“America is full of isolation and silos. We’re trying to see how diversity can be beneficial,” said event organizer Mark Skrabacz, minister of San Gabriel Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. “We know from agriculture that monocultures are no good for the soil.”
The ceremony included a proclamation from Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross, who named March 23 the third annual “Deidre Furr Day."
“These are really encouraging words,” Ross said. “You can feel all the love and support. Everybody needs support at some point, some of us on a more frequent basis than others.”
Central Texas students can enter the contest, which awards $500, $200 and $100 to first, second and third prize winners, respectively. This year's winners came from Austin, Round Rock and Georgetown.
But Jose Morin, a senior at KIPP Austin Collegiate, said his parents would not let him accept his third-place award. Anna Nguyen, president of PFLAG Austin, said his absence demonstrates the need for the essay contest.
“Jose is gay, and his parents are not accepting of him,” Nguyen said. “This is actually part of the reason why efforts by PFLAG and similar organizations are still needed.”
Nguyen read a prepared statement from Morin, who is set to attend the University of Chicago on a four-year scholarship. Morin said he ultimately hopes to start a nonprofit shelter for LGBTQ students.
“I came out to my parents in sixth grade and did not receive the best of responses,” Morin said in the statement. “So writing this essay was important to me.”
Nguyen, a 57-year-old transgender woman, said the contest raises awareness about the needs of the LGBTQ community as the essay themes typically involve something related to LGBTQ issues.
In past years, the contest prompted writers to respond to questions about marriage equality and the transgender community. As the LGBTQ community evolves, Nguyen said the essay contest will address emerging issues.
“Transgender issues are the current battlefront,” she said. “As we move forward, it might be intersex people or different kinds of attraction or relationships.”
Honoring a teacher
Lalena Parkhurst said she started the contest to honor Deidre Furr, an English teacher at Georgetown High School who died in a car accident about four years ago.
Furr observed that the campus atmosphere was often hostile to gay or gender nonconforming students, Parkhurst said. Furr decided to form Georgetown’s first Gay Straight Alliance.
“She brought the idea to the principal at the time who told her he didn’t think Georgetown was ready for any such thing,” she said. “He indicated that she might be putting her career at risk if she pursued GSA.”
The principal the next year was more accommodating, Parkhurst said. The alliance formed and soon asked teachers that identified as LGBT allies to post signs indicating their rooms as safe spaces for students.
“I saw marginalized students fighting to stay under the gaydar finally feel free,” said Parkhurst, who worked at the school. “I was in awe of what she and those students were able to accomplish.”
Parkhurst learned PFLAG chapters nationwide often sponsor scholarships and essay contests. She floated the idea at a PFLAG meeting and it was welcomed enthusiastically.
“We knew the next step was to contact Mrs. Furr’s family and get their blessing,” she said. “Her oldest daughter, and her father, graciously let us use her name.”
Essayists respond to bill proposal
Students in this year’s contest were asked to respond to whether Texas' Senate Bill 242, proposed by state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Fort Worth, is good or bad. The law forbids schools from withholding a student's information, even if the student has requested privacy, thus possibly outing an LGBTQ student to their parents.
In his essay, Morin wrote that although “micro-aggressions and mistaken stigmas roam throughout the hallways,” he said he treasures “the private safe haven of school.”
“I do not feel safe or comfortable informing my parents of my sexual orientation for fear of losing my home, contact with the rest of my loved ones, and the implications, thereafter,” Morin wrote. “With SB 242, this catastrophic scenario increases in probability exponentially.”
Morin’s essay quoted statistics from a Williams Institute study that states 40 percent of homeless youth and adolescents identify as LGBTQ.
“However, with this bill, the number of homeless LGBTQ youth will increase,” Morin wrote. “It is not uncommon for parents to disown their children and to socially and economically ostracize them, leaving them to resort to other means of comfort and support.”
These youths often turn to prostitution, Morin wrote. A 2015 study by the Urban Institute found that LGBTQ youth were seven times more likely to have traded sex for food or shelter.
“This bill leads to students having sentiments of being dehumanized into targets, no longer secure, feeling as if their only escape is through killing oneself,” Morin wrote.
Elle Smith, a freshman at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, won first place. Smith, who said she is queer, aimed to encourage legislators to vote against the bill, she said.
“Senate Bill 242 has more issues than Vogue,” her essay starts. “It is unnecessary, ambiguous and dangerous.”
Burton previously said she wrote the legislative proposal because a Fort Worth school district treated parents of transgender students as hostile, marginalizing their role in their child’s life.
But it’s difficult to know which parents may pose a danger to a transgender student, Smith said, and the district used caution wisely to protect its students.
Second-place winner Jenna Molinari, 17, said she was inspired to write her essay after reading the “infuriating bill.”
“This bill really struck me because it’s something that really affects my peers,” she said. “I needed to write an essay about how it shouldn’t be passed.”
Molinari, an East View High School student, said the bill takes away from an LGBTQ student’s right to come out to their parents on their own.
“This bill strips students of any power they deserve to have,” she said. “When bills are passed, they’re not passed by the people they’re representing or affecting.”
Both Smith and Molinari point out that the text of Burton’s bill recognized that parental rights to know the types of information covered in the bill already exists by state law under Texas Education Code section 26.004.4.
Smith said that the comparison to existing law makes Burton’s bill unnecessary. Molinari wrote that Burton used the bill to pander to select constituents.
“SB 242 is unlike any other bill passed before and is far more invasive than its counterparts,” Molinari wrote. “No other law has placed teachers and staff members in such a conflicting position when it comes to no longer being able to council struggling students in confidentiality.”