From a national news personality who tried to drink away her same-sex desire to a champion figure skater who was openly flamboyant before he was openly gay, a diverse panel gathered Dec. 14 at Atlanta’s Grady High School to discuss topics ranging from coming out stories to acceptance within and outside the LGBT community.
The panel, part of a series of CNN Dialogues, was titled, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender: Has More Openness Led to More Acceptance?” Emory University, CNN and the National Center for Civil & Human Rights hosted the forum.
Transgender activist Donna Rose, Robin Brand of the national Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, ESPN senior writer LZ Granderson, Olympic skater Johnny Weir and HLN anchor and panel moderator Jane Velez-Mitchell shared their stories and delved into a discussion that dealt with internal issues as much as external political issues.
Joining the panelists were a number of Atlanta activists including Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality; Paulina Helm-Hernandez, co-director of Southerners on New Ground; Rev. Angela Brown; filmmaker Cindy Abel; college activist Austin Laufersweiler; and Rev. Dennis Meredith of Tabernacle Baptist Church.
All of the panelists shared their coming out stories, which included Brand being outed by the sister of one of her girlfriends; Rose, Velez-Mitchell and Gunderson being married; and Weir thinking his story was anticlimactic and no one cared. Weir and his boyfriend, who is from Atlanta, are now engaged.
Velez-Mitchell found herself on the path to sobriety.
“I am a recovering alcoholic. When I was a drunk I could drink down my unpleasant feelings, I could drink down my uncomfortable longings for the same sex, and whenever I had those feelings I could say, ‘Waiter, another glass of Chardonnay,’” she said.
“Then when I got sober I had no where to hide,” Velez-Mitchell said. “I finally had to face myself and I surrendered to my truth, and thank God I did.”
One of the reoccurring themes of the night was discrimination within traditional gay environments and organizations. Rose balked at the idea of being called an expert on the “transgender lifestyle.”
“I don’t even know what a transgender lifestyle is, because I have a career, I have a son, I pay my bills, I don’t know what a ‘lifestyle’ is. I’ve noted more than once where we talk about gay and lesbians but we don’t mention transgender… so I am very sensitive, we are very sensitive about being left out of the party, or not being considered real men or women,” Rose said.
“We still make people uncomfortable, it’s an odd dynamic but we use this whole term about LGBT as though we were one big happy family, but we’re really not,” she added.
“There are many, many trans people who feel that our pathway is different from the LGB path to equality. That focusing so much on marriage equality takes away from the fact that we get fired every day; that 41 percent of us… are attempting suicide, and just making it through the day can be an unbearably difficult thing,” Rose said.
Weir said that he faced criticism for his flamboyant style and for being openly gay; he’s also had his gender questioned.
“In the last Olympics I skated the performances of my life, and felt so amazing and then next morning there was this report that was coming from Montreal basically saying that I was too gay, that I was too womanlike, that I needed to have a gender test in order to make sure I was competing in the proper division of figure skating,” Weir said.
“It was the day after the Olympics and I had to defend the fact that I have a penis, and in a way it's total bullying,” he said.
Brand said of the Victory Fund’s goals is to support LGBT candidates from all racial and socio-economic groups.
“It’s something that our organization has been dealing with, and I can only speak from my experience, but I think that’s we just have to have more shared experiences,” Brand said.
“We started to really cross network with other organizations so that we could bring openly LGBT Latino leaders to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, so we’re cross networking LGBT issues and Latino issues and we’re creating a dialogue around shared interests and shared continue,” Brand said.
“I think we need to do more of that, and I think it has to be very authentic,’ she said.
Granderson made the point that as a community we don’t embrace all aspects of our diversity.
“I know there are quite a few individuals, including probably some in this audience, who assume you’re not really a bisexual man, you just haven’t accepted who you are yet,” Granderson said.
“If you listen to that, how is that any different from 30 years ago with someone telling you that you weren’t really a man because you were attracted to another man?
“Each time we these beautiful moments like here, you understand that we’re diverse, but we don’t truly understand diversity yet,” he said. “We expect tolerance but aren’t tolerant yet. We as a community need to grow as well.”
Photo: From left, sports writer LZ Granderson, transgender activist Donna Rose, HLN anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell, gay activist Robin Brand and Olympic skater Johnny Weir participated in a panel about LGBT acceptance at Grady High School. (by Nathan Bolster/CNN)