While the evening fog rolled over the Santa Barbara Courthouse’s Sunken Gardens, hundreds of candles shone brightly as members, allies, and advocates of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning) community held a vigil on October 11 honoring youths who have taken their own lives as a result of homophobic bullying. In celebrating National Coming Out Day, many attendees were clad in purple or rainbow garb.
Diverse as the crowd was, there was one strong, shared sentiment — they all did not want to be there. In fact, they hated that they were even at the vigil.
“I’m kind of angry that we have to be here and that we have to keep on reminding ourselves and so many others that hate is just not tolerable in our community,” said Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, who spoke briefly at the ceremony.
Small placards served as tombstones and told the tragedies of the numerous reported deaths related to homophobic bullying and violence all over the country in September 2010. On a more local level, members of the Santa Maria and Santa Barbara LGBTQ communities are victims of violent hate crimes, said attendees.
A major concern was addressing the need to educate the community and increase awareness and tolerance of the LGBTQ community, and that remaining a silent witness in the face of bullying is, in fact, becoming a corroborator. Much blame is placed on the negative stigma on non-traditional gender identity and sexual orientation and the supposed “normal” way to act and whom to love.
Pepe Gil, Santa Barbara High School senior class president and president of the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, reflected on witnessing homophobic harassment and his efforts to become educated and to educate.
“[At first,] I was confused and afraid of what people would think of me if I stood up and spoke out, defending a group of people that society tells us we must ridicule,” said Gil.
A major concern was what messages children are getting. “These are the children of our community,” said Tania Israel, UCSB professor of counseling psychology. “We need them to know we’re here to teach them to cope with intolerance because it will take time to end prejudice,” she added.
Congresswoman Lois Capps gave an overview of recent legislations and efforts to represent and protect the LGBTQ community, including the recent formation of the House of Representatives LGBTQ caucus and the Matthew Shepard Act, which expands hate crime laws to include those that involve crimes brought about by the perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender of the victim.
Felipe Rodriguez-Flores, PUEBLO Action Fund board member, recounted his experiences as a LGBTQ youth in Mexico. Although he was smart, he performed poorly in school because he said it was too hard to concentrate on his studies because of the bullying he endured.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez-Flores is not alone. According to a recent study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), one-third of LGBTQ students felt so unsafe that they missed class and LBGTQ students earned lower GPAs than straight students.
However, the vigil was not an altogether bash on bullies. Many speakers pointed out the importance and necessity to extend the olive branch to the intolerant.
“The bullies are also in pain,” says Annette Cordero, Santa Barbara School Board Member. “Hurting people hurt people.” She also added that children today are growing up without learning what it means to be loving and tolerant to those who are different from us.
A parallel candlelight vigil took place at Santa Maria City Hall, where a 13-year-old girl spoke about her own experiences with bullying because her mother is a lesbian.
“It will be a good day when these kinds of vigils are no longer necessary,” said Congresswoman Capps.
This first step towards community (and hopefully nationwide) reform is supported by local organizations S.A.M.E, Pacific Pride Foundation, Just Communities, UCSB Queer Student Union, UCSB Resource Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity, G.R.A.C.E and Trinity Episcopal Church.