June is Pride Month, and it couldn’t feel more relevant. My support for pride and for the LGBTQ+ community goes back decades. I’m always loath to tell a story which is not my own, however, as we see a renewed national narrative of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislative attacks on gay and transgender rights, in particular dangerous, abusive attacks on our transgender and queer and questioning youth, it becomes all the more important for our LGBTQ+ community to hear and feel support from their elected representatives.
Following the passage of marriage equality in 2015, the question of whether pride was still necessary and relevant started to circulate. Had pride become too commercial, too mainstream? After all, pride didn’t start with a parade, it started with a riot.
However, it was less than a year later that the largest mass shooting of a LBGTQ+ community occurred on June 12, 2016 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and seven months later we would usher in an administration that would launch a relentless assault on LGBTQ+ rights.
Although homosexuality and gay culture has been ever-present in our world, the gay rights movement really began in the U.S. a little under a century ago after a rash of anti-gay laws that not only criminalized homosexuality but defined it as “sexual perversion.”
Although the movement began in response to raids, harassment, and brutality from the Ku Klux Klan and law enforcement in the 1920s and 1930s, which often had significant cross pollination, the landscape was changed by several other incidents — the repeated raids and police brutality which resulted in Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the murder of Harvey Milk nearly a decade later and subsequent support by law enforcement of his murderer, as well as the slow governmental response to the AIDS crisis, which not only decimated a generation of young gay men, but was politicized to destroy lives, livelihoods and political careers.
I am a Gen-Xer, who came of age during the spectre of death AIDS crisis. Working in theater, I remember the fear, the lump in my throat when I would learn of a friend, colleague, or mentor who had the “flu,” or was under the weather with “pneumonia” or “liver cancer.” These were all euphemisms. The media initially dubbed it “GRID – gay related immune deficiency – gay cancer” and the conservative religious right proclaimed it “God’s judgement.”
I remember attending a Sunday school event with a dear friend and a guest speaker spent an hour and a half expounding on the value of AIDS in ending a crisis of perversion. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young woman my age enraptured by the speech. I could not see my friend and didn’t know what to do if she too had that same look on her face. I was relieved at the end of the meeting by her shear horror at what she had just been subjected to.
I used to sing with Dick Gessner, a local cabaret performer and piano bar owner whose talent and musical knowledge expanded back 50 years to the early days of the movement. He was also a veteran, an educator and mentor. One of his regulars was Shirley Gershman, mother of renowned lyricist and Baltimore native son Howard Ashman. Throughout my high school and college years, I participated in several fundraisers for HERO, Health Education Resource Organization, which led national efforts to help people with AIDS, in honor of Howard Ashman, who continued to share his immense gift even from his death bed.
The last year and a half has been an experience of immense post-traumatic stress disorder as we reconcile with a renewed national push to end police brutality and seek meaningful police reform, as we saw a public health crisis politicized and polarized, and people’s lives and livelihoods devalued and disregarded, as we’ve seen state legislatures passing laws targeting transgender youth, and a national narrative attempting to conflate once again homosexuality with perversion and pedophilia, even criminalizing parents for supporting their queer and questioning children. This is not new; we’ve been here before.
As anyone who has followed my posts or legislative efforts knows, my passion is in adolescent access to behavioral health services and suicide prevention. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24, and LGBTQ+ youth are five times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual counterparts. Transgender women of color are at greatest risk of harassment, abuse, assault and homicide of any community in our country.
I won’t pretend I will ever fully understand how hard it is to live out loud, to live your truth, but I do know that one of the most effective preventative measures against suicide is inclusion. So I’m asking today, take the time to learn about the movement, to really understand where we came from, and the work we still need to do.