A six-year-old contrives an elaborate excuse to remove a despised frilly top to run through the backyard sprinkler shirtless as the neighborhood boys are free to do. The laundry-room discovery of a transgender college student’s boxer-briefs during a visit home leads to a blow-up with his parents. A queer, Jewish, trans, international wedding unites two very different, and very nervous, families. These are stories from the life of S. Bear Bergman — funny, heartbreaking, astutely observant, and broadly illuminating.
A true raconteur, Bergman commanded the stage in Concord Academy’s Performing Arts Center on September 13 in the first Community and Equity (C&E) assembly of the 2018–19 school year. Introducing him, Assistant Dean for Community and Equity Laura Twichell said she was “thrilled and proud” to welcome back to campus a CA graduate who “thinks and acts intersectionally” from his own Jewish and queer identities and also through his independent press, Flamingo Rampant, which publishes feminist, LGBTQ-positive, racially diverse children’s books. An author, educator, and performer, Bergman speaks at colleges and universities about gender, sexuality, and culture and works with organizations and corporations to create queer and trans cultural competency.
Before and after his storytelling assembly, Bergman reunited with former teachers and spoke informally with students, faculty, and staff during lunch and a question-and-answer session. His visit kicked off Concord Academy’s yearlong celebration of the 30th anniversary of the GSA. Now called the Gender Sexuality Alliance, CA’s GSA was formerly known as the Gay-Straight Alliance. There are now thousands of GSAs active in colleges, high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools, but CA’s was one of the very first to exist, and Bergman was a founding member. With no model to follow, he said, “we didn’t know we were starting a worldwide movement.” Now it’s one he is particularly proud of.
For today’s students, Bergman contextualized what it meant to be queer 30 years ago, especially as a teenager, when there were no gay movies or television shows, no visible gay role models or gay parents. “We were trying to figure out how to be a person,” he told a small group. “It’s hard to describe the degree to which that was impossible at the time.” When it began, the GSA was vitally important as a support group for adolescents challenged with navigating vastly different cultural spaces. “We were huddled together on a lifeboat,” Bergman said, “trying to imagine a future for ourselves that we couldn’t see ahead.”
Already as a CA student, Bergman was active in protests and advocated before the state legislature for the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program, the first statewide body devoted to trying to keep LGBTQ students safe and in school, at a time when he says he was often told to his face that “good schools” didn’t have gay students. At CA, Bergman felt protected when in the broader world danger to LGBTQ youth was all too real. (Even while a boarder at CA, as a vocal activist who was often quoted in newspapers, he used to receive hate mail, which the school’s receptionist would screen for him.) Returning to campus and seeing such excitement about the anniversary of the GSA — including a big banner — he said he felt “pride, pleasure, and just the tiniest dose of I-told-you-so.”
Looking back, Bergman said he recognized that the strength of his convictions hadn’t allowed him to compromise or listen when he might have better done so, but also that the black-and-white thinking of adolescence can serve activism. “Someone needs to provide the energy to push really hard on the power structures,” he said. “It took longer for me to recognize that others who didn’t agree with me on everything had valid opinions, and sometimes better ones.” He likened himself to a bee in an open glass jar that, attracted by light, knows only to fly horizontally and keeps banging against the side, until the jar is overturned. “I needed to learn that when something was that hard, I had to turn the thing on its side,” he said.
A student asked Bergman how he stays motivated in the face of continued bigotry. Bergman said he’s always tired and not great at giving himself the breaks he knows he needs. He gets energy, though, from focusing on the results he has witnessed. “I continue to work with students, children, and adults whose circumstances are demonstrably improved because of work I’ve been able to do,” he said.
Those sustaining interactions come in the form of emails or photographs kids send him after finally reading picture books about families that look like theirs. They come from seeing 400 12-year-olds at conferences who are really excited to be members of their GSAs. And they come from hearing from the first person within a company to transition to a different gender, who is beaming after receiving a coffee mug from a colleague — a mug with that proudly bears their new name.