They don’t understand how it was to be gay back then. That was a comment recently made to me by an older gay man. We were discussing the gay pool party, hosted by Impulse Group South Florida, where people over 40 were asked to pay while the younger men got in for free. Seeing the fee as a deterrent to having older men “gawking” at the younger men, my friend defended his generation by pointing out the naiveté of younger ones. I certainly don’t think you should treat your patrons differently at any public event, but I caution my friend and any other critic of youth to hold their tongues. We are here to help each other, not compete for Best Victim.
I was asked to speak at Mill Creek High School’s Gay Student Association, and was honored to go. I must admit, however, that I thought the number of people that would show up for the talk would be small. When I arrived to find over 60 students in the room, I was quite surprised. Plus, not everyone in the audience was part of the LGBT community; there were also straight students there to show support. I realized my expectations were based on my own small town high school experiences, and I’ve been out of high school a long time.
I was brought in to help these kids see that, as a gay adult, they could be happy. It seems that despite our generation gap the insecurities that come with being a young gay kid remain, and I needed to broaden their perspective. So I opened my talk by asking if anyone was a fan of history. Most of them raised their hands, and I explained that I thought history was the most important subject in school. Despite the grind of having to learn dates, history is the only way we get a sense of how far we’ve come as a society. We fail to realize that we are caught in the vacuum of our own experience, and can easily lose sight of our privileges. Only by looking over our shoulders at who came before us can we truly get a sense of how far ahead on our paths we are.
I told the class that they were my heroes, and that it shouldn’t be the other way around. I explained that at their age I was in the closet. There was no gay student union or straight friends proud to stand beside their gay brothers and sisters. Rumors about me at my school forced kids I had grown up with to refuse to give me rides to school and to pick up their trays from the lunch table to keep clear of my lesbian leftovers. I started dating guys to quell that rejection, and lied to maintain my reputation. These kids are much better people than I was at their age.
I then held up a picture of my son. I asked them to imagine what the world will be like when he is in high school. How will his world benefit from their efforts on that day, at that meeting? We are constantly moving forward, I explained to them, and they are an important part of that process. Once I saw them brighten at the thought of being important, I reminded them they were perfect just the way they are. Some had never heard those words before, and they teared up at the sound of them.
Many people forget that to fight for the rights of others is a selfless act, meaning you make the sacrifice of your time and energy—and even your life—so that others may live better. That often means someone else gets the benefit of your work. If that makes you bitter, pick up that history book. You’ll soon be glad you don’t understand how it was to be gay back then.
(Melissa Carter is one of the hosts on the Morning Show on B98.5 FM. In addition, she is a writer for Huffington Post. She is recognized as one of the first out radio personalities in Atlanta and one of the few in the country. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCarter)