Fearless Leader

1355

Saturday, June 5, will be a landmark for Megan Hodge that she’s unlikely to soon forget. At noon that day, she’ll celebrate her graduation from L.C. Anderson High School in a ceremony with fellow classmates – something she once thought repeated injuries might prevent her from doing. Later that afternoon, she’ll swap the cap and gown for more comfortable threads and ride as a grand marshal in the Austin pride parade – honored for her work with the Texas Gay Straight Alliance Network and her perseverance as a young activist. Not bad for an 18-year-old girl from rural Arkansas.

Hodge is excited that part of her extended family will be coming down from the small town of Cabot, north of Little Rock, for her graduation. And despite their conservatism, she hopes to convince them to stick around for the parade so they’ll see what she’s accomplished. “I’m from a place where we shoot guns off the front porch,” she said. “I want to be able to show them what I’ve done with my life.”

At first blush, Hodge appears to be another alternative, brooding teenager with dyed-black hair. She wears a Vagina Monologues t-shirt when we meet; her laptop is covered in queer and feminism stickers. Get her talking about what she believes in though, and you quickly get a sense of her intense passion and commitment to social justice for her generation.

Hodge said that over the last 31/2 years, “I have grown from being a scared newcomer to high school to an activist – attending rallies, speaking with schools, leading and creating workshops and our activist camp, and basically romping around the school making sure everyone knows that ‘that’s so gay’ isn’t cool anymore, just like cigarettes.”

Hodge has worked with the Texas GSA network since its inception in 2006. As an administrative intern, she’s helped grow the organization aimed at advising and encouraging GSA groups in schools across the state. At its heart, the GSA network is a resource center for GSAs that offers a toolkit complete with how-to guides, workshops and other helpful information. The network has sponsored a number of training sessions, summits and mixers for GSAs and, has been a force for LGBT youth advocacy in Texas.

Hodge and her network colleagues recently conducted a GSA registration drive, an effort to catalog the number of clubs active around the state. The group reached out to more than 700 schools around Texas and found more than 60 GSAs and diversity clubs. “Our goal is to let (the GSAs) know that they’re not alone – that we can help them,” she said. This spring Hodge is also reworking the network’s Web site with another intern and is going out to high schools and youth events around the region to speak with other young people about the importance of GSAs and creating safe places where people can be themselves. At the same time, she’s trying to get the harassment policy at her school changed to include gender identity and gender expression. “I hope that once my school’s policy gets changed, it will spread to the rest of the district and hopefully, from there across the state.”

Hodge said GSAs are incredibly important on school campuses – particularly for people whose parents aren’t as supportive as her mom and stepdad. “I’m pretty lucky to have them,” she said. “They care about me, but they don’t care who I’m dating, guy or girl, just as long as that person is good to me, respectful of me and a safe person.”

Hodge added that Out Youth, the Austin nonprofit that provides a place of sanctuary and resources for queer adolescents in the region, has also been there for her during some dark times. Through the years she has undergone several reconstructive ankle surgeries resulting from an injury that happened just before her freshman year. “I got really depressed for a while there,” she said, “but I would go to Out Youth and we would all watch a movie together or just hang out, and I would see that life didn’t suck as bad as I thought it did. Being with people you like, it will always boost your spirits. I had a place to go that would make everything okay. I think everyone needs an Out Youth in some shape or form.”

Hodge moved to Austin with her family when she was 11. Before that, she had never even encountered a gay person in Cabot. But she knew she was different, even at an early age. She was 14 when she first went to Out Youth, where she eventually got involved with the network. She was uncertain at first. “I was intimidated,” she said. “Here was this huge house with all these gay people. I thought they were all crazy and flamboyant. It just blew me away how comfortable they were able to be with themselves. At that time, I didn’t know how comfortable I was with myself.”

Hodge dated only guys until she was 16 and had her first girlfriend, Katie, a “totally smoking girl” with tattoos, short blonde hair, a soft face and stilettos who was the first girl ever to ask her out. They dated, for a short time, but Hodge said Katie showed her a lot about herself. “She was so sure of herself and I wasn’t yet,” she said. “She helped me break down the societal norms that I had stuck in my head, which allowed me to be who I was.”

Like a lot of people of her generation, Hodge isn’t a fan of traditional sexuality labels. She said she’s attracted to and dates guys and girls. For her, sexuality is fluid. “I really don’t like to use GLBT because that only covers certain people,” she said. “There are so many who don’t fit in one of those categories. I know some straight allies who also consider themselves queer. That’s why I use queer – it’s empowering. People tried to hurt us for so long with that word. But I think if it’s used positively, it should be able to be used by all people.”

Hodge explained that the network is helping make safer spaces for all, not just queer students but people of color, those with disabilities, and so on. “It’s creating a safer environment for everyone, and it all starts with schools.”

To that end, she takes issue with the priorities of the gay community – particularly as they center on the marriage equality debate. “Everyone thinks it starts with marriage and so much money has been thrown to marriage,” she said, “but how can marriage be our first priority if there are still members of our community without job security who fear they will get fired just for being who they are? or younger members in our community who do not have safe places in their schools or safe people to go to?”

Hodge believes that if there were a concerted effort at diversity education in the nation’s schools, that would likely result in a drop in bullying and harassment – and that would set the tone for the rest of the issues important to the gay community. “Creating safer schools and a more educated community now I know will create a more diverse, open, and educated community in the future.”

With graduation quickly approaching, Hodge plans to go to college, maybe Texas State University, and study sociology and education, with a minor in gender or queer studies. “I want to get an advanced degree in sociology,” she said, “and I want to become part of the paid staff of the GSA network. I think eventually we might be able to start a college component of the network to serve as a kind of mentor program for the high schools.”

As she prepares to start college, she’s also looking for a paying job. Interning for the network is challenging and fun, but like any teenager, she’s looking to make a few bucks. “It’s really been a big chunk of my life, trying to find a job.” she laughed after that, seeming to understand the absurdity of how much she’s already doing. “Working with the network and with Out Youth, I really think I’m doing my part – even in the smallest way – doing my part to save the world. I totally need a little queer superman outfit,” she said. “Yeah, that would be great!”

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