My Pride: A Tribute to Those Who Have Helped Shape My LGBT Views
Faggot! Homo! Queer!
They say sticks and stone can break out bones, but words can never hurt us. Whoever said that was clearly never the victim of bullying.
Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, I did my best to avoid any potential situations that might lead to my being bullied. I played sports year-round, including the “manly” ones of baseball and basketball. I was often one of the younger ones on these teams so I was sure to laugh at jokes directed at others, even if I didn’t understand the joke. In the locker rooms and on team bus rides, girls were often the topic of conversation. Those with girlfriends would openly brag about what they doing and those without girlfriends would brag about what they would be doing as soon as they snagged the girl of their choice. It was a culture predicated on toxic masculinity and those that didn’t fully participate were somehow seen as different, strange, and inherently inferior.
And they were called those demeaning names, implying that they were a homosexual.
Each generation has a scapegoat and for millennials it was this population. Males in particular, were ruthless in this regard and a lot of it stemmed from our home environment. As the generation raised by boomers, our role models were still behind the times in accepting the emerging LGBT community. This rang true for my own personal experience as both my mom and my dad saw homosexuality as something that they would never “wish” upon their only son. In middle school, my mother saw me watching a Britney Spears music video and commented that it was “good to know” that I wasn’t gay. Later that year, my own father threatened to disown me if I “chose” to be gay. Here I was, in the middle of my adolescence, being told I would be abandoned by my very own family if I somehow succumbed to homosexuality. When I had my first girlfriend in high school, the look on my parents’ faces was one of sheer relief.
So our generation started off behind the eight ball when it came to accepting the LGBT community. Oddly enough, it was television and media that provided us with our first glimpse into this world. On television, MTV’s flagship program, The Real World, started featuring gay housemates in the early 90s as there inevitably rose conflict among the straight housemates living with someone from the LGBT community. In film, I distinctly remember watching 1997’s In & Out, which featured a kiss between leading actors Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck. For me, this was a moment where I remember being internally conflicted. Here were two people, two homos, doing something that didn’t seem as evil as I had imagined. Sure, they were only acting but they were acting in a way that didn’t make two gay people being together as inherently unnatural as I had been told. It was almost, in a weird way, somewhat natural and this was not something that I was expecting.
But perhaps the biggest influence on my adolescent understanding of the issue came from the animated television program South Park. In September of 1997 the show, which was gaining popularity among adolescents, aired an episode titled “Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride.” In the episode, the character Kyle’s dog runs away after it is discovered that it is gay. Kyle eventually discovers his dog at a gay animal sanctuary led by a man named Big Gay Al who explains to Kyle that there are all kinds of gay animals. Kyle eventually accepts and reunites with his dog and eventually all the townspeople make their way to the sanctuary and reconnect with their gay pets as well. The character of Big Gay Al would return periodically throughout the series and would eventually become a fan favorite.
As a twelve-year-old attempting to reconcile what I had been told with what I was now seeing, this was a watershed moment. Gay people might not be so bad. This was my actual thought process at the time. After all, I was now seeing gay people represented on television and in movies. South Park taught me that there were even gay animals so it clearly wasn’t a choice like my parents believed. Although I didn’t personally know any gay people at the time, I was beginning to suspect that they might not be all bad and perhaps even some of them might even be good. As someone from a very homogeneous, suburban community, I began to actively wonder if there were any gay people where I lived and what it would be like if I were to ever meet them.
The answer to that question came about in my high school years. When you spend four years with over 2,000 fellow students, you inevitably end up crossing paths with people you may not have met otherwise. Among those people I met was Tucker, a brilliantly gifted member of our class. When Tucker and I were part of a group in junior year English, he had officially come out and was well-known to our entire class. I remember his insights that year into Moby Dick, a book that I found pedantic and boring, that were brilliant and inspiring. Tucker made me realize that not only were gay people not scary but they could actually be superior in many ways to myself, who was no slouch academically. At the end of senior year, Tucker graduated near the top of our class and went to on matriculate at Stanford University, a fitting end for someone as gifted and hard-working as he was.
And yet, when I got to college I still couldn’t say that I had any close gay friends. When it came time to go on fall break during my freshman year, I decided to hop on a Greyhound bus to spend a couple nights in DC visiting friends. My first night, I stayed with my friend Ryan whom I had worked with for the previous two summers as a camp counselor. Ryan took me out, introduced me to his friends, let me crash at his place, and then dropped me off the next day over by the Washington Monument. I would stay with another friend that second night before heading back to my college on that final day of the break. I was grateful to Ryan for hosting me and for being willing to transport me around the city during his free time and for me it was simply another example of the good friendships I was fortunate enough to have been a part of.
That winter, I was recounting my trip to DC with my friend Joe, who also worked with Ryan and myself at the summer camp. During our conversation, Joe looked at me directly and asked, “Was it weird when you learned that Ryan was gay?” Wait, Ryan was gay? I honestly had no idea. After all, Ryan was a sports camp counselor. He was athletic. We never saw him acting strangely or awkwardly around ourselves or our fellow male counselors. He was smart and was a Georgetown graduate. How was I supposed to know that Ryan was gay when he didn’t give off any of the obvious signs?
Then it hit me. I had been stereotyping gay people my whole life. I just assumed that they would be like the ones I saw on television and film. Big and flirty and outgoing. Wearing fabulous clothing. Talking with a lisp. Men being super effeminate. Women being butch. Advertising their sexuality so that everyone knew how obviously gay they were. What I didn’t realize it that gay people often don’t want to needlessly draw attention to themselves. That their sexual orientation is their own business. That to say there is a typical gay person is akin to saying there is a typical straight person, neither of which are accurate. I finally realized, at age 19, that I had been expecting gay people to simply announce themselves to me as if I was owed that knowledge. I felt shame in realizing just how close-minded I had been about this population and I vowed to do better moving forward.
Over my last three years of college, I came across many in the LGBT community, including those within my very own fraternity. I was fortunate to be among a group of men who were accepting of our gay brothers and understood what I had not: that each gay person’s experience in unique to himself or herself. Among my fraternity brothers, we had those who were out and proud, we had those who were struggling to understand their sexual orientation, and we had those who hid themselves for fear of the reaction of those at home. Through them, I was able to learn how difficult it was to be a part of the LGBT community, even in an accepting environment. I wished that certain brothers, including a dear friend, had been comfortable enough to be out and proud but I understood why they made the decisions that they did. It was during this time, the mid-2000s, that I first started realizing the systems this country had in place that were intentionally making lives difficult for the LGBT community.
Nowhere was this lesson more apparent than in the lack of rights that the LGBT community had at the time. I was able to learn about this firsthand through my mentor, Ray. Ray had been my college adviser for three years and was kind enough to remain there for me after I graduated. One night at his home, he showed a movie on an outdoor screen and created homemade credits that read A RAY AND SHANE PRODUCTION. I turned to ask my friend Brad who Shane was and he told me that was Ray’s partner. I honestly had no idea that Ray was gay as this was something he was forced to hide during his work with us as undergraduates. Now, here in the privacy of his home, Ray finally felt comfortable enough to share Shane with us and we immediately took a liking to him.
And it was through conversations with Ray and Shane that I was able to see how absurd these anti-LGBT laws were in this country. Having Ray, who would often travel as a consultant, express a very real fear that he may one day be in an accident in a state that did not have representation laws for LGBT partners and that Shane me be legally unable to be part of life and death decisions was absolutely heart-wrenching. I could not imagine any hospital staff ever denying my own significant other the opportunity to discuss legal health decisions when I was in a precarious situation, yet this was the exact situation Ray and Shane found themselves in. It was through my discussions with Ray and Shane that I first learned the very real human cost that LGBT laws were having on the community.
Flash forward three years and I found myself involved in California’s charter school movement. Being as the state was in a budget crisis and public schools were not hiring any new teachers, the only option for a transplant like myself was to find work at any one of the roughly 60 charter schools in San Diego County while I pursued my master’s degree. My first year, I worked at a charter school that prided itself on being a welcoming school community. LGBT students were not only accepted here but were giving the opportunity to thrive. I fondly remember Vicente, a gay Latino cheerleader, break down in tears after he got a standing ovation for his performance at the school talent show. For me, this environment, this culture was what I was hoping for after getting into teaching. The state of California not only had legal protections in place for the LGBT community but its schools were doing everything in their power to create an inclusive environment for these students at an age where they were most vulnerable.
After five years of teaching numerous amazing LGBT students in the county, I would end up leaving teaching for nonprofit work. At my first nonprofit, I worked with Lorenzo, who became our beloved gay office assistant. The summer after that job, I ended up working at a camp on the campus of Boulder, Colorado where staff members Nicole, Alex, and Andrew were proud members of the LGBT community. It was that summer when the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision came down legalizing marriage equality throughout the country. Being able to share that decision with three people who would be directly impacted was a beautiful thing. Seeing my friends post on social media that their children would never know a country where marriage equality wasn’t the law of the land was humbling and made me realize what a monumental day this was in our country and I was proud I was able to witness it.
Over the past four years, I’ve been amazingly fortunate to work with phenomenal LGBT community leaders. In Florida, I worked closely with Ruthie and Connie, a lesbian couple who together help organize their nearly 12,000-person retirement community. Back home, I’ve worked closely with Jane who has been a phenomenal advocate for her community, especially helping to organize against a statewide anti-transgender bill that was soundly defeated last November. I’ve also worked with gay clergy members like Donna, Lara, and Will who have shown me that organized religion can provide a space for LGBT members to not only come and be accepted but also can achieve leadership positions. I’ve seen allies, straight, gay, bi, and trans advocate for these communities. And I’ve seen my friends’ children being much more accepting of each other than my generation ever was.
I share my own story as part of Pride month as a way to give thanks. For each person named in my own evolution there have been countless others who have been a part of my life and have helped me overcome my initial biases. The truth is my own LGBT circle is no different than anyone else’s. There are hundreds of thousands of amazing people out there sharing their true selves in hopes of being accepted, both personally and legally. As a nation, we are getting closer but we still have work left to do. There is a space for us to be allies in the fight and to share our stories of the struggle. I’m proud to stand by our gay brothers and sisters as they continue to fight for their rights at a time when they have come under attack and it is up to each and every one of us to stand firmly in their corner. My own views have been shaped by the struggles of those closest to me and I, for one, am not willing allow the clock to be turned back when so much progress has been made.
And I won’t abandon all the people in my life who have made me aware of their struggle.
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