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Graduates can ‘change the world with love’

Editor’s note: On Saturday June 18, as a graduate of 1997 — a 25th year alumni member, Leigh Waterman was invited to speak at The Forestville Alumni Association’s 125th meeting to honor the graduating class of 2022. His speech would be described as powerful, timely, sensitive, eye opening, raw, just plain stunning — unlike any other speech ever given to the association. After receiving an energetic standing ovation, several recent graduates and longtime alumni would thank him and share their related stories. Many felt his story and speech should be shared. His speech is printed here in its entirety.

When I was first asked to do this speech back in early February, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to speak or even what I would say. Then, the world reminded me, seemingly prodded me to stand up and provide guidance for this young generation.

It took the world only three days to present to me with a hate-fueled genocide halfway around the world; only a couple of weeks for a hate-based law banning books and speech with any reference to the LGBTQ+ community; only a couple months to hint that hate will likely turn women’s rights back 50 years.

Then the world really needed to shove me and sent a hate filled racist terrorist to a Tops Market just three blocks away from where I worked. And before that could even sink in, I was listening to a rising body count of dead fourth graders and their teachers. On the other end of the assault weapon was another hate-filled terrorist, the exact age of many of you right now.

That is when I realized that I needed to tell you my own, personal story to convince your young minds to fight hate and change the world with love.

When I graduated 25 years ago, I was valedictorian, had been the lead in multiple musicals, played sports, and would like to think I was generally liked and friendly with everyone. But I wasn’t brave enough to tell them I was gay.

The world was different 25 years ago. We didn’t have gay role models, celebrities, athletes or other nationally known figures filling our media with support. There was no YouTube, Instagram or Tiktok where kids my age could share their stories and show love and support for others. We didn’t even have something as simple as a book about a true story of two gay penguins raising a chick – now banned from school libraries in Florida.

Back then, even though most people didn’t know someone who openly was gay, hate against our community was winning. Back then it was literally illegal in many states for two high school boys to hold hands. Two girls would never be allowed to attend prom as a couple. You couldn’t have two moms or two dads. We couldn’t marry who we loved. We’d be locked out of emergency rooms for treatment, and if we could get treatment, our partners could not visit us as they were not family. But of course, they would be more than happy to provide electric shock therapy to “cure” what they considered a disease. There were thousands of laws discriminating against my community just because of who we loved or our gender identity. These laws were regularly used to hold us down, imprison or otherwise punish us.

The year after I graduated, in a rural town like Forestville, a boy my age would be tied to a fence post, pistol whipped and tortured where he was left to die. He would suffer there for almost two days before he was found covered in his own blood, except for where his tears had washed it away. He would later succumb to his injuries. That boy, Matthew Shepard, was my age and murdered simply because he was gay. While this wasn’t the start or end of the fight, his death would serve as a catalyst for my generation, my community, and finally the nation as a whole, to pool our love, fight this hate, and change the world. My community joined together and eventually his death would be honored with the first ever federal hate crimes bill and a will to fight hate and change the world with love, that continues to this day.

Today we know love can change the world, and this is even more relevant during the month of June, Pride Month, a celebration of my community. But this is not your typical celebration. It’s not a birthday, anniversary, or graduation celebration. We’re not just celebrating because we are gay. We are celebrating because we have survived.

We are celebrating that we have fought and will continue to fight against hate and bigotry of bullies of all types who want to suppress our love. We’re celebrating that, when we come together, our love is more important and powerful than hate. We’re celebrating that no one can take our love away from us.

This celebration is important because the world still has zealots so full of hate and discrimination; that somehow my love for my husband is so drastic or dangerous that it threatens and consumes them with such a vengeful-insatiable hate that they dedicate their lives to suppressing our love, or worse, physically harming us.

But change fueled by love wins over hate every time. It makes me proud that I could contribute over the last 25 years using Forestville based musical talent to join the largest gay men’s chorus in the world and sing for equality and love; to use my Forestville fueled morals and dedication to attend protests, and use my Forestville fueled leadership to convince elected officials to choose love, even for just the ability to marry my husband and make sure the future will be better for your generation of alphabet soup.

I’m proud to see this change continues to be evident in the Buffalo Pride Parade where earlier this month it was kicked off with thousands of high school LGBTQ+ youth and their allies marching proud. I am aware there are many students here in Forestville who have felt safer or braver than I was and have shared their truths. I hear they have been accepted with love and I hope that this is the case. This means my generation’s fight for love is working and that your class and others from Forestville will have the love required to fight against hate.

Consequently, as you head into your future, think about the choices you make. How you will treat others? Who will you call your friends? Who will you support? And most importantly, who will you stand up for when they need you on their side? Will these choices surround you with love and marginalize hateful influencers? Will you lift up others who don’t love like you, or look like you or have a life like you? Love is what the world needs. Choosing love is how you will succeed in life. Love will make you your best self. Love can change the world and that world is now in your hands.

Thank you, Class of 2022. Fight hate, choose love.

Leigh Waterman is Forestville native and Amherst resident.

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