A conversation with Emma Blackman-Mathis | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A conversation with Emma Blackman-Mathis

At 14, Emma Blackman-Mathis of Highland Park is one of the youngest gay-rights activists in town. Active in the local Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN), this 5-foot-and-change Schenley High School ninth-grader has been known to pipe up...

Tell me about your upcoming show.

Our first show in March was the get-to-know-our-group show; some of it was our histories, our coming-out stories, although not everyone in the group is gay. Our theme for this show is "family." We sing, some of the kids will dance, there's a group skit -- it's a really funny Fourth-of-July coming-out story. There's a saxophone solo; I'm gonna read a poem that I wrote. Susan had us write about things to get ideas, and she sends that to people she knows who write the songs for us. I'm really confident in the show right now.


Is this the main gay-themed performance group for teen-agers?

Yeah, I think it's the only one in Pittsburgh. But then there's CAPA [the city's Creative and Performing Arts High School], the gay-themed school -- just kidding! I love CAPA -- my girlfriend goes there.


So what do you do with GLSEN?

I help with ideas for what GLSEN can do to make schools more open. [Right now,] we're working on a "safe space" prom coming up, where people can come with same-sex dates, no dates, drug-free, alcohol-free ... for high school and college students.


How would you describe the climate for gays and lesbians in your school?

A lot of people don't talk about being gay, but use it as a derogatory term. They mean, "That's lame, that's stupid." Even some of my friends say it and I get really pissed off at them. If a racial slur is used, in less than a second a teacher will be there, but you hear "fag" every 10 seconds. It's not even being gay, it's being stupid that they're making fun of. There's a fair number of out kids, and they don't get made fun of for being gay.


About how many out kids are there at your school?

About 10. ... With me, my coming-out story's boring, no one cared, they were like, "I know." It didn't really hit me how few people were out at my age until I tried to date.


You may be too young to have observed this, but do you think attitudes toward gays have changed recently?

I can only speak for the past two years, because that's when I started paying attention. Even in the past year of Bush talking about anti-gayness or whatever, [people now] say, "I'm not gay, but I don't care if anybody else is." It's the general consensus, at least at Schenley, among the youth who aren't really political, that because of how he handled the war, they think he's really stupid. So when they hear about an issue they don't really understand [like gay issues], they'll learn about it [to] disagree with Bush. They're not necessarily pro-gay, but they're anti-anti-gay.


When I first came out in middle school, all these people were asking me questions and I was excited. They were asking me questions that surprised me, really obvious things. Like, "Do you like every girl you see?" But after I talked to them a lot of people were less homophobic.


Are there unmet needs for gay and lesbian teen-agers?

Just a feeling of security. For some of the old-time lesbians, they say, "You have to come out to your parents," but parents are a big stress. You're not really in control of your life in high school; you can't just move out of the house. In the city, it's not so bad, because there's a lot of organizations you can go to like the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, but in the suburbs, my brother -- my dad's girlfriend's son -- who goes to Gateway [in Monroeville] knows gay kids who get beat up almost weekly. Some of the academics may be better, but the environment is much less accepting.


Is there a generation gap between younger and older gay activists?
Yes! The old-time activists, like the hippies, they have the mindset of we have to go out and protest everything. Kids in high school don't feel the urge to fight; they're just worried. [But] I think it would be good if more people actually went out and did things. I don't do that much, but if there were 10 people who didn't do that much, that'd make a difference.