Bridging the Gaps in Activism

Article excerpt

A FORMER WHITE HOUSE AIDE AND A RECENT HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE COMPARE THEIR DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES

Before moving to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute, Virginia Apuzzo was assistant to President Clinton for administration and management--making her the Clinton administration's highest-ranking lesbian official. Her 30-year career as an activist includes a role as cowriter of the first gay and lesbian civil rights plank for the Democratic Party, a stint as NGLTF's executive director, and an appointment as vice chair of the New York State AIDS Advisory Council.

In June, Michael Bisogno graduated from high school in Teaneck, N.J. As a youth activist he revived his school's gay-straight student alliance, founded a local chapter of Gay and Lesbian Youth, and was appointed a gay adviser to the National 4-H Council, an organization of business professionals that reaches out to teenagers.

On an overcast New York City morning, the two recently met to talk about the differences and similarities that separate and unite their generations of activism.

Why don't you each start by talking about the individual journeys that brought you to activism.

Apuzzo: I was called "dyke" and "butch" as a kid. When I was 18, I was convinced that what lay ahead of me was a life that could well end in suicide or despair.

The notion of a movement was nonexistent. I spent three years in the convent trying to figure out, was this so condemning that even my soul would have no future? I concluded that if I ever went to hell, it wouldn't be because of who I loved but because I didn't love. I came out of the convent a month after Stonewall and got involved in the movement immediately. I was 26 years old.

Bisogno: The only connection I had with it growing up was "faggot." It hurt. I was an angry, overweight, miserable little kid.

When I was 14, after hearing the word "faggot" every day, I was admitted to the hospital [for a suicide attempt]. The lust week in high school I was assaulted by 12 teenagers calling me a "faggot." Two weeks later I was admitted again for depression and suicidal tendencies. There was alcohol use and drug use in my life. I was drowning myself in sorrow.

To get out of that took about a year, but then I spoke out in a testimonial for GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network]. And I just kept on speaking, eventually going to Washington to meet with Janet Reno and to the White House. I was 16 years old and was on Ricki Lake, CNN, MSNBC.

Apuzzo: It's delightful to hear the difference in visibility. The thing that is hard to hear is that so much of the personal pain remains. We've worked for 30 years, and kids today are still going through all that.

Bisogno: The youth movement today is incredible. I know of 2,000 kids in northern New Jersey from the Internet who work in activism, advocacy, fund-raising, and organizing dances. But one of our concerns is bridging the gap between the younger generation and the older generation. We're not communicating as much as we should.

Apuzzo: And it's not the radical right's fault that we are not communicating--it's the movement's. …