Category Archives: LGBT

The gay community must do more to protect young gay boys from sexual exploitation

 

Earlier this month, news broke that Ralph Shortey, a Republican Oklahoma state senator and prominent Donald Trump supporter was charged with engaging in child prostitution for soliciting sex from an underage boy on Instagram and Kik, social media apps popular with teenagers. Shortey was found with the boy (whose name is withheld for privacy) in a motel.

There are plenty of cases in Britain of boys being sexually exploited.. 2014 murder of Breck Bednar, a 14-year-old boy from Essex who was groomed by a 19-year-old man before being killed in a “sadistic and sexual” act of violence stunned the nation.  British boys as young as 10 were the victims of a prolific Canadian paedophile who used the internet to prey on boys around the world. And earlier this year, Colin Gregg – the heir to the Greggs bakery fortune – was alleged to have molested four boys over the period of three decades.

These cases are not isolated incidents. A 2014 study funded by the Nuffield Foundation and conducted by NatCen and the University College London found that 1 in 3 exploited children supported by the children’s charity Barnardo’s is a young man, a startling statistic that shows boys and young men are far more vulnerable to exploitation than many would think. “Society is miserably and unacceptably failing sexually exploited boys and young men,” Javed Khan, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, told the BBC at the time. “The telltale signs are being missed because of a lack of awareness and stereotypes about the nature of this form of abuse.”

We don’t frequently think of boys as being sexually exploited, in part because girls are viewed as so much more vulnerable and in part because boys are often so reluctant to come forward, fearing that doing so will make them appear weak or emasculated. Yet boys and young men, particularly young gay and bisexual men, are often the targets of sexual predation. SaferKids, an app which notifies parents if their children download one of thousands of apps where they could fall victim to sexual predators, over a dozen examples of children being sexually exploited by men they met on Grindr alone.

This isn’t to say that this is solely an issue effecting gay and bisexual boys and young men, nor is it to imply that perpetrators are often gay and bisexual men. All boys and young men, regardless of sexual orientation, are vulnerable – and sexual orientation does not a predator make. A 2014 report by the West Sussex County Council actually shows that the majority of the boys who sought help from Yorkshire MESMAC’s BLAST programme identified as straight. (Yorkshire MESMAC  is “one of the oldest and largest sexual health organisations “in the UK, and their BLAST programme works specifically with boys who are victims of or vulnerable to sexual exploitation.)

“It’s not someone’s sexual orientation that puts them at risk,” the report reads. “It’s their circumstances, the situation they’re in and their beliefs.” A teenage boy who seeks a boyfriend his own age is much less likely to be exploited than a boy who seeks an older woman for sex. But, the report adds, “gay and bisexual young people and those questioning their sexual orientation may be particularly vulnerable to being sexually exploited if parents do not support them, and if schools do not provide adequate information and support that is relevant to them.”

We can’t even get LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship educated mandated in British schools, and LGBT young people represent up to 24% of the British homeless population – a startlingly disproportionate share when compared to the overall demographics, and evidence that many kids still face rejection at home. Homeless boys are more likely to be exploited for sex or prostitution, but even those kids who aren’t kicked out of their homes are likely to turn to apps such as Grindr, Scruff, and Recon to connect with other gay men.

This is normal and fine. When I was a gay teen coming of age in a small Kentucky town, chat rooms were my only opportunity to talk with other gay people. The problem with Grindr, Scruff, and Recon is that they are apps tailored specifically to hook gay men up with sex – a perfectly acceptable purpose but not one that should include minor children.

Grindr was sued because of the lack of age verification, but a court found that it wasn’t liable. Likewise, Tinder also has no real age verification. This means that the onus is on individual users to verify the age of any potential sexual partners – and that doesn’t always stop the sexual exploitation of boys and young men, regardless of sexual orientation.

While there are no easy answers to end the exploitation of boys and young men, there are a few things that can be done to help prevent children from being victimised. Schools need to include LGBT people in sexual and relationship education, but they also need to do a better job of teaching boys about the dangers of grooming (particularly online) and that they, too, can be sexually exploited. We need to eliminate the stigma around being a male victim, which includes combatting the notions that sleeping with someone older is “cool” and that being abused is emasculating or in any way the victim’s fault.

We need more support services for boys and young men who come forward as victims, and we need the police to actually follow up when parents lodge a complaint that their child is being groomed. The parents of Breck Bednar received a payout from the Surrey Police because they “lacked knowledge of dealing with grooming concerns.” Had they known what to do, Breck might still be alive.

In the meantime, the rest of us need to stay vigilant. These are our children, and we have a responsibility to protect them from sexual exploitation. We can no longer fail to spot vulnerable boys on an app for grown men. They don’t belong there.

These boys are our boys. It’s time we protect them.

In memory of Lily Jayne Summers

 


My friend died.

Though I’ve said these words aloud many times in my 30 years on this earth, it never gets easier. So when Alex told me that Lily had passed away, and Pink News confirmed my worst fears, I went numb.

Lily Jayne Summers was an incredible human being. If you knew her, you knew warmth, compassion, and humour. If you didn’t, gee, did you miss out on knowing someone amazing. Lily was the kindest, most decent person I knew. The outpouring of grief on British political Twitter, regardless of party, speaks volumes. Lily was a young woman who judged people based on their personalities, not politics. She sought not to languish over our divisions, but to find commonality. A stalwart Labour activist and prospective council candidate in Swansea, she was still willing to not only work with, but befriend and love, people from across the political spectrum.

Lily first came into my life over three years ago. She, and her dear friend Ben, were running an upstart political commentary site called The Columnist. I asked if I could contribute, and she agreed. Lily was still a teenager; I was a recently-made-redundant 27-year-old looking to start a new career. I didn’t believe in myself, but this teenage girl gave me a chance because she saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. It was Lily that encouraged me, promoted my work, and has led me to where I am today. Without her, I would not have a career.

Beyond that, though, Lily was a friend. In the early part of 2014, when I was too depressed to get off the couch and spent months on end in my apartment, Lily talked to me, counselled me, and never judged me. She understood. She routinely checked up on me, making sure I was eating, I wasn’t drinking too much, and that I was looking for jobs. Lily, the teenager, saved this adult’s life.

As time went on, Lily committed herself to her studies and to Labour activism. But we never lost touch, and she never lost the compassion she is renowned for. After Trump won, Lily messaged me to make sure I was okay and to encourage me not to give up on my home country. Working class people, she said, needed me. She was that way: she always saw good in people who didn’t necessarily see good in us as LGBT people. She always believed that humans are, at their core, decent. And she sought to bridge divides that many of us thought too broad to broach.

This was no mean feat. Lily faced transphobia almost everyday of her life. She dealt with transphobic trolls in person and online. Yet she still kept faith that people were, on the whole, good and kind. Maybe they lacked understanding, she thought, but they didn’t lack compassion.

Lily Jayne Summers was unlike anyone I’ve ever known, and I can unequivocally say unlike anyone I’ll ever know again. While our epic Facebook chats will forever remain dear, and private, to me, below are some of my favourite exchanges on Twitter with her.

The start of a beautiful friendship:

 

When I realised she understood my sense of humour:

And then later served as tech support:

Our first massive disagreement:

 

And then our second:

When she low-key shaded our friend Ben Pelc:

 

Our third massive disagreement:

 

We were soon back on the same page though

Oh and there was that time she totally draaaaged Robyn for her Bieber fever

 

Still, she understood thirst:

And held us accountable:

Without lowering standards:

I mean this was not a woman who suffered fools gladly:

 

Lily was not a woman who was afraid to set the record straight:

Though never say she didn’t cross party lines:

Always a good friend:

Even if she was a hashtag opportunist:

Though she was always there to lend a helping hand:

While smacking me with truth:

Yet still speaking truth to power:

Something we can’t forget about Lily is how anti-Corbyn but pro-Labour she was:

She never lost her charm, though:

Until she supported Sanders, haha:

I wish she had, Lily. 😦

Back to her principles:

Let Mitt Romney never forget how she felt about him:

And never forget her last tweet to me, and to America:

I love you, Lily.

Stop calling me the liberal elite

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The author and friends leading a gay rights march through Chicago in 2013. Photo: Brittany Sowacke/Red Eye

In the days after the general election, I said that I am no longer American. This was prompted by the seeming consensus that to be American one must live in an exurb or rural area somewhere not on a coast. But I have changed my mind. While the media narrative surrounding the rise of fascism in America is, largely, that we on the left have ignored white working class people in favour of the metropolitan liberal elite. The Telegraph even has a fun little quiz where you can figure out if you’re part of the liberal elite.

Let me tell you why this is bullshit.

I am the white working class. I was raised in the Rust Belt by the descendants of Appalachian peasants (and make no mistake, that’s what they were) who migrated out of Kentucky and Tennessee to the factories of the Midwest. Aged 15, I moved back to the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and then later went on to spend seven wonderful years in Bowling Green, a small city best known for manufacturing Corvettes and once appearing in a Martina McBride music video. Then I moved to Chicago.

Since then, I’ve been told I’m part of the metropolitan elite by people as disparate as the ballet dancer Jack Thorpe-Baker and my own sister. I’m out of touch, they say. I don’t know what “real” America or “real Britain” is feeling, what they need. I’m a gay urban journalist who exists on two continents, or more specifically in two global cities, who enjoys opera and musicals and has a diverse group of friends. I don’t get “real” America, like in Dayton, Ohio (where I was raised) or Sheffield, England (where I just came from). I don’t understand their anxieties, their concerns, or their way of life.

Except, you know, I do. Because I am them. I come from them. And despite having gotten a university education, I am still a part of them.

Your ignorance ignores this. I’ve been told by so many Americans this week to “mind my own business” because the geotag on my tweets says “Walthamstow, London.” Newsflash: Americans travel. They even move abroad. Just because I’m across the ocean doesn’t mean it isn’t my country too. But this illustrates the ignorance and narrow worldview of so many people who voted for that vile man. They can’t fathom an American would ever travel, let alone move, abroad.

I get it. Globalisation and free trade have left behind many, many people in Middle America and Middle England. They’re understandably angry. But this vote wasn’t about economic anxiety, as the media would have us believe. The voter demographics coming out show us that white working class Americans largely broke for Clinton. Rather, college educated white people put Trump just over the threshold in states like Wisconsin and Michigan to get him more electoral votes than Clinton. So stop saying poor white people did this. They didn’t.

Racist white people did this.

This election was about one thing: who gets to be American. Everyone who says this election was “a backlash against the establishment” really means it was a backlash against diverse, cosmopolitan values which are radiating from cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It’s a reaction against the browning and queering of the country.

Every single person who says I am not a “real” American, that I am not capable of understanding what “real” Americans think or feel or need can kindly fuck off. I’m as real an American as any one of you. Even by the nativist sentiments of the alt-right, I’m as American as Toby Keith eating apple pie in the back of a Dodge pickup while wrapped in the stars and stripes. My ancestors have been in America since before the Revolution. One of them, at least, fought for the Union in the Civil War. We have been farmers, coal miners, factory workers and, yes, now a journalist. My grandparents grew up without running water or indoor plumbing, raised my father up enough to where he got a technical degree, and then I went to a four-year university. I am the definition of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and embracing the American dream. You don’t get to take that away from me just because I have a more open mind and bigger heart than you.

When people say that this election was about everyday Americans taking their country back, about draining the swamp, they don’t mean that it was about taking it back from Wall Street lobbyists and career politicians. If so, Trump’s rhetoric and transition team would look very, very different. No, this was about taking it back from queer people like me and my Black and undocumented friends. This wasn’t about taking the country back from special interests but from marginalised people making marginal gains in equality.

It also ignores who “everyday Americans” are. “Everyday Americans” include my friend Lily, a Latina single mom who risks losing head-of-household status because of that vile man. “Everyday Americans” include my friend Ajala, a Black woman in St Louis who could lose reproductive healthcare if Planned Parenthood funding is cut. “Everyday Americans” includes my friends Theresa and Sara, a married lesbian couple who just had twins but must now fear that marriage equality will be repealed. “Everyday Americans” include my Dominican nieces whom my sister insists on calling “Spanish” and ignoring their ethnicity and reality as Black-appearing Americans. “Everyday Americans” includes me, a university educated, internationally travelled gay man who does not have time for your bullshit definition of “everyday Americans.”

I’m sick of being told that because I live in a city I am somehow less American than others. I’m tired of hearing that because I like opera and read books and write for the internet and don’t think that people speaking Spanish is that big a deal I’m somehow less American than someone who never left my hometown. I am American and nothing you say will take that away from me. Chicagoans and New Yorkers are as American as Alabamans and Nebraskans.

The problem with the focus on the white working class is twofold. Firstly, it ignores people like me, who grew up solidly working class (or in many cases who are still working class) but aren’t raging bigots who think voting for a proto-fascist is a good idea. Secondly, it pretends we’re the only group in the country.

We. Are. Not.

Black Americans, Latino Americans, Queer Americans, Muslim Americans are just as American as we are. White working class – or to broaden that out, white straight people in general – don’t get to decide who is American or what constitutes an “authentic” American experience. Because there has never been only one American experience. Since our founding we have had a myriad of beliefs, experiences, and cultures. Ask the immigrant Alexander Hamilton, or the slaveholding Thomas Jefferson, or our eighth president, Martin Van Buren, whose first language was Dutch – NOT English.

America has never been homogenous. It’s long been white supremacist and heterosexist, but it has never been defined by just one experience.

So stop calling me the metropolitan liberal elite. I go to work every day. I pay my taxes (unlike our president-elect). I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. And just because I don’t think like a racist doesn’t mean I am not a real American.

I am not the liberal elite. I am an American. And it is my goddamn country too.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared at the Advocate, Salon, the Daily Dot, the Gay UK Magazine, Pink News, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a visa to emigrate to the UK.

*Editorial note: This blog refers to President-Elect Trump as “that vile man” as we cannot bring ourselves to call him anything else.

An open letter to Trump voters, from a gay American

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A protester holds a sign outside Trump Tower and International Hotel in Chicago. Photo: CNN

Dear friends who voted for that vile man*,

I am angry, and I hate you. It would be disingenuous for me to say anything else. The other night I said I hope you die. I meant it. I’m not sure I do now, but at the time I did. I hate you for voting for a man who wants to ban my Muslim friends from entering the United States, deport my undocumented Latino friends, allow the police to shoot my Black friends with impunity, and ruin America’s standing on the world stage. People will lose food stamps, social security benefits, medical coverage, and more under that vile man. People will suffer, and people will die, and I hate you because you are complicit in it.

I also hate that I hate you. I’ve never hated people like this before. I’ve never looked at an entire group of people and found no redeeming quality, no humanity, no commonality. I’ve never looked at you – my family, my friends, my neighbours – and thought of you as the enemy. Political opponents, sure, but not enemies. You were always my fellow Americans, no matter what. Now I think the country would be much better off if you all kindly fucked off.

I’ve been working through these feelings for several days now. I’ve called someone very close to me a bigot and a racist, and she has called me the same. She doesn’t see my point of view, and I certainly can’t fathom hers. This is not a good place for us to be as a family, as a country. But alas, it’s where we are. I hate this person whose blood I share.

Because I’m consumed with a hatred that in 30 years on this earth I’ve never before experienced, I sought out spiritual guidance. Christ commands us to love one another, to turn the other cheek, and as a Christian the hate I feel troubles and saddens me. I needed to make sense of why I feel this way, and how I can move forward with it, even if I can’t move past it.

But before we talk about me, I want to talk about you. Chiefly, why I hate you. Because you seem to genuinely be baffled, and I think you need to understand a few things about where many of us who are so visibly upset about that vile man are coming from. You see, this isn’t politics; it’s personal. We feel personally assaulted, targeted, and threatened by him. This is a man who hasn’t really spoken about policy, but people. Ban Muslims. Deports Latinos. Overturn gay marriage. Discriminate against trans people. Many of you complain about “identity politics,” yet you’re the ones who voted for a man who attacked our identities, the very core of who we are. This isn’t about tax codes, or the economy, or regulations, or Obamacare. This is about who gets to be American and who doesn’t. This is about who is viewed as equal and who isn’t. This is about who gets to feel safe and who doesn’t.

To say that we simply have different opinions is wrong. I have different opinions with people on whether we should reinstate Glass-Steagall, or whether an assault weapons ban is the right way to curb American violence. We do not have different opinions on whether gay kids should be subjected to the torture of conversion therapy (something our new Vice President-elect thinks) or gay people should be discriminated against (something our New Vice President-elect enacted into law). We do not have different opinions on whether Muslims should be banned, or families separated by deportation, or Black people shot. That’s not a difference of opinion. It’s a difference of principles. It’s a difference of morality.

Maybe you didn’t vote for that vile man because of, but in spite of these things. It doesn’t matter. You’ve shown you’re willing to throw me and millions of fellow Americans under the bus to advance your narrow interests. You are willing to sacrifice my basic rights and safety in order to… what? Feel like you’re still in charge of America? That your position as a white person or a straight person or a man is still at the top of the totem pole? Equality isn’t oppression, but you’ve shown me you think it is. You might not hate me, but you have shown you don’t give a damn about me.

Many of you who voted for that vile man are straight, white, and Christian. Most of you, even. You’re not personally attacked by him because of who you are. You might have thought Hillary Clinton was going to take your guns, or was a lying crook, or was owned by Wall Street, but none of that constituted an attack on your personhood or humanity. And that is the difference here. That vile man is a direct threat not to my politics, but to my life. To my freedom. To my place in America.

America. The nation of my birth. A nation I no longer feel welcomed in. Or safe in. I’m in Britain right now, and I’m afraid to go home. I never want to go home (I love this place), but now I’m frightened to get on the plane. I don’t know what awaits me. You think I’m being hyperbolic? Look at the rash of hate crimes, of gay men being beaten and intimidated, and tell me I shouldn’t be afraid. If you do, you won’t be saying it with a straight face, but with straight privilege.

I knew things were bad when my grandmother told me to stay in Britain. In the 15 years I’ve talked of moving here she’s always laughed uncomfortably and said “no, that’s too far away.” Her words on Wednesday night were basically “get the fuck out while you still can.” When a grandmother has to say that to her grandson about the land of the free and the home of the brave, it should give us all pause. America isn’t what we thought it was or should be.

So my hate is justified. My anger is righteous. Thinking it wasn’t, I sought spiritual guidance from a Methodist minister, whom I met with earlier at Sheffield Cathedral. Being in a house of God, where the Holy Spirit dwells and peace is present, I was able to talk through my feelings of guilt and fear. I don’t like hating you. It makes me feel so alienated from God. It makes me scared that I am capable of such evil feelings myself. You’ve brought that out in me. But speaking with him, I realised that my feelings were a natural reaction to the oppression you’ve thrust upon me. They are something I am going to have to learn to live with, at least for the time being. Turning the other cheek does not mean being a doormat. I will learn to forgive you, even as I fight you, because Jesus did both – he turned the other cheek as he flipped the tables in the temple.

This minister reminded me of the story of Jesus in the wilderness. How He went there without a map or an idea of how to acclimate or what was coming next, and how He was tested but ultimately made in the wilderness. This is my wilderness. Jesus learned things about himself and the world that he didn’t like and didn’t know. I am now doing the same. But just as Jesus came out stronger, so shall I. The first lesson I’m learning is there are ways to express it that are less horrible than saying I hope you die, even if maybe on some level I do. That level is not God’s level, and I’m trying to rise to God’s level.

As chance may have it, today is Remembrance Day – or Veterans’ Day back in America. I met with this minister at 10:30, and at 11:00 the country paused for a two minutes’ silence to remember those who gave their lives fighting fascism in the First and Second World Wars. They laid down their lives for justice and for liberty. While reflecting and praying, I realised that if they could make the ultimate sacrifice, I could learn to move forward in Christ while also fighting for a righteous cause. I can be both a Christian and a soldier against this new brand of fascism you have bestowed upon us. I can love you by showing you basic human compassion and empathy while also thinking you’re a racist, sexist, bigot. I won’t wish anything bad upon you, but I won’t wish you success. Not when your success comes at the expense of so many marginalised people. Love isn’t unconditional acceptance, but basic decency. Something you have shown you lack.

I don’t know when I’m going to feel up to talking to someone who voted for that vile man again. It won’t be anytime soon. I’m very sorry, but you need to understand and respect it. Chances are you probably don’t want to speak to me either though. We’re divided, and you divided us. You attacked us. You endorsed racism, homophobia, and fascism. And until you own it, I don’t want very much to do with you unless you can show me tangible proof things are going to be okay. So far, none of you have. None of you can.

This is where we’re at. I hate you, and you at best don’t care about me. I’m sorry it’s come to this. I really am. Maybe we can all move forward together at some point, but today is not that day.

Sincerely,

Skylar

Skylar Baker-Jordan is an American writer based in Chicago whose work has appeared at Salon, The Daily Dot, The Advocate, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a visa to move to the United Kingdom.

 *Editor’s note: this blog, until further notice, has chosen to refer to Donald Trump simply as “that vile man” because we cannot bring ourselves to call him “president-elect”

Orlando was a homophobic terrorist attack. Let’s own it.

pray for orlando

Image: heavy.com

 

I am heartbroken, and I am weeping.

This has been one of the hardest days of my life, on par with the day my friend Garic (a proud gay Marine) died, and 9/11. As a gay American, this assault on our freedoms and very right to exist is in many ways too much to bear. The only things that have gotten me through today are the outpouring of support from friends and family, my bae, and my neighbour’s five-year-old son whose innocence and precociousness was a welcome respite from the nonstop coverage of how someone wanted to kill people like me just for being people like me.

That’s what sets this massacre apart from Columbine, or from Virginia Tech, or from even Newtown. Those were indiscriminate killings. This was not. It was targeted, like Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, not randomly, but specifically. Emmanuel was targeted because its congregants were Black. Pulse was targeted because its patrons were queer.

So imagine my horror when, watching Sky Papers, I saw Julia Hartley-Brewer and presenter Mark Longhurst berate out-gay columnist Owen Jones for calling the attack what it is – a homophobic terrorist attack. They talked over him and spoke down to him whenever he tried to raise the homophobic nature of the massacre, insisting it was on par with what happened at Paris’ Bataclan. To Hartley-Brewer and Longhurst, this was just an attack on a Western club. To Jones and the rest of the LGBT community, it’s much, much more.

Straight people, I get it. You’re feeling this loss deeply. You’re appalled by what happened in Orlando. And you should be. Only a truly evil human being wouldn’t be mortified and distraught by this carnage. But, if I may, let me explain to you why LGBT people are feeling this much move viscerally than you ever could.

Gay clubs are our safe spaces. No, not safe spaces in the way they’re employed at universities, but literal safe spaces. They’re places we can go and be unabashedly ourselves without fear of reprisal or straight gazes judging or gawking at us. It was an LGBT bar—the Stonewall—that birthed the modern LGBT rights movement. It has long been a place for us to congregate, find and build community, and mobilise for our civil rights. There’s a reason Boystown was my first stop when I moved to Chicago. I’ve met some of my best friends in the world, my London family, in Soho. Gay clubs aren’t just safe spaces, they’re sacred spaces.

Yes, we know Daesh (aka ISIS) has targeted other venues before. We know they hate our nightlife, our freedoms, and our culture. But this wasn’t a random choice. Even Republican Senator Marco Rubio, no friend to the gay community, has acknowledged that we were singled out and specifically attacked because of who we are. This was an attack not just on liberty, not just on democracy, but specifically on LGBT people. Our hard-won rights, our cherished spaces, and our very identities were targeted. And 50 people lost their lives not because they were Americans, but because they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or an ally.

This was an attack on who we are. It was calculated. Specific. Intentional. Someone wanted us dead because we’re LGBT. Straight people, I’m sorry, but you can’t understand the immense sadness and vulnerability we are now feeling. No one has ever targeted you because you love the opposite sex. Maybe they’ve targeted you for other reasons, so you can sympathise, but they’ve not targeted you for this. While this is your tragedy because it’s all our tragedy, it is specifically my tragedy. It is specifically LGBT America’s tragedy. And you need to recognise that nuance.

Calling this a homophobic and transphobic terrorist attack does not detract from the tragedy. It enhances it, because it shows just how vile and truly bigoted the shooter was, targeting some of the most vulnerable people in society. It doesn’t detract from the tragedy of the Bataclan, it simply acknowledges a difference in target and a possible shift in Daesh strategy. The Pulse represented what’s best about America, so it brought out the worst in Daesh. It’s okay to say that.

Make no mistake, this is about LGBT people. We might not have a monopoly on this grief, but it most certainly belongs to us. This was our community targeted. These were our lives taken. And they weren’t taken because of the red, white, and blue. They were taken because of the rainbow. And I need you to understand that. We’re not saying you can’t be sad, or angry, or feeling this deeply. We’re saying that you can’t possibly feel the innate violation and vulnerability that we feel.

Gay clubs are where we go to escape the judgments and hatred of the broader society. We retreat into the darkness of a club, behind closed doors, to be unabashedly ourselves because we so often can’t in the light of day. For so many of us, the gay club is the one place we felt intrinsically safe. That has been taken from us, and it raises bigger questions. If we’re not safe in Boystown or Soho, where the fuck are we safe?

This was an assault on the most fundamental part of me. These people weren’t just targeted for being Americans. They were targeted because of who they loved. They were targeted because they were viewed as subhuman, worse than animals. They were targeted because of a hateful ideology and straight supremacy. And it’s really, really easy to say “well yeah, Daesh throws gay people off roofs.” Because they do.

Yet on the same day as the massacre at Pulse, a white American was on his way to do harm to LGBT people at the Los Angeles Pride Parade. So don’t you dare use this, as Donald Trump has, to justify persecution of our Muslim brethren. There are LGBT Muslims too, and they are targeted as violently as we were. And let’s not forget that it was a white Christian who targeted lesbian bars in Atlanta in 1996. It was a straight Christian who killed three people at the Admiral Duncan. It wasn’t Daesh who lynched Matthew Shepherd. This is about Daesh, and I won’t pretend it isn’t. There’s got to be time and space to talk about radical Islamic terrorism and homophobia.

But this is also about us.  The outpouring of grief from the likes of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who spent so much time and energy fighting gay marriage in Florida, is frustrating. I respect the fact that Bondi, Governor Rick Scott, and Marco Rubio were probably sincere. But they’re also deeply hypocritical. These people have spent their careers denying LGBT Americans equality. When Pam Bondi said she stood with the LGBT community, all I could wonder is why we have to die to have your solidarity? It would be nice to have it in life, too.

So as LGBT America mourns the loss of our siblings at Pulse, please give us the space to lead the national grieving. Take your cues from us. This is more than just a terrorist attack. It’s a hate crime. It was meant to terrify the LGBT community. And it has, it really has.

But we are strong. We fought for our rights on the streets outside Stonewall, in the Castro, in the prairies of Wyoming. We will keep fighting. LGBT Americans are, after all, Americans. And we never back down when someone threatens our hard-won freedoms. We’ve come too far to be cowed by one attack. LGBT Americans, and America as a country, will rise from these ashes and continue to fight for equality, freedom, and liberty.

I am a proud gay American.

Equal at last: A few thoughts on what the SCOTUS decision means to me as a gay man

Just over a decade ago, I sat weeping as my home state of Kentucky passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions in our fair commonwealth. I was 18 years old, a freshman in college, and had worked tirelessly trying to persuade my fellow Kentuckians to vote against discrimination. I went door-to-door in Bowling Green, talking to voters about what it means to be gay. Some were sympathetic, even understanding. Others were forthright in their opposition to equality. Most were polite. A few were hostile.

I knew we were unlikely to win, but at 18, I think you always have hope that somehow things are going to work out in your favour. That, you know, it can’t possibly be as bad as you think. But it was. 75% of Kentuckians voted to amend the state constitution to bar gay marriage. We were one of many states to do so that year.

As the night crept on, it became clear that not only would the amendment pass, but that President Bush would be re-elected on a platform that was decidedly anti-equality, swept back into the White House by a tide of homophobia he himself had instigated.

I was at my friend Jonathan’s house. We’d recently stopped seeing one another romantically, but it still felt right to be together. He was the gay person I was closest with, and on that night, I desperately wanted another gay person with me. We cried in one another’s arms, taking shots of vodka or gin or whatever was in the house, really. Drinking numbed the pain. Cuddling cured the sense of rejection. America might hate us, but at least we had each other.

A couple days later, I had a conversation with my friend and fellow activist Kelli Persons. “It won’t be our generation that wins marriage,” she told me sombrely. “We may see it in our lifetimes, but it’ll be our grandkids who get it done.”

I agreed. It was a stark juxtaposition to the jubilation I felt when the Massachussets Supreme Judical Court ruled in favour of equality the year before. In November 2003 I was a senior at Leslie County High School, deep in the East Kentucky coal fields. My life was a daily crucible of homophobia, with slurs so violent I still find it hard to believe I made it out unscathed. As a teenager whose only exposure to gay people had been Jack McPhee on Dawson’s Creek, the Massachussets ruling was a complete shock. I had no idea that there was a place in my own country where I was actually viewed as equal before the law.

I decided I had to move there. I applied to colleges there. I got accepted to one.

But fate had different plans, and I ended up at WKU, where on election night 2004, I felt the full weight of bigotry and oppression land upon me like a giant homophobic anvil.

I spent the remainder of my college career fighting for LGBT equality. When the university closed the Outlet, our LGBT resource centre, I pressured the university to reopen and rehouse it, a fight I’m still waging as an alumnus. I became the president of our gay/straight alliance. I helped form a statewide network of LGBT students pushing for fairness in our schools. I spoke at a rally when one of those students was expelled from his university for being gay. I became a vocal supporter of domestic partner benefits for university employees. I cried when, in 2010, that came to pass.

Never did I fathom that five short years a Supreme Court decision would render that whole fight irrelevant. I could only dream as big as health insurance. Never did I imagine our relationships would be granted true equality in this country. Not so soon. Not before I turned 30.

Yet here we are. Something I’ve dreamt of, worked towards, and fought for since I was a teenager is finally a reality. And it feels fucking great. True, I’m not getting married. I’m not engaged. Hell, I’m not even seeing anyone. My most committed relationship is with bourbon. But that doesn’t matter.

You see, this day means something to every gay, lesbian, and bisexual American, regardless of whether or not they’re rushing to the alter. Today, the Supreme Court of the United States of America affirmed to the masses what I have known all along—that I am equal. They didn’t give us the right to marry; they acknowledged that it’s been there from the beginning. I already knew that. Today they pointed it out to the rest of you.

The first time you feel as though you are finally an equal citizen of these United States is a feeling I can’t really describe to anyone who isn’t also experiencing (or hasn’t in the past experienced) such euphoria. There are no words. But there are actions, which may illustrate what it’s like. Here are just a few things I’ve done today:

  • Ran into my office screaming “gay marriage!”
  • Blasted “Born this Way” through half the city
  • Had a mimosa
  • Had another one, bought for me by the straight guys at the bar I always go to cos EQUALITY
  • Cleaned my apartment
  • Did laundry so I’d have a REALLY cute outfit to wear to the gay bars tonight
  • Decided that outfit made me look fat and chose another one
  • Broken down in tears at the convenient store
  • Danced to “Same Love” in my back yard and gave no fucks
  • Shouted “Glory to God!” as I read the decision
  • Chosen a wedding venue (my college campus)
  • Sorta proposed to a British guy
  • Broken down in tears in my car, making it difficult to parallel park
  • Wished my cousin happy birthday
  • Lifted a glass to Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, and Ellen Degeneres
  • Cried again

There is still work to be done, I know. We can still be fired for being ourselves in 29 states. My trans siblings, especially my trans siblings of colour, are being murdered in our streets. Kids are still being sent to conversion therapy. “Faggot,” “dyke,” and “gay” are still deployed as insults in high schools throughout the country. And somewhere, right now, while I’m typing this and celebrating, an LGBT child is begging for food or sleeping on the streets. We’ve got a long way to go.

But for today, for just one glorious day, I am focusing on the fact that for once we’ve gotten it right. For once, this country has acknowledged that all men and women, even gay men and women, are created equal. That for once my dignity as not only an American, but a person, has been federally and officially and finally recognised.

Today, as we prepare to celebrate Pride, I am proud. Proud to be gay. Proud to be an American. Proud to be finally, truly, and irrefutably equal.

New app launches to help LGBT voters find out if their MP is pro-equality

lgbtwhip

Screen capture from The LGBT Whip, a new web-based app which launched this week.

As Britain goes to the polls today, some LGBT voters may have a clearer picture of which candidates support their equality thanks to a new website launched this week.

The LGBT Whip is the brainchild of Chris Ward, a developer from Vauxhall who also helped develop the LobbyALord app used by marriage equality campaigners in 2013. While LobbyALord was intended to help win equal marriage, The LGBT Whip takes a broader approach to equality issues, and is intended to illustrate, rather than change, a candidate’s position.

It is also a “recognition that as all parties are moving to the centre and their policies support LGBT rights, a lot of their candidates don’t,” Mr Ward said, adding “we need to look from a more granular level of where and what candidates stand for.”

The web app, which was developed at a 24-hour hackathon at Facebook and on which Ward collaborated with several others, including his partner and his brother, is fairly straightforward. Voters input their postcode, and a list of candidates for their constituency appears. From there, they can select up to three candidates to compare:

The first frame shows what happens when voters select their postcode. The second frame shows a list of of candidates, while the third frame compares them on the issues.

The first frame shows what happens when voters select their postcode. The second frame shows a list of of candidates, while the third frame compares them on the issues.

I chose to use Brighton Pavilion as an example, because its former MP and Green Party candidate Caroline Lucas did answer the 10 questions. She is one of what the developers estimate is only 20% of candidates who have, though. And while Mr Ward is “cutting them some slack” because “it’s a very busy period,” some candidates have left him disappointed. “We’ve had a number of candidates, who should know better, responding with an automated response saying ‘I support LGBT rights.’ Well if you do you, spend some time answering these ten very simple questions.”

The questions include historic positions, such as Section 28, as well as issues currently being debated, like banning conversion therapy. For those former MPs who haven’t responded, their votes have been gathered and made available. Candidates who have never sat in parliament “have a clean slate,” because, as Mr Ward put it, “I’d rather go by what they actually do in the voting lobbies than what they say to a journalist, because that’s what makes the law.” It was important to ask about both the past and the present, he said, because equality can be lost just as it was won.

Though MPs who voted against LGBT rights in the past can’t erase their slate, they can still show they’ve come round to equality, as has already happened.

“One Labour MP in particular…e-mailed and said ‘I know I’ve not been great on this in the past, but this is what I think now,’” Mr Ward says. “So it’s almost a recognition of the progress those individuals have made. So they’ll have a red cross on their history, but next to that they might have a green tic, almost essentially saying ‘I’m sorry about this. I’ve changed my mind.’”

But the site doesn’t just give politicians a chance to show they’ve evolved. It also gives voters a unique tool with which to hold MPs accountable. “It goes beyond the election,” Mr Ward said, and gets at “the full democratic process” of holding politicians to their word. “We have pledges at hand. We have e-mails from candidates. And when it comes to these votes or these things being discussed in Parliament, we can hold them to account.”

Ultimately, though, this is an app designed to assist LGBT voters in finding candidates who support equality. “I hope it helps (voters) make an informed decision on the basis of LGBT rights.” This way, he says, “when they go into the voting booth…they’ve made an informed decision with all the facts at their disposal.”

LGBT Whip is the result of a collaboration between Chris Ward, Peter Burjanec, Joshua Gladwin, Hereward Mills, Chimeren Peerbhai, Matt Ward, and Adriana Vecc. Though currently only available for the UK general election, the team has plans to eventually expand to include the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, and possibly even foreign elections, including the 2016 US general election. It is dedicated to the memory of Ms Peerbhai’s mother, Debra Diane Rich, who recently passed away from cancer in America.