psychiatrist in high school to address my homosexual interests, he told my parents that there was nothing wrong with me. He added that I might have some tough times in an unwelcoming society, but I was strong and would bounce back. So, 30 years before those youths told me that they were diverse and resilient, I had been schooled in the same for myself.

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