Josephine Mink didn’t feel included in her community.
The 16-year-old Hagerty High School student said that changed when she witnessed the Oviedo City Council designate June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month on Monday night, which got applause from the audience.
“Pride month is something that’s known everywhere. The town I live in is quite religious and quite conservative so just that small action, where they acknowledge that I exist, it means a lot,” she said.
Deputy Mayor Bob Pollack proposed the proclamation.
“I’ve got some very close family members that are part of the LGBT community who I’ve watched struggle in various situations,” he said. “It’s really touched me and, it’s been very personal to me in that aspect in making sure that they are recognized and that in their struggle, in their situation they are recognized as well.”
Mayor Megan Sladek had declined to issue a proclamation earlier in the month, saying that she worried that proclaiming a month for one group would open the floodgates for other groups, which could cause unforeseen issues. She said proclaiming a month for a constitutionally protected group is different, which is why the city has things like Blind Americans Equality Day. But because of overwhelming support by the rest of the Council, the proclamation appeared on the June 20 agenda.
Pollack said he hopes the move makes folks in the LGBTQ+ community feel welcome in the city.
“I want to acknowledge the community, make them feel welcome, and make them feel like they belong to the City of Oviedo,” Pollack said.
Kellie Parkin, president and CEO of The Pride Chamber in Central Florida, spoke on behalf of the chamber members who live and work in Oviedo at the June 6 meeting.
“Acknowledging and celebrating LGBTQ pride is about awareness and visibility,” Parkin said. “It’s about supporting a group of people who have been historically marginalized and discriminated against.”
Hate victims remembered
Deb Jepson said she will never forget the student who used to linger in her classroom as long as he possibly could at Oviedo High School four decades ago.
The now-retired journalism teacher finally asked the student, who she prefers to call “T” to respect his privacy, why he didn’t want to leave. He finally told her that he was afraid because other students were beating him up.
She said things were different then.
“Definitely during the late 80s, and 90s, we really didn’t discuss whether students were gay or anything like that. I mean, it was not a topic of conversation,” Jepson said. “It really wasn’t too much on anybody’s radar screen. In other words, the kids handled it.”
T told Jepson privately at the beginning of the school year that he was gay. She said that was a real struggle for him because he was a Roman Catholic and he was scared that he was committing a sin.
“He was a bright light. He was smart, he was funny, he was a good writer,” Jepson said. “I really enjoyed having him in class.”
She said, even though he was a good kid, he was having trouble with other students and she thought that when he graduated everything was going to be better for him.
Jepson said he went to one of the universities out of the area and he came back after a month and invited her for coffee.
“The next weekend his parents were out of town with his sister and he came home unbeknownst to everyone else,” Jepson said. “He drove his car in the garage, shut the door, got his yearbook and his Lion’s Tale newspaper [OHS’s student newspaper], sat in the car, and asphyxiated himself.”
She said that he did not warn anybody. All his teachers were heartbroken, she said, and went to his funeral.
“I can’t imagine the level of despair he must have felt to do that,” Jepson said.
Jepson’s daughter Jocelyn Williamson has publicly championed the effort to proclaim a Pride Month.
“This resolution is a simple request, an act that requires little effort, but will have profound effects,” she told the Council during a June 6 meeting. “We need you to set an example of how we should care for those in our community who need us the most.”
Jepson is the wife of Christopher Jepson, an OCN Board of Directors member.
Other acts with “profound effects”
Jepson said the OHS staff planted a tree in the courtyard of the high school in honor of T and, even though there is no plaque with his name there, they had a little ceremony for him.
Williamson read a message from one of her mother’s former students at the June 6 Council meeting:
“I felt you should know that planting that tree had a profound effect on me. Had it not been for that tree, I would not have spent every Wednesday eating lunch with a gay classmate my first semester in college. Those conversations over lunch made me rethink a lot of the worldview I grew up with, and profoundly changed who I am. The people who look up to you do not listen to you, they imitate you. Thank you for being the teacher I needed.”
After T’s death, Jepson tried to be an advocate for all students. About 10 years ago, she became a sponsor of OHS’ Spectrum Club. She said students kept begging for her help because nobody else wanted to sponsor them.
The club was part of the Gay-Straight Alliance, but back then, Jepson said the school did not want the club named that way so, she called it the Spectrum club, after the colors of the rainbow. She said a club like that one would have changed T’s life.
“We talked about acceptance, we talked about forming a support group for each other,” Jepson said. “We had a picture in the yearbook and I know that a couple of students who were in the Spectrum Club did not want to be in the picture because they didn’t want their parents to see it.”
She said it was a very repressive time during the 80s and 90s.
“I had other students tell me privately that they were gay, too. And they would say it in a little tiny voice,” Jepson said. “Then they looked at my face to see if I was going to have a negative reaction. I mean, it was very different.”
Jepson said that considering the Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, she could have gotten into a lot of trouble if she’d done the same today.
Mink hopes that designating a Pride Month in Oviedo will help shed light on issues that the LGBTQ+ community faces locally. She said that she and her partner were harassed and bullied at school but that it was largely ignored.
“I feel like it could [change something like that] because if the town recognizes Pride Month you can’t ignore who Pride Month celebrates,” she said.
She said she’s willing to fight for the LGBTQ+ community because she has her family’s support. She said others are not as fortunate.
“Every child shouldn’t have to worry or even ‘come out’, really. It shouldn’t have to be a massive thing. When I told my mom she said ‘OK, I love you’ and we moved on,” she said, adding that she had a different experience when she told her father. “It’s still hard in public even with family acceptance.”
But, she said, maybe one day it won’t be.
Megan Stokes contributed to this article.