Exclusive: Claire Buffie Gets Candid
When I heard that Miss New York, Claire Buffie, was running for Miss America on a platform of gay rights (a first in the pageant’s ninety-year history), I was a bit skeptical. The twenty-four-year-old straight Indianapolis native seemed like a well-meaning individual, but did she have a true understanding of the daily struggles in the march towards equality? Yes, her older sister Sarah is an out lesbian, and she may be involved with PFLAG, but what did she really know?
Turns out, quite a lot...
In this in-depth interview, Buffie goes beyond generic talking points and reveals a knowledge and understanding that can only come from being in the trenches.
You've mentioned making gay friends growing up in the performing arts. Is that where you first came to understand what gay is?
I don’t recall a specific time when someone said, “Oh that person’s gay.” Gay people were part of the community growing up—it was just a part of the norm. I also don’t recall a specific time in my life where our parents sat us down and explained the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality, because it was just a non-issue for them. And because of that, when Sarah came out, it didn’t change our lives or our conversations. We didn’t have to backpedal and think, Oh my God, did I ever make a joke that could’ve offended her? Because negative comments towards any sort of diversity, sexual orientation included—were not allowed in the Buffie house.
There seems to be a coming out process for straight people too, in terms of how they identify as a member of a family with diverse orientation. Have you witnesses this in your work with PFLAG?
Definitely. One of the questions parents bring to me is, “If I’m not running out and shouting it from the rooftops, will my child think I’m ashamed of them?” But I think for a lot of parents, the reason they don’t tell people is out of respect for the person who came out. After Sarah came out, my parents told our immediate family and told friends who loved Sarah. Because they knew it would not change their view of her.
And what about people who weren’t close to her?
We let them get to know Sarah first. I knew my boyfriend at the time was not going to be OK with it. So it was really important to get him and Sarah together, to let him experience her spirit and see just how hilarious and fun and wonderful she is. I needed him to experience Sarah the person before he had any preconceived notions of her. And then I told him she was gay.
Was that an effective approach?
It was effective for a while. I’ll say that relationship didn’t last and I do know that our differences, specifically from a religious standpoint on this issue, were different. And ultimately, that is kind of what ended our relationship.
Religion remains a part of the equality dialogue. Some fear that LGBT civil rights will restrict religious freedom. Others believe that gay people simply choose a sinful lifestyle. How do you reach out to those individuals?
First and foremost, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and their own religious beliefs. For me, I grew up going to church. And what I learned in Sunday school was to love each other and to treat each other the way we wanted to be treated—you know, the Golden Rule. If I’m going to take one verse to really live my life by and understand what the Bible is intending us to follow, it’s Romans 12:18, which says ‘If it is within your power, live at peace with everyone.” And so from the religious and conservative right, I don’t think that we’ll change a fundamental opinion or belief, but what we can ask is for people to embrace and accept the LGBT community as human beings.
And reassure them that gay people are not out to hamper religious freedom.
Right. Allowing two men to marry does not take anything away from my parents’ marriage; it just adds one more happy couple to the world.
Can you talk about your work with the Safe Schools Program in New York?
We focus on middle and high schools, and usually have two to three speakers per classroom or presentation. For one that I did for Action Academy in the Bronx, we had a gay man, a straight mother of a gay son, and myself speaking to a group of eighty sixth-grade girls. We shared our different stories and then opened it up for questions. The first girl to stand up was timid at first, and then she started crying. "I think I’m gay,” she said, “And all I hear is my mom talk about how disgusting gay people are. So I can never tell my mom. Who am I supposed to go to?” At the same time, completely unprompted, a girl reached back awkwardly from a row ahead of her and grabbed onto this girl’s hand. I was basically in tears now and I pointed to this girl, and said, “That is who you can tell. These are the people who you can tell and who you can be yourself with.”
The fact that she had the confidence to stand up in front of her peers and share that was incredible. At one point all the girls started clapping for her and then the Vice Principal of their school stood up and said, “I am a mother of my own two kids, but I am a mother to every single one of these girls when they don’t have one who supports them.” That’s what we’re doing: We’re opening up these kids who have been holding things in for so long. And we’re revealing allies for them in the schools. Because when we leave, something has to stay there as a lasting impression and a support group at school. For so many kids, their family is not necessarily a safe place.
Would you go across the country with this type of program as Miss America?
With this platform, and with the passion that I have behind it, I'm going to work as hard as I possibly can to do that.
Do you have a message for the straight family members of gay people?
I think the most important thing you can do is reflect on the feelings that you had about your child three days before they came out. And remember that. Because your child is still the same person. They’re just happier now, and they’re free, and they’re more confident in who they are. And after spending years in the closet, they have gone through so much inner turmoil, and this is their chance to finally be who they are—who a higher power created them to be. They’re still your child, and they’re still the same person who loves you and who deserves to be loved by you.
The 2011 Miss America Pageant airs January 15th on ABC. To book Claire Buffie for appearances, including the Safe Schools Program, click here.