LGBT panel discussion sparks controversial conversation

Staff Writer
Devils Lake Journal
Minot native and ND Rep. Josh Boschee [D.-Fargo], left, speaks on behalf of the LGBT community's rights to protection, at the LR Public Library Tuesday evening in Devils Lake, while panelist Jasmine Swinland, a DLHS senior listens, right. Swinland said she has lost six close friends due to suicides from bullying, after they revealed they were LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender].

By Shinoah Young

DL Journal Reporter

Jasmine Swinland never got the chance to say goodbye to some of her closest friends, who were bullied for revealing they were lesbian or gay.

“I was able to move to different places [before DLHS] such as New York and Connecticut,” the Virginia native and DLHS senior stated, Tuesday evening at an open panel discussion about statistics, facts and misconceptions within the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. “Sadly I’ve lost six friends to suicide due to intense bullying.”

Swinland paused momentarily, then through tears, spoke on the injustices she witnessed, first-hand, across the country. “People don’t know that words can really make a difference,” said Swinland, as many in the room bowed their heads in silence.

“They were just like us, they smiled the same way. They wore the same things as we did in high school, elementary. And then, as soon as they came ‘out of the closet’ everyone just starts to treat them differently like they’re trash, they’re useless.”

“I can understand that people, they need a lot of courage to do that [come out].”

“I learned that there are different environments that can make a difference on how you think of the world and how you’re able to perceive,” she added.

North Dakota’s first “openly” gay politician, Josh Boschee [Rep. D.-Fargo], attended the panel discussion, serving as a panel moderator. Boschee conveyed a powerful message to the public that evening. “The key word there is ‘openly’, and that in itself is pervasive of the culture in North Dakota. That ‘prairie silence’ we all have it. We are all really good at talking about the weather,” he laughed, as the room followed his lead.

Boschee, 32, said talking about LGBT issues and concerns is not a conversation you would have at the dinner table. “Things deemed uncomfortable … can create their own challenges,” said Boschee.

Boschee thinks incorporating a “Safe Zone” area in ND middle and high schools would help foster and protect LGBT students. “I was able to get my master’s degree in education and I want to create safe and inclusive learning environments.”

The Minot native, who now resides in Fargo, made the point that early education about individuals who are LGBT starts in the child’s home, where they learn morals, values and  solidifying mindsets.

Boschee is now working to add an act to legislation in the state of North Dakota which would protect LGBT minorities in the workplace and housing rentals. Boschee said that protection of LGBT’s in an academic environment continues to present its challenges. In 2011, when ND schools passed anti-bullying legislation it did not include the LGBT community.

“I think it’s important that when we have these conversations, that we do it respectfully,” Boschee confirmed.Boschee said the purpose of Tuesday’s LGBT panel was to answer questions about why certain groups of people who have been specifically targeted or persecuted for their sexual orientation - need protection.

Jace Riggin, a Devils Lake man who graduated DLHS in 2012, and organized the LGBT panel Tuesday, also wrote a fact-based paper on the statistics of the LGBT community and the consequences of society’s prejudices against LGBT’s. In the fall of 2013, a survey was conducted at DLHS to find out if students felt safe at their school. Eighty-one per cent who took the survey said they did not feel their school was a safe and secure environment. In fact, many students described it as hostile or negative.

Several community members chimed in during the panel discussion to offer their support and words of encouragement to Riggin and the LGBT panel moderators. But one community member directly addressed Riggin by asking, “Were you using our daughter then, when you took her to the prom? I know that you were good friends.”

The man went on about why it is unnecessary or inappropriate to treat LGBT’s differently, comparing his last name to being LGBT. There were several people in the room who gasped and at that point a panel moderator spoke up, “You can probably change your last name, but you can’t always change your orientation,” said the woman.

“Why do we need special attention for this minority [LGBT’s], which statistically is still very small,” said the man.

Riggin remained calm and then replied “Senior prom wasn’t something that meant I was engaged in an emotionally binding contract with another human being. The broader implication of that is: ‘Was I obligated to tell her I was homosexual?’ That was such a deeply personal question.”

Riggin also added, “People with your last name do not have higher rates of suicide because of their identity.”

In Riggin’s defense, another panel moderator, Karen Anderson a former DLHS instructor, declared to audience members “You aren’t at risk of losing your job because of your last name or being murdered because of your last name. I guess I can’t address it any clearer than that.”

DLHS superintendant Scott Privatsky attended the Tuesday panel but made no comments during the panel discussion and declined comments afterwards.

Riggin said there remains a diversity in thought and opinion on LGBT rights amongst the religious and political sectors of North Dakota.