My name is David Knapp and I am a speaker at Stonewall Speakers, a volunteer speakers bureau comprised of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people and their allies. In 25 years, Stonewall Speakers has visited 97% of the 160 public high schools in Connecticut to speak to over 100,000 students. We had a big impact in changing the homophobic atmosphere of most high schools in the state. We used to ask the kids, “How many of you have heard the words ‘fag’ ‘queer’ or ‘homo’?” Everyone would raise their hand. Because of our presence, the mostly closeted gay or lesbian students knew that we were there supporting them. We would usually have three speakers who would take turns telling personal stories. That format was very successful with very little controversy which was amazing back in the 80s and 90s. We weren’t proselytizing, we were just telling our stories. That’s all we did. The power of that was just incredible. One time, there was a fundamentalist group picketing the school and they wanted to come in. I allowed them in and said, “I have nothing to hide. I’ll tell you my story. If you want to challenge me on it, go ahead!” At the end of the event, they didn’t have anything to say.
We know that we saved kids’ lives from suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, and other dangerous behaviors. I can name high schools around the state where mostly senior boys committed suicide. The answer to “why” was because they were “depressed” or “they were on drugs” or “they broke up with their girlfriend.” But I knew a lot of the teachers at these schools and they told me otherwise. They’d say, “It was because he was gay... he was the only son... he was fundamentalist... the apple of his parents eye... and he had no one to trust for support.” I remember that we were supposed to speak on a Friday and the school canceled earlier that week because someone committed suicide.
Coming out in high school was a big deal in the 80s and 90s. It was extremely rare for any kid to be out in high school… and even teachers for that matter. I kept a list of the gay teachers that I met at high schools and I think I got up to 10 teachers in ALL of Connecticut. They were there, but they weren’t out.
Last year, when we spoke at a private prep school, we had the teacher ask each student to write down one question on an index card before we came. At the end of the session, the teacher said, “Here’s one card that I didn’t give you at the beginning of class.” And on the card it said, “I do not have a question. But I want you to know that because of Stonewall Speakers coming this morning, I decided not to try suicide because I’m a lesbian.” The teacher said, “I know who it is.”
We made a difference. The teachers, the guidance counselors, the students - we made a difference.