My Remarks at ICBDA, July 23, 2011 in Lakeland, FL

Thank you all for coming today. Please make yourselves comfortable. I’m going to be talking for a few minutes before we get started with the dance.

The 1994 Academy Award winning film “TREVOR” is about a 13 year old boy who tries to commit suicide because his friends found out his was gay.

In 1998 HBO was going to air the film and wanted to give an 800 number in case any young viewers might be facing the same kind of crisis in their lives. At that point no such hotline existed. Out of that grew THE TREVOR PROJECT which operates a 24 hour hotline for at risk youth.

In September of 2010, in response to the suicide of Billy Lucas and a number of other teenagers who were bullied because they were gay, a video project was created on YouTube. It is a series of short videos made by all kinds of people: Actors, Musicians, Artists, Member’s of Congress, world leaders, and ordinary people all telling kids, don’t give up. It Gets Better.

For me it started in second grade. I was called names, chased, spit on, kicked and beaten.

I didn’t have YouTube videos telling me It Gets Better, or a hotline, or even a positive role model.

But I did have dancing. I did have people like Joe and Madeline Augenblick, and Paul and Lorraine Howard, and many, many others. People who showed me that Round Dancing was a world of unconditional WELCOME and ACCEPTANCE.

We learn what words like CHAIR mean because we can sit in one. We learn what words like generosity, compassion, acceptance and love mean because we experience them in our lives.

When a family friend committed suicide my mother told me when you kill yourself, the wrong people are punished. Like a lot of things my mother told me, it took a little while for me to understand what she meant.

I was ready to give up. Ready to make the suffering stop. But the people who were spitting on me, and hitting me wouldn’t care.

Joe and Madeline would care. Paul and Lorraine Howard would care. Mort and Ronnie Wilcher; Kars and Maxine Karsner; George and Bobby Stone. My whole Round Dance family would care.

Quite literally, Round Dancing is the reason I’m alive today. I grew up believing that this community, MY community was a safe place: a place full of love and humanity.

They shared their lives with me: the good, the bad, sometimes even the ugly; but always, their love. They treated me like loving parents, but also like an adult, worthy of their respect; like what I said mattered, even when I was still just a child to the rest of the world.

I made a promise to them that I would never forget all the amazing things they had done for me, and that I would repay their generosity and kindness by giving back to this community.

I’ve danced with you for 38 years and taught for 36. I have met an astounding number of people who embody those same values, many of whom are in this room. I am profoundly grateful to you for opening your homes, your lives and your hearts to me.

I was shocked and dismayed when I came to San Antonio in 2005 and encountered something new. Perhaps not really new, but certainly the first time I had ever personally encountered intolerance and homophobia so directly: a conversation about my being TOO GAY, and flaunting my lifestyle, as if I have a lifestyle to flaunt.

In the past 6 years I have continued to encounter this type of conversation across the country, and it has, if anything, grown in its virulence.

So I withdrew. I stopped participating to avoid having to hear hurtful things whispered behind my back. And I stopped fulfilling on my promise.

I learn when you tell me what you like and don’t like. That this dance is your favorite, but you don’t like that one. I learn when you engage me in a conversation about my being too technical, or too ballroom and ask me to find a way to make what I offer more accessible to you as a Round Dancer.

But I am hurt and offended when this community that I love and grew up believing to be a safe place for all is poisoned by a conversation of hate.

It makes me angry that a few people are destroying the sense of WELCOME that makes our community such a great family.

I have an obligation to support this community with my time and my talent, to teach to the best of my abilities, to share my passion for dancing and to do what I can to keep our family strong and vibrant.

I also have an obligation; we ALL have an obligation, to ensure that it remains a community of that embodies the values of WELCOME and ACCEPTANCE.

It is not an accurate reflection of my values to run away and hide because a few people sow seeds of intolerance and hatred.

I am a gay man. If you have a problem with that, well… We tell our children, if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.

But we are not children. We are capable of better.

I stand here in the conviction that the greatest gift this life has to offer is to love and be loved.

When we are done here today, I will be going to lunch. I would be honored to have you to join me and participate in that most fundamental of human social interactions: conversation over a shared meal.

Share with me how love has transformed your life, and let’s discover how, together, we can make our world of Round Dancing a community of extravagant welcome for ALL.

But first, let’s dance.

4 Comments

  1. chad Kenney says:

    Richard – thank you for sharing this with me. Your writing is authentic and true. It is very courageous of you to stand up and confront the hate and intolerance that you have been subjected to over the years. It is so important to provide gay and lesbian people, and especially young people, with good role models. This is most true now when hate is socially and politically acceptable. Homophobia has long been institutionalized in this country. There is an ongoing need to speak the truth and confront homophobia. Young people need to hear that they have value and that they are valuable, and that the ugly words are just that – ugly words. That truth includes the teaching of love and loving. You do this well. I love you – chad

  2. Scott Edwards says:

    This is beautifully written. I'm sure it was well spoken, too.

  3. Annette says:

    I wish I had been there.  Well done.  You'll have to tell me what prompted the long-due speech at this particular time.
    To us, people's sex orientations are just as irrelevant as their skin color or the shape of their eyes… all received at birth and none a question of choice. What makes us like or dislike the people we meet is what is in their hearts and in their heads.   We'll always love and support you.

  4. Carol Cooke says:

    Wow!  O Richard!  I had no idea some people in the round-dance world were being so unkind to you.  I am so sorry.  Their attitudes of intolerance relect badly upon them, and not upon you.  People may choose to take round dance instruction from you–or not–for whatever reasons–either way.  Gossip (negative comments) about people and their lives has no place on the dance floor or within the dancing community.  When I was 13 years old, my mother committed suicide.  Back then (1954, some of my teenage "friends" started calling me "crazy," etc., in response to my mother's illness.  Less was known then about adequate treatment than now.  I wish you only the best, and I hope you know how highly you are regarded by hundreds!

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