Dear Lauren Drain,
This morning, I read a news article about a 13-year-old gay boy in Australia who committed suicide after facing years of relentless bullying about his orientation. As I read the article, I couldn’t help but notice the striking parallels between the hatred he faced and the hatred I see around me every day as an openly gay teenager in a small, rural Texas community. These haunting similarities would have instilled more fear and anxiety in my heart, except for one thing: my memories of your story in Banished and the message it conveys: people can change.
During the recent election season, fear and propaganda about so many marginalized people dominated conversation, even among high school students. I heard many statements of hatred and fear, not just about the LGBT community, but of people of color, of women, of anyone who was not, essentially, a straight, white, middle-class male. It was, and continues to be, a tense and scary time for anyone who is different.
One of the things I could not help but notice during any political discussion was that teenagers tended to regurgitate the beliefs of their parents and their peers. Adults grouped together with adults who had similar ideologies. The rhetoric spewed, in many cases, was more full of hatred than anything I had ever dreamed of hearing from some of the community members in my small town. People I had known for years suddenly seemed to have so many prejudices that had never been brought forward before. For someone like me, who had spent years wondering who was safe to be open with and when it was acceptable to be myself, it was a huge reminder of the fear that marginalized people live with every day. It might have been enough to overwhelm and discourage me, except for the fact that a few months ago, I read your book and realized that, despite the pressure you faced from your family and one of the most hate-filled religious organizations in the modern world, you rose above. You rose above hatred and prejudice. You rose above anger and hostility. And you did so even through immense personal pain and loss.
Before reading your book, I just assumed that everyone either was predestined to be prejudiced and hate-filled or accepting and tolerant. Not just about the LGBT community, but about Muslims, about blacks, about Jews, about soldiers, about Latinos. People were either kind or they were not, and there was no changing the opinion or behavior of the ones who were already filled with anger and hate. Your novel was an eye-opening experience for me. Here you were, surrounded by some of the most judgmental people in our country, in the world, and you liked it. For seven years, you were fully assimilated in their extreme beliefs. You loved protesting. You loved being a part of the picketing. Before reading your book, had I been introduced to you, I would have assumed you were a lost cause, that you would never be anyone except a hate-filled member of the Westboro Baptist Church.
But you changed. You did. You matured. You questioned the tenets of your church that did not make sense to you. And even when you were threatened with banishment, not just from your church but from your family, you continued to listen to your conscious. You rose above.
Reading your story made me realize that people can change. People can grow and learn and love. People can survive standing up for what is right even when their friends and family disagree to the point of estrangement. People can rise above. And even while I felt pain and compassions for you in your struggle to find yourself, to love even without those you loved around you, I felt hope. Hope that one day, everyone would see that it is acceptable to think differently than the people they are surrounded by. Hope that society will come to embrace the differences that make our society what it is. Hope that fear of anyone different will dwindle and die. Hope that no 13-year-old boy will ever again feel that death is a preferable option to life with classmates bullying him over his orientation. Hope that someday, even those in the deepest depths of hate will rise above.
Your bravery in standing up against violence and, in the process, turning your back to everything you’d ever known and everyone who had ever loved you, gives me hope for my dream of a future free of closets. By abandoning the fear of change inherent in all humans, you allowed yourself to escape your own personal closet, the Westboro Baptist Church. If everybody could open themselves to this kind of change, we could all rise to new heights.