From Where I Stand: Celebrating Pride: What LGBTQ advocacy looks like in Maryland
BY JESSICA ARENDS
So far this year, 491 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures, twice the number introduced last year, with many targeting the trans community (American Civil Liberties Union ,2023). LGBTQ+ students have a higher incidence of being bullied or harassed and are more than five times as likely as non-LGBTQ+ students to attempt suicide (The Trevor Project, 2022).
In honor of Pride month, I spoke with three local advocates to learn about how they support the LGBTQ+ community: Alice Wong, founder of the Gaithersburg chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), middle school teacher Holly Stephens, and policy advocate David S. Fishback.
Alice Wong, proud mother of a lesbian daughter
When her teenage daughter came out in the 1980s, Alice Wong was not happy at first. “My first thought was all those extra battles my child is going to face,” Wong said. “But I knew enough to know you can’t change this.”
In the 1990s, Wong wanted to do more for the wider LGBTQ+ community, so she joined PFLAG, an organization “dedicated to supporting, educating and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them.” After moving to Gaithersburg, in 2015, to be closer to her daughter, Wong founded a PFLAG chapter.
Wong uses the example of white people marching during the Civil Rights Movement to show why allyship is so important. “The police couldn’t act so precipitously,” Wong said. “It wasn’t just ‘These people demand their rights,’ it was ‘Why don’t they have the same rights that we have?’”
Recently, a supportive grandmother came to Wong’s PFLAG meeting to ask about proper etiquette when attending her gay granddaughter’s wedding. Afterwards, she returned to share pictures and boast about the beautiful brides. “In this space, family members can speak about things they may be more reluctant to share with others and to help people not live in a bubble of like-ness,” Wong said.
Holly Stephens, middle school teacher
Friends Community School teacher Holly Stephens has a set of shelves in her College Park classroom specifically for middle grade LGBTQ+ literature.
“I have kids that read every single book on those shelves,” Stephens said. She also purchases two copies of many of the books so she can mix those titles in with the other genres, which include fantasy, historical fiction, sports, mystery and graphic novels.
After a lesson on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and a discussion on representation in children’s literature last winter, Stephens asked her sixth grade students to audit her classroom library. Although students found racial diversity, they found the LGBTQ+ representation lacking, Stephens said.
Together they compiled a list of titles and sent it out to parents, some of whom showed support by purchasing several of the books for their library.
When asked how she would address concerns about LGBTQ+ books in her class if they did arise, Stephens said she would listen to parents and talk through any issues.
“I’d also go back to our Quaker foundation as a school that honors and celebrates kids for who they are and the light within them,” Stephens said.
David S. Fishback, policy advocate
David S. Fishback, a retired attorney who lives in Montgomery County, became an LGBTQ+ advocate in 2002, after learning that the Montgomery County Schools (MCPS) was considering adding a discussion of LGTBQ+ matters in health education.
“The silence had been deafening,” Fishback said. “It was as if gay people didn’t exist.”
The issue was personal: His younger son had come out in 1997, and his older son would do so a few years later.
As chair of the MCPS Board of Education Family Life and Human Development Advisory Committee and the advocacy chair for Metro DC PFLAG, Fishback explained to school officials and the media the need to make the curriculum more inclusive. In 2015, this was finally achieved and documented in Fishback’s PFLAG publication, “Curriculum Victory, Montgomery County, Maryland: A Case Study and Handbook for Action.”
In response to a 2020 lawsuit against the school system, Fishback helped develop a PFLAG brief to defend MCPS guidelines stipulating that staff could only disclose a student’s gender identity to guardians with the student’s permission. After the lawsuit was dismissed by the federal district court in March 2023, the plaintiffs appealed; the case, according to Fishback, may reach the Supreme Court.
“Most people know someone who is gay, but not everyone knows someone who is trans,” Fishback said. “Sadly, too many politicians believe they can exploit what they see as the weak link in LGBTQ+ support and use fear and lack of knowledge to scare people — and the results are tragic.”
Jessica Arends writes “The Hy-Life” column for the Hyattsville Life & Times.
The views expressed in this column belong to its author. The Hyattsville Life & Times reserves the right to edit “From Where I Stand” submissions for brevity and clarity.