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Be All You Can Be

A gay speaker threatens Springfield youth

Illinois Times

June 3, 1993

A local boy who made good came back to Springfield to give an inspirational talk to local high schoolers. He also mentioned he was gay, which excited religiously-inspired bigots among the parents to condemn him. I was surprised as well as pleased that local school officials defended his right to speak.


The other day a few high schoolers stumbled over a pothole that lay in the straight and narrow path that leads from Springfield's classrooms through the banquet rooms at the Holiday Inn East toward adult respectability. His name was Tom Chiola, the main speaker at this year's Golden Laurel Awards banquet, where each year for the last thirty-five years National Honor Society members have been fed inspirational messages and hotel dinners—both usually overcooked.


The forty-ish Chiola is a politically ambitious attorney who grew up in Springfield, where he was a Marine Bank Student of the Year and a Golden Laurel banquetee. In the course of the standard be-all-you-can-be speech he mentioned the fact that he is gay. From the way some of the students and their parents reacted, you would have thought that they'd found a cockroach amidst the cucumbers.


The fact that a graduate of Griffin High School—which in the sixties was verily a bastion of the machismo—is gay must itself seem like proof to the persuaded that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket. After his speech, Chiola reports, he was challenged by some "very confrontational" Christians who accused him of foisting his “lifestyle” on their children.


Any after-dinner speaker worth his train fare to Springfield will aim to corrupt the young to some extent, and there is no group more in need of corrupting than National Honor Society members. (I was one, so I know.) Reactions to the remark suggest that Chiola s theme—the need to not accept the judgments of others about one's abilities—was well chosen. One student told the State Journal Register that Chiola's gayness wasn't the "best way" to get across his point about social prejudice, but the prejudiced reaction suggests that it was the perfect way to get the point across.


It would be easy to inflate this little dust-up out of proportion, but what happened at the Golden Laurels is multiplied thousands of times each day across the United States, to the detriment of public discourse. The mere mention that Chiola is gay hardly constituted a "platform for discussing his personal sex preference," as one of the mothers present later alleged. It would be just as sensible to accuse Chiola of using the Golden Laurels as a forum for discussing his brown-hairedness, or his maleness, or his Italian-Americanness. No doubt some mention was made in his introduction of the fact that Chiola once sat on the board of the Prairie Capital Convention Center—talk about setting a bad example for youth!


If any group has abused the Golden Laurels over the years as a platform for advancing their beliefs, it is Christians. When I attended the Golden Laurels in the mid-1960s the speaker urged upon us the example of Dr. Tom Dooley, the recently dead Catholic missionary doctor who had found that penicillin was somewhat more persuasive as a right-wing propaganda tool among the Laotians and Vietnamese than U.S. bombs proved to be some years later. I had not yet learned the knack of keeping my tie out of my salad dressing and so was distracted during much of the talk. Besides, I had by then grown deaf to proselytizing after nearly twelve years in the public schools, whose atmosphere was in every respect closer to a Sunday school than an academy.


Happily or not, kids today seem to take their educations more seriously than I did. A Calvary Academy senior told the SJR afterward about Chiola's revelation, "We don't need to know that." I envy her knowing what she needs to know at seventeen or eighteen years of age. Looking back, I wish I had gone to a Bible-based Christian school that judges students by what they don't learn. Fun while it lasts, no doubt, but I wonder whether using the Bible as a social studies text prepares kids for the next world at the cost of leaving them prey to dangerous misunderstandings about this one.


As noted, I was struck by the fact that the objectors took the acknowledgment of Chiola's gayness as an argument for it. Perhaps those reared in the Christian tradition would understand such an act as a form of witness, and thus provoking. It occurs to me that if early Christians had not dared to announce themselves to a hostile and uncomprehending world, we wouldn't have enough high schools in Springfield to stage a basketball tournament, but that may be a comparison that the good people at Calvary will not find useful.


Those who believe that man is literally made in the image of God must be a bit unsettled at the accumulating scientific evidence suggesting that gayness is not a lifestyle choice but the expression of a predilection that is genetic in origin. That God programmed into himself the potential for homosexuality is not the only instance I can think of that he was broader-minded than most of his followers, but it is perhaps the most satisfyingly ironic.


Gayness in short is not something the impressionable can be talked into. Similarly, a gay person can be bullied or sweet-talked into acting straight but he or she can't be straight any more than I can bear a child. Even decent Christian boys grow up gay, and their realization of that fact (and their secret distress at somehow being the cause) may explain the exaggerated anxiety that so many fundamentalist Christian parents seem to have about the subject.


Assuming the teens in the audience that night were representative of the larger world lurking outside, anywhere from four to twenty of them are themselves homosexual. Coming to terms with one's sexual identity in adolescence is hard enough if you are straight; doing so in an atmosphere of ignorance and fear forces most gay teens into a guilt-ridden and confused silence. Chiola reports that he received cards after the event from people telling him how much it would have helped to ease their anguish as outcasts if someone had told them in high school the things that Chiola said at the banquet.


As has been pointed out in the debate over gays in the military, the real evil in homosexuality is the hatred it inspires in fearful straight people. To their credit, some of the adults present reacted to Chiola's remark with common sense. The organizer of the dinner—a local civic club type of the sort not usually counted among First Amendment activists—said it would be inappropriate to censor guest speakers at an event ostensibly to celebrate the opening of young minds. Top officials from both District 186 and Sacred Heart-Griffin High School—people with whom I have not been able to agree on most school issues, try as I might—defended Chiola's remark without endorsing him. They thus proved that they have not yet forgotten that being exposed to things you don't already agree with is what distinguishes education from indoctrination. ●




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