Russel Lingle and Alison Westberg: Taking pride in our youth

Russel Lingle and Alison Westberg: Taking pride in our youth

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Pride. That is truly my word for the month.

Pride Month started off with finally being able to attend the Dyke March for the first time in ages. I got to see the amazing Ashley Phillips and the beautiful performers, crowd and staff there. Afterwards, I made an impromptu road trip with Ashley and some friends to North Jersey for a fundraiser benefiting Anandam, a wonderful LGBT-rights organization based out of Kolkata, where we got to listen to a master duo perform on sitar and tabla. Tuesday, I got to see “Fun Home,” the first Broadway musical with a lesbian lead — but before that, I went to the local equality march and met some dynamic young people, Russel Lingle and Alison Westberg, who brought me hope in these troubling times.

I pulled them aside to talk about what brought them out.

 

PGN: Where did you travel from?

RL: I live in Mt. Holly, N.J. It’s a very small town with a small-town mentality.

 

PGN: Big family or small?

RL: I’m from a huge family. We’re a typical Italian family; it’s like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” with spaghetti.

 

PGN: Where do you fall in the line-up?

RL: There are just two of us in my immediate family; I have a younger brother, Nick, but my extended family is huge and they all live on the same street. So I have little hooligan cousins running all over the place. There’s family everywhere, every day.

 

PGN: Do you do family trips together?

RL: [Laughs] We did that twice and almost ended up hating each other so now we just do day trips.

 

PGN: Describe little Russell.

RL: I was very reserved, very shy. I was really struggling to find myself and I went through a rollercoaster of emotions during my middle-school years. It was really hard; I was always the introverted kid, even though I’ve turned that around and now I’m the extrovert.

 

PGN: I’m assuming — being old-school Italian — that it was a Catholic upbringing. Was there conflict there?

RL: There was. My great-grandparents are super-religious and when I came out, they dismissed it and chose to ignore the fact that I am gay. They’re slowly relenting because I’m the first grandchild from either side of the family to go to college. They’re realizing that I’m going to be successful in life no matter what my sexual orientation might be.

 

PGN: What are you studying?

RL: Art and psychology. I want to become an art therapist in New York and work with LGBT kids.

PGN: What was your hardest moment coming out?

RL: The hardest part was being in denial. I tried to deny who I was and would say, “I’m not gay. I don’t want to end up like that.” I finally realized that it was OK to love myself and that it was good to be gay.

 

PGN: Who or what turned your mindset around?

RL: There was one huge role model in my life and that was RuPaul. Just seeing her on stage and TV in drag fully owning it and being confident in herself inspired me. I was like, “I want to be like that.” She really helped develop me as a person and to overcome my shyness.

 

PGN: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

AW: I’m from Lumberton, a town even smaller than Mt. Holly. I grew up on a grain farm, one younger brother. I’m from an Irish, kind of Catholic, family. My dad’s more religious than my mother.

 

PGN: When did your queer realization happen?

AW: From day one I was always like, “Girls are pretty cool.” In my sophomore year, I dated a girl and realized that this was definitely for me, 100-percent. Having Russell around and positive gay influences in my life really showed me that the culture was not as bad and mean-spirited as the Catholic Church made it out to be. It was a refreshing realization.

 

PGN: What was something that you think back on and think, Oh, that was a sign I was gay?

AW: I had a really big crush on a news anchor woman. I always thought she was pretty but I didn’t realize it was a thing until someone told me that crushing on girls was a thing. And I thought, OK, then I guess I’m that.

 

PGN: How old are you?

AW: We’re both 17.

 

PGN: Babies!

RL: [Laughs] I know. But people think we’re older. We go to political rallies and people ask us who we’re voting for and we’re like, “We can’t vote yet!”

 

PGN: What made you so politically astute?

AW: Just seeing injustice around me and deciding to educate myself. I get fired up when people don’t care or pay attention. I like knowing what’s going on; being able to connect with people about the issues of the day is really important to me. It’s a community thing.

 

PGN: How did you get “woke,” so to speak?

AW: We have a great history teacher, Ms. Rivera, and she opened our eyes to things like Stonewall and stuff. We learned a lot through her. But as for the rest of the school, it’s pretty conservative. The day after the presidential election, someone was running through the halls with a “Make America Great Again” flag.

RL: And if we protested it, we would be the ones who got in trouble for responding to it.

AW: Yeah, and it’s really frowned upon to be gay.

RL: For the one-year anniversary of the Pulse shootings, I plan on wearing my Pride flag T-shirt, even though my teachers said it would be a bad idea because people were going to find it offensive and they didn’t want me getting into trouble. They’re right, but I feel I have to take a stance on it. The Monday after the Pulse massacre, we came to school and …

AW: The flag was not at half-mast. We were like, This is the biggest mass shooting in our history and they’re ignoring it because it was gay people that died. So Russell went to the principal and said, “This is disrespectful of students both in and out of the closet.”

RL: I personally had to go into the office to berate the principal about it and it took three days, but they finally lowered the flag and had a moment of silence.

 

PGN: Is there a GSA?

RL: Yes, but it’s mostly straight kids using it to get out of class or to pat themselves on the back for being so tolerant. It’s kind of a joke.

AW: There are about three gay kids and 20 straight ones in the group.

RL: I mean, it’s great to have allies and support, but they don’t really understand what we’re going through.

PGN: How often do you come to the city?

AW: A lot. The first time was to see Bernie at Temple. Then we came in to see President Obama, Hillary, Bill and FLOTUS speak at Independence Hall right before the election. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

RL: I know, it was a great night. We also have both been to Black Lives Matter protests.

AW: I went when Michael Brown died; it was my first protest and it was kind of like a drug. It was like, “OK, I can voice my feelings about injustice and there will be other people there who know what I’m talking about.” It was very freeing.

RL: It was. It opened up my mind to the whole world. Seeing so many people stand up for what they believed in inspired me to fight for the causes I believe in.

 

PGN: When I came out, most people went to the bars to find community. That’s where you met people and found out about different organizations and support. Where do you guys find it?

RL: I think for us millennials, it’s all about social media. I can go on Instagram and type in #gay and you’ll find other people who are gay, follow them and you’ve made an instant friend.

AW: We feel really lucky to be born in this day and age where being gay is acceptable; you’re not going to be killed for coming out, at least not here, for the most part. We’re lucky because of where we live and the time period we live in. There’s some community at our school but mostly Russell and I have each other. It’s so great to have a gay best friend in high school.

 

PGN: Are you guys familiar with The Attic?

Both: No.

AW: Wait, I think the woman in the comics shop said something about it. We were looking for something to do and she mentioned it.

RL: That’s right, but we’ve never been.

 

PGN: Do you come to the city often?

Both: We do!

AW: We’re big history buffs so we like walking around Independence Hall and stuff. It’s like, 300 years ago we got our independence and 300 years later we’re still fighting.

PGN: What’s a historical event you wished you could have witnessed?

RL: Definitely Stonewall. I visit there in New York whenever I can. To be able to see Marsha P. Johnson throwing that first brick at the cops would be life.

AW: Yes, I’d want to be one of the bricks! I hate to say it but we’re radicals and just being there in all the chaos and energy, having the chance to be a part of something so big, would be incredible.

 

PGN: I love that you know our history.

RL: I study LGBT rights and history all the time. I was going to write my paper on LGBT rights in Europe but switched it up and wrote about Islamaphobia instead. And I got a 99 on my paper!

AW: It’s great to have someone like him around who’s like-minded to learn with and bounce ideas off of.

 

PGN: What about lesbian culture?

AW: Ouch, lacking there. I know Alanis Morissette and Joan Jett, that’s about it.

 

PGN: [Laughs] Um, neither of them are specifically lesbian. We have some work to do.

AW: Please. Seriously. I need to learn.

 

PGN: The thing I like the most about myself is …

RL: I like my confidence now. I’m out and I’m proud and nothing can stop me.

AW: Probably the same, my outspokenness in the political realm. Having a voice now and knowing how to use it appropriately.

 

PGN: Extracurricular activities?

AW: I was on the swim team until I came out and then I was asked to leave by the team captains. They said they were uncomfortable with me in the locker rooms. I was 15 and it was very painful. It still hurts to think about it.

RL: I’m involved in a lot of things. I did homecoming all four years. It’s a big thing at our school; we did posters and floats, etc., and we compete in a parade. I was also a part of Mr. RV, which is an all-boys’ pageant competition. It was definitely different because they were all macho, straight boys and here I come in drag. The cavemen didn’t know what was happening.

AW: That’s our nickname for them.

 

PGN: Have you been harassed?

RL: I get called faggot quite a lot. But it’s all the same people and they’re too scared to do it to my face; it’s more like someone will drive by and yell “faggot” as I’m walking to my car. I just yell back, “Yeah, you right!” I always fight back and say something.

 

PGN: My generation didn’t really acknowledge gender diversity like we do now. Pronouns, non-binary identities and cisgender, etc., weren’t on our regular radar.

AW: Yeah, it’s normal for us. It’s awesome. Social media has helped with that a lot. If you’ve changed your pronouns, it’s easy to let a mass of people know all at once. I took one of my best friends, who is a trans man, to prom. But I think it’s still hard for a lot of trans people because, as you said, even a lot of older gay people are not quite sure what it’s about. I think by the time we’re older, it will be the norm.

 

PGN: Do you find trans acceptance with your peers?

RL: No. We have a person in our GSA who’s non-binary and the administration actually outed them to their parents. It was heartbreaking because they came to school crying because the parents weren’t accepting … at all. All I could do was say to them, “You’re fine, you’re beautiful and accepted.”

AW: Yeah, all you can do is extend a hand because you know what it feels like to get kicked down or told, “It’s just a phase.” The teachers refuse to call my friend “he” and the administration told them they couldn’t use his preferred name. I mean, come on. It’s just a name. It’s a pronoun, it’s not hard to do and doesn’t hurt anybody. Why invalidate somebody like that?

 

PGN: Politics?

AW: Don’t get me started. If you voted for Trump, and therefore Pence, you are basically saying that you don’t respect me as a gay youth. That you don’t care if he tries to implement widespread conversion therapy and you don’t care that he thinks electric-shock therapy can help gay kids.

 

PGN: That’s my fear. If we insist on impeaching 45, we’ll end up with Pence and he’s slick enough that he might be able to get two terms, unlike the clown king who will hopefully implode right before the 2020 elections.

AW: Yeah, Pence is an actual politician who knows what he’s doing. Not some big neo-Nazi Cheeto with cat hair on his head.

 

PGN: You’ve grown up in the time of gay marriage and “Ellen” and mainstream acceptance. What do you worry about for the future? As history buffs, you know that things can change rapidly.

AW: I feel like the gay community is so outspoken now that we’ve come out from under boot and heel and we’re not going back. We’re out here today voicing our displeasure with the current administration and climate. We’re done being submissive. We’re confronting problems in and out of the LGBT community.

RL: I think that too but I also feel like the White House is starting to give permission to a lot of people to voice their hatred. Just as we’re out here in the streets expressing our viewpoints, they’re getting empowered to voice their anti-everything opinions. I fear that some people will be scared to come out because of it.

 

PGN: What are your hopes for the future? Where do you see us in 50 years?

RL: My hope is that we start coming together better as a community. Even during Stonewall, we were fragmented; the gay males and the lesbians and the transgender people all clashed and didn’t really function as a true community. I think we’ve become better about that and in the future we’re going to become one. We’re going to take all the pieces of the puzzle and make a beautiful picture. Just like one of those Bob Ross paintings.

 

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