As a prelude to tonight's performance of It Gets Better, the traveling musical production that chronicles true stories of the LGBTQ experience, the David A Straz Center for the Performing Arts staged a "World Cafe'' Wednesday evening.
It's goal: to encourage a community conversation about the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community, especially teens.
The term "It Gets Better" stems from a campaign sparked by nationally syndicated sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who wanted to reduce the growing number of LGTBQ teen suicides with a message of encouragement.
But during the "cafe," someone said, "Instead of telling them, 'It Gets Better,' why can't we make it better for them now."
I was able to move through my high school years in Tallahassee with nary a care in the world. Acts of innocence — asking a girl to dance at a Jake Gaither Park party, going to Dairy Queen on Sunday evening with the fellas, writing stories for the high school paper — highlight my memories.
Nothing in life can replicate the exuberant innocence of my first kiss, getting behind the wheel of my father's Plymouth Valiant or riding on the Himalaya with that special someone at the North Florida Fair. I still miss it. While some cried tears of joy at my high school graduation, I just cried.
Now doesn't every kid, regardless of sexual orientation, deserve a chance to look back at their high school years with halcyon glee?
It's not realistic to expect every teen to be blessed with the joyful naivete that guided me through adolescence. Teen angst is more than an over-arching theme in John Hughes' movies. It's real for a wide variety of teens and amplified for those grappling with a sense of isolation as they navigate the pitfalls our society can impose on those who find their identity in the LGTBQ community.
As one teacher shared at the cafe, her student celebrated the fact that he was pretty sure — pretty sure — if he came out to his parents they wouldn't throw him out of the house.
For other teens, however, that rejection occurs with cold calculation or hate-filled venom. Vicki Sokolik, executive director of the nonprofit Starting Right, Now, helps unaccompanied teens from all walks and more than one found themselves homeless because a mom or dad refused to accept an undeniable truth about their child.
Peers who bully, ostracize or tease — undesirable elements that social media can take to new heights — can do similar damage.
So I completely understand why we need to hand these teens a promissory note about life.
I also know that justice delayed is justice denied.
The best idea of many to arise from the cafe involved asking school districts to create a diversity and inclusion director, someone who could serve as a point person for principals, teachers and support staff. The director could raise awareness of school services and help create an environment of inclusion.
Too many kids don't realize help exists.
And I bet some local corporations would be willing to cover the director's salary.
Beyond that, we need a resource center not just for LGBTQ teens, but for any kid gripped by difficulty, be it depression, eating disorders, parental abuse, teen dating violence, cutting, low self-esteem, academic stress or some other challenge. The list seems to grow.
We need to put counseling back at the top of the job duties for counselors. We need inclusion to become the rule instead of the exception. We need to realize we were put on this planet to learn to love each other.
We need to make it better.
That's all I'm saying.
Follow Ernest Hooper @hoop4you.