NBA Commissioner David Sterns, Jason Collins and GLSEN President Eliza Byard
As thousands marched through the streets of the West Village on Monday night to protest the rash of hate crimes hitting Manhattan, Mark Carson was on everyone's minds as an entire city mourns his loss. There was moving testimony from the victims of recent hate crimes and from Carson's family.
A few blocks up at Gotham Hall, GLSEN was having their annual dinner. The stage was filled with courage and powerful stories. GLSEN is an outstanding organization that is providing safe places for tens of thousands of LGBT students. Without GLSEN, the death toll from young LGBT suicides would be much higher.
At that dinner, Jason Collins electrified the room with his first New York appearance. The world knows of Collin's courage. How appropriate he made his first stop at the GLSEN Dinner because his act of courage will inspire thousands of our young.
However, the real stars of the GLSEN Dinner might be two young men who overcame incredible humiliation and bullying to stand up at the dinner and show unbelievable raw courage that even inspired Jason Collins. As these young men faced unbelievable obstacles, GLSEN got them through it.
Leo Washington (above) has two loves in his life - football and fashion. He grew up in Bainbridge, Georgia and his first year of high school was a living hell. He was bullied, verbally abused and humiliated for being a gay football player. The word 'Faggot" was slung at him in the hallways of the school all the time. The coach made him change in the women's locker room so the other players would haven't to change with him.
At a cousin's suggestion, he transferred to Hollywood Hills High School in South Florida. That high school has an active GLSEN chapter and as a result Leo was welcomed with opening arms. He became Co-Captain of his football team and his fellow players had his back. He even has been nominated to be 'Homecoming King' at the prom. His words of courage from the stage last night as he presented Collins his award moved everyone.
Also speaking last night was young Andrew Lawless from Portland, Tennessee. Here is his brave story that he shared from the stage last night in front of a thousand people. This young man has courage for a middle name. This story was printed in an earlier opinion piece that he wrote but share with us:
I never expected to become a target of violence. But then again, who does?
At school, I had a 3.6 GPA and more or less enjoyed my classes. I was proud to be granted approval to graduate a year early. It fueled my aspirations for college with New York University at the top of my list.
I was also actively involved at school and in my community. I started a bullying prevention club on campus and became a part of GLSEN Middle Tennessee’s Jump-Start Leadership Team that advocates for safer schools issues in my area.
I was relatively happy. But much of my drive and positivity changed in mere minutes.
January 18 was like any other day at school. I remember not having any homework. A pep rally was scheduled and everyone was pumped. In a small school like mine, you can feel the excitement and energy flowing through the air.
I was sitting in French class trying to grasp a verb conjugation when I suddenly had an idea involving a field trip for our bullying prevention club. I received permission to leave class and headed off to speak with my club’s faculty advisor about the idea.
On my way, I stopped at one of the school’s bathrooms. I didn’t think anything of it until a bad feeling overwhelmed me when I entered the bathroom. That feeling was only confirmed when I heard someone say, “Hey faggot.”
I was slammed against the wall where two male students continued hurling antigay slurs at me. I didn’t know what to do because I was afraid and nothing like this had ever happened to me or anyone I know.
The two students pushed me into a stall. And that’s when my safety was taken from me. I had become a victim of sexual assault.
Both students eventually left. That’s when I slouched on the bathroom floor, completely numb. I could no longer feel the excitement in the air and no smile lined my face that I always admired for. I was hurt physically and emotionally more than I ever thought possible. I had just been violated.
At the time, I didn’t want anyone to know what happened. So I kept the incident to myself without reporting it to anyone at school. I felt ashamed and was especially afraid my friends would look down on me. I didn’t want them to know that I failed to scream and get away. That I didn’t fight back.
I ended up missing nearly two solid months of school because of the fear, shame and depression.
My grades fell to a 3.0 GPA. Now, I will only be able to achieve a 3.5 GPA if I make straight A’s during the rest of my time in school; this could ruin my chances for applying to New York University.
I am now back at school, but it has become radically different for me. I now change clothes for gym class in a separate bathroom. I only use faculty restrooms for similar reasons.
Now both men, with their mothers at their sides, demanded that we match their courage. They reminded us the fight is not over by any stretch of the imagination. Without GLSEN, these two young future leaders might not have been on the stage. Either one could have taken their lives because of their horrendous story but instead they stood before us not as victims but as heroes.
Thank you GLSEN.