The grownups in the room

With so much focus on what we teach kids, it is rewarding to be reminded just how much they have to teach us. At last week’s City Council meeting, students in Ellsworth High School’s Gender/Sexuality Diversity Alliance demonstrated lessons in resilience, bravery, empathy and strategic thinking.

Two years ago, they identified a problem: LGBTQ+ kids are at higher risk for harassment, violence, depression, anxiety and suicide. Teens who are gay or transexual fear rejection by their community and the world. So, the GSDA came up with an idea: paint a downtown crosswalk in rainbow colors as a bold statement that Ellsworth welcomes everyone. They made a plan, secured the funding and brought the proposal to the council. The measure failed on a tied vote and was referred to a committee for further discussion. Ever heard the phrase “death by committee”? The working group disbanded for lack of consensus.

But the students, having slogged through enough of the democratic process to deter lesser souls, did not stop there. With the help of faculty advisor Carrie Kutny and Councilor Casey Hanson, who sponsored the agenda item, they returned with an updated plan. They picked a specific crosswalk with safety in mind. The pedestrian crossing at Main Street and the Franklin Street extension sees light vehicular traffic when it’s open and none at all when the extension is closed, as it will be again this summer to create a downtown parklet. Maine Department of Transportation rules allow for painting colors between the white lines of a crosswalk.

Last week, student after student took to the podium to speak about what the crosswalk would symbolize for them and their peers. The group stood in a clump, visibly leaning into each other for support — all the more so when subsequent speaker and recent council candidate John Linnehan described homosexuality as a sin in the same vein as murder.

Councilors ultimately voted 4-3 in favor of the crosswalk. Those opposed gave little in the way of an explanation.

Councilor Marc Blanchette said he hadn’t heard anything that changed his mind since voting against the project the last time around. In an apparent attempt to recognize the students, he congratulated them for having “the balls” to come speak — a wince-worthy choice of phrase given the topic was sexuality.

He spent a good portion of his remarks blasting citizens who had written emails supporting the crosswalk project, accusing them of misinformation and divisiveness because they questioned whether safety was the real concern for those opposed. While he noted that black and white is an easier combination for the vision impaired to see, he failed to explain why the proposed location did not alleviate his safety concerns.

Steve O’Halloran had so much to say on other subjects that he sponsored four of the meeting’s agenda items and continued his bizarre practice of speaking from the podium during citizens comments even though he is an elected representative with a seat and voice at the big table. But on rainbow crosswalks? Nada. Councilor Gene Lyons was also mum.

Michelle Kaplan, who abstained from voting on the issue in 2020, was the deciding vote in favor. She said the students moved her.

In the end, a rainbow crosswalk is not just a crosswalk. But someday, thanks in no small part to a group of determined kids, it will be as unremarkable and uncontroversial as a Welcome to Ellsworth sign. Not only are these kids welcome; they make us proud.

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