Josie Weiland, at home in Piedmont, South Dakota, 2014.08.16. (That snake on her arm isn't permanent; she was entertaining kids with face-painting at her uncle Rick's fundraising concert Saturday.)
Josie Weiland just graduated from high school. She's headed for Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Her uncle Rick is running for U.S. Senate.
Josie Weiland made her own political news last February, when she stood up at a crackerbarrel and challenged Senator Phil Jensen's absurd assertion that his proposal to let businesses discriminate against homosexuals was really an "anti-bullying free speech bill." She took a break from entertaining the kids at the fundraising concert her dad Kevin hosted for her uncle Rick yesterday to talk about what led her to political activism.
You might think that her politically minded family led her to her political consciousness, but Josie says that's not the case. Her own political curiosity (Weiland genetics?) led her to start reading up on homosexuality and equality issues on the Internet. She read about the combination of mounting empirical evidence and political action that led the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses. She raised the subject of homosexuality and social responses to it at home, and while her family openly discussed the topic, she formed her own views.
Weiland sees most of her generation understanding and accepting homosexuality (a view shared by her young East River political counterpart Cody Hausman and supported by this 2013 Washington Post/ABC poll). But a vocal minority of her peers motivated her own interest in LGBT equality. She attended a conservatively oriented school where she regularly heard students tossing about ignorant anti-gay insults like, "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Despite more positive messages about LGBT tolerance from at least one teacher, Weiland left that school her freshman year. Yet even in a somewhat more diverse and tolerant environment, she still heard ignorant attitudes causing others harm. That injustice provoked her to action.
Initially she didn't plan to speak up at the February 1 crackerbarrel in Rapid City. But the night before the event, she thought more about the injustice inherent in the discriminatory legislation proposed by Jensen and other legislators across the state and nation and decided to prepare some remarks and a question to defend gay and lesbian fellow citizens from discrimination.
After she confronted Senator Jensen, Weiland was distressed by the legislator's unwillinginess to engage in open dialogue. She dealt with sloppy journalism and personal attacks online with pretty good aplomb for a high-school senior unaccustomed to the invective political activists can draw.
But Weiland has not let those negative reactions from others drag her into similar tactics. Her interaction with equality opponents and supporters alike has shown her the advantage of positive messaging. She recalls that at the crackerbarrel, she and other supporters started a rallying chant in which they listed states that ban gay marriage and shouted "Shame!" after each name. One member of her group interrupted the chant and asked that they replace the shaming with something more positive. So instead of "Shame!" the group started responding to the list of states blocking equality with, "Yes we can!" Weiland says that simple change in language changed the emotion and energy of the group to something that felt more hopeful and proactive.
Weiland sees her generation ready and able to engage in politics. However (again reflecting views reflected by Hausman last spring), Weiland sees traditional political activities like crackerbarrels as "old school" and says young people see more ease and usefulness in social media. When a friend invited her to attend the February 1 crackerbarrel, she first thought of the restaurant, not the public forum.
Yet Weiland says that even with such powerful learning and organizing tools in their hands, young people seem largely apathetic to political issues. She thinks part of the problem may be too little discussion of politics in school. In her government class, Weiland says her teacher avoided discussions of "taboo" subjects like gay rights and abortion. Weiland thinks avoiding such topics deters students from discussing controversial issues. They get frustrated and tune out.
Weiland counters with her experience on the high school debate team (ably coached by Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo). Debate is all about sharing and testing ideas and letting opposing views contest each other. Weiland says that letting more students experience that vigorous and healthy contest would incline more students toward engaging in politics.Weiland would like to continue engaging in politics, although she does have a few other important things to do, like figuring out a major. When she finishes university, Weiland doesn't envision running for high office like her uncle, but she likes the idea of involving herself in local politics. But above all, she wants to do her civic duty by reading, learning, and speaking up about LGBT equality and all the other issues affecting her community and encouraging others to do the same.