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As a member of PFLAG -- Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- I take every opportunity to share what I have learned about homosexuality, to be free from fear and to discover more about being human.

Our group, which meets monthly, is a satellite of Buffalo PFLAG, one of more than 500 chapters in the United States and 11 other nations. We are dedicated to changing attitudes, correcting myths and creating an environment of understanding so that all gay and lesbian people can live in dignity.

Because of the widespread sensitivity on this subject, often linked to deep religious beliefs, a positive approach to the truths about homosexuality is very important to us.

I have been asked why, in this stage in life, I am publicly sticking my neck out on this maligned and controversial subject, especially when my son, an attorney, is living in a safe, open-minded environment away from this area.

Part of the answer is that I feel frustrated and lonely knowing that there are thousands of people out there who share my feelings on the subject but can't or won't speak out.

I write as the father of a very loving, wonderful, sensitive gay son who revealed to his mother and me that he had considered suicide as a youngster growing up in Niagara Falls. He was a student trying to feel and be what he was not.

Because he did not appear to be the stereotypical gay, my son was spared the denigration and physical and sexual abuse by schoolmates and the insensitivity of some teachers that many gay and lesbian children endure.

But my son lived within a facade to protect his family from pain and what he thought would be humiliation, and to protect himself from rejection. He carried this cross all by himself. He certainly couldn't confide in school counselors.

Why is there so much fear and hostility toward a sexual minority that seeks only to be validated by the church, schools and work place?

Why are boards of education so reluctant to acknowledge the reality of homosexuality? Why can't students who are in total anguish over their sexuality be made to feel safe and comfortable in an atmosphere of tolerance and diversity?

Is it any wonder that 30 percent of the teen-agers who commit suicide are believed to do so because of questions regarding their sexual orientation? God only knows how many have turned to alcohol or drug addiction.

Homosexuality cannot be learned, nor is it contagious. Homophobia, however, is encouraged by the silence of parents and teachers, people in positions of authority who could dispel the myths of same-sex orientation.

There are those who, out of fear, condemn same-sex relationships by claiming that homosexuals are seeking a privileged status with "special rights" exclusively for them.

But as long as two words "sexual orientation" continue to be excluded from the language of civil-rights law, bigots get to keep their "special right" to discriminate against those whom they hate.

The New York State Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Bill, passed by the Assembly for the past four years, failed to reach the Senate floor for a full vote each time.

The bill is not about mandating acceptance or forcing association with lesbians and gays. People can believe what they want in private. It is when individuals enter the public arena as employers, landlords and educators that they should be required by law to treat everyone equally and fairly.

To know homosexuals is to love them. We as parents, friends and family of lesbians and gays, experience first-hand the true meaning of "family values" based entirely on unconditional love.

"Homosexual orientation is a mysterious gift of God's grace, the result of a complex set of biological and chromosomal factors of which the person can't help. It's not a virtue and it's not a sin," said Methodist Bishop Melvin Wheatley.

This special gift is exemplified by the tender, loving, monogamous commitment in most homosexual relationships. As in heterosexual relationships, there are also those who are sinfully exploitative and promiscuous, but they are not the majority.

Only when the civil-rights law welcomes same-sex-oriented people to the human community will many people know them. It will be obvious then that they are no different from the rest of us. They are the uncle or aunt who never married. They are the doctor, the priest, the teacher, the neighbor. They are people who have been loved and respected, but not understood.

This is the last frontier for dismantling human-rights barriers. When we have conquered it, we can all be comfortable with who we are and with one another.

TONY BENFANTE, of Niagara Falls, is a retired advertising and marketing executive. Niagara Frontier PFLAG chapters can be reached at 883-0384.

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