Tag 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.

Advertisements

Stop calling me the liberal elite

14883682_10103006354623442_204086150355244584_o

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

not-my-president

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.

I don’t need “clarification,” Governor Pence. Indiana’s RFRA is state-sanctioned discrimination.

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of   orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

In what the Indianapolis Star calls “the deepest crisis of his political career,” Mike Pence, Indiana’s Republican governor, continues to support his state’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Speaking to the paper on Saturday, Governor Pence said that whilst he will seek legislation “clarifying” the intent of the law, he stands behind it. The massive backlash, he insists, is due to “misunderstanding driven by misinformation.”

This has been a common refrain among supporters of the RFRAs popping up in state houses throughout the country. To date, 19 states have passed laws similar to the federal one which, as conservatives like to use as a trump card, was signed into law by that Democratic darling President Clinton. (You know, the man who also signed the Defence of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?) Indeed, Governor Pence couldn’t help but mention this fact in a statement released after a private signing of the law, while also citing similar laws in neighbouring states Illinois and Kentucky.

Now, as chance may have it, I live in Illinois, which passed an RFRA in 1998, a year after the Supreme Court ruled the federal RFRA did not apply to the states. However, as the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this week, Illinois lawmakers have balanced RFRA with statewide protections for LGBT people. Before moving to Chicago nearly four years ago, though, I lived a decade in Kentucky, the state I still call home.

Kentucky’s law—passed in 2013—was initially vetoed by Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat. It became law when the General Assembly, including the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, overrode the governor’s veto. But some conservative activists said the law would not have any real consequences for LGBT Kentuckians. This law isn’t going to have an effect they think it’s going to have,” Martin Cothran, of the right-wing Family Foundation of Kentucky, told the Associated Press at the time. “All of the case law is going in the other direction. It’s not going in the direction of over-protecting people’s religious freedom. We’d like to see something a lot stronger than this.”

A year later Cothran’s wish was granted. In a landmark—and now infamous—decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that crafting giant Hobby Lobby could not be mandated to provide contraception to its employees, as it violated the company’s First Amendment right to free expression of religion. In this brave new world where corporations are people, states such as Arizona, Mississippi, and now Indiana were emboldened to pass their own RFRA laws, which broadened the scope of protection to include corporations and businesses. These laws were worded so vaguely that even some Republicans, such as the mayor of Indianapolis and, most famously, former Arizona governor Jan Brewer came out in opposition, the latter vetoing her own state’s RFRA because of fears it could lead to “unintended and negative consequences” and hurt businesses, something that is beginning to happen in Indiana.

But the ability to discriminate against LGBT people is a very intentional consequence of the Indiana bill, despite what Governor Pence says. As Buzzfeed reported, Indiana’s law allows for a RFRA defence even when the government is not party to a lawsuit, which is something the federal RFRA doesn’t do. It also allows this defence to be mounted against any state or local law, which as the potential of invalidating the citywide fairness ordinances a handful of Indiana jurisdictions have passed. This means the potential exists for landlords, hotels, and restaurants to openly discriminate against LGBT people, something which has already begun. A restaurant owner called Ryan phoned an Indiana radio station to say that not only has he already discriminated against gay people, but he intends to do so in the future, as the law allows.

And while Governor Brewer feared “unintended consequences” in Arizona, this was very much the intended consequence in Indiana. Governor Pence invited several right-wing lobbyists who worked to pass the bill to the private signing. One of them was Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana (AFAIN). The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the AFA an anti-LGBT hate group, and AFAIN’s website shares many homophobic and transphobic stories. It also includes a quote from then-Congressman Mike Pence, praising the organisation and its Indiana leader. “I have known and worked with Micah Clark for over a decade,” Pence is quoted, “and I can tell you that you’re standing behind a pro-family, pro-life leader…” (“Pro-family” has long been a conservative dog whistle meaning “anti-LGBT”.)

Another of the lobbyists present at the singing was Eric Miller of Advance America, which not only has a history of transphobic and homophobic rhetoric, but actually posted a blog on its website following the bill’s success, which read in part:

[RFRA] will help protect individuals, Christian businesses and churches from those supporting homosexual marriages and those supporting government recognition and approval of gender identity (male cross-dressers). Here are just three examples:

  • Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!
  • A Christian business should not be punished for refusing to allow a man to use the women’s restroom!

  • A church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding! [emphasis is original]

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Governor Pence can repeat himself until he’s blue in the face, but it doesn’t change the fact that Indiana’s RFRA was clearly intended to and will allow discrimination against LGBT Indianans. The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts being passed now—the next battleground is Arkansas—are not meant, as the federal law and the 1998 Illinois law, to protect religious minorities from burdensome government regulations. They are meant to allow merchants operating in the public marketplace to refuse service to those they don’t like.

This law is nothing more than state sanctioned homophobia and transphobia, and no amount of “clarification” will change that.

#TBT: Millennials on the March

This is the first in a series of Throwback Thursday posts I’m going to be doing, highlighting my work at now-defunct publications I’ve written for in the past. This is a piece I wrote on the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. which took place several years ago. It first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Rise Over Run Magazine.

The sun was wicked, but the air cool and crisp. Standing in a crowd of thousands, swelling and expanding by the second like a balloon ready to pop, I tingled with anticipation. Students from Western Kentucky University, Northern Kentucky University, and Bellarmine University—an unofficial Kentucky contingent—were chatting merrily, albeit loudly, as the roar of the crowd, chanting and singing before they even began walking, drowned out most anything else.
A middle-aged woman I was talking to began staring at the group. “You’re all college students?” she asked. I nodded. “It’s hard to believe how many young people are here. I feel so old,” she laughed.

This was a common sentiment expressed by older people at National Equality March, a march of approximately 200,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, as well as their allies, in Washington, D.C. Though practically every age group in America was represented in the hundreds of thousands of marchers, it was the Millennials—loosely defined as those born between the late 70’s and early 90’s—who stood out. Chanting ferociously and demanding “equal protection in all matters of civil law in all 50 states,” according to the National Equality March’s Facebook page, a new generation of LGBT Americans came out to the nation this month.

Activist David Mixner first called for an LGBT march on Washington—the first since 2000’s Millennium March—last spring, and at the Meet in the Middle rally in Fresno, California following the California Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the constitutionality of Proposition 8, Cleve Jones, the veteran gay rights activist and disciple of Harvey Milk, made the first public call. Despite initial hesitation and a few prominent naysayers, including openly gay Congressman Barney Frank, (D-MA) who was quoted by the Associated Press as saying “the only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass,” it was quickly apparent: the gays were marching in.

And though Mixner and Jones, both elder statesmen of the LGBT community, were the ones who called for the march, it was young LGBT Americans they were interested in reaching. Mixner and Jones set out to inspire Millennials to step up to the plate. Looking around at those marching, and listening to the speakers on stage, you couldn’t help but to feel they had succeeded. What made this march different than any before it was that, for the first time, a new, liberated generation was stepping up to take over the reins of the LGBT community. The Millennials were on the march.

Millennials Get Mad:
The “Prop 8 Generation”

To understand why young LGBT people responded to Mixner’s and Jones’s calls requires delving into the psychology of a generation. This is a generation that grew up in the era of Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and The L Word. As being gay became more socially acceptable over the last decade, to gay youth, so did inequality. Still, the social progress being made gave a false sense of hope for legal progress, and many LGBT youths simply felt progress was inevitable. This myth was jarringly shattered last November, when California’s Proposition 8 passed, banning gay marriage in that state.

This was a flashpoint for the LGBT community, according to Tobias Packer, the New Media Manager for Equality Florida, Florida’s statewide LGBT rights organization, and one of the speakers the march. “Prop 8 brought the issue to the national stage,” he said, “and whenever any issue is brought to a national stage it gets a lot more attention—and the people who are doing the work for a lot more attention. And more people join the work.”

Tanner Efinger agrees. “You don’t just come out of the womb being politically active and politically aware,” says Efinger, founder of Postcards to the President, a grassroots campaign to send postcards to President Obama urging him to support LGBT equality and one of the organizers of the march. “Something has to happen. For a lot of us that’s what Prop 8 was. It was a very public, very loud thing that happened in California and we all stepped up.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Efinger, 25, was not politically active before Proposition 8. However, following its passage, Efinger felt a call to action. After discovering you could send letters and postcards to the president, Efinger decided to enlist some of his friends to help, eventually taking his initiative to the bar he works at in West Hollywood, California. From there, events were held in New York and San Francisco, and to date over 15,000 postcards have been sent from nearly 30 states.

This is no surprise to Mario Nguyen, a sophomore at Western Kentucky University originally from Dallas, Texas. “Of course we’re waking up and we’re doing something. For us, grassroots and being active is what’s in, is what’s cool,” he says. “We’re the generation that cares where our coffee beans come from, that care about water and global warming—we’re that generation. It’s cool to be an activist.” Nguyen was the runner-up of “Equality Idol,” a competition held by march organizers to find a speaker for the event. (Though he was runner-up, Nguyen was asked to deliver his speech anyway.)

Sam Sussman, a freshman at Binghamton University in New York, was the winner of “Equality Idol.” He, too, felt that things changed for the movement last November. Sussman dubbed himself part of the “Prop 8 generation,” a generation of “young people who had strong convictions but didn’t have the urge to act” until after Proposition 8 passed. In the wake of Proposition 8, Sussman—a straight man—founded the Alliance for Realization of Legal Equality in his hometown of Orange County, New York. He wanted to “put [equality] in people’s faces and make them think about it when they got their morning papers.”

The Second Great March on Washington?

If Proposition 8 inspired a new wave of young LGBT rights activists, the National Equality March gave them an outlet to vent their anger. Tanner Efinger, for one, was growing impatient with the lack of progress and was ready to be proactive. It’s why he founded Postcards to the President, and why he jumped at the chance to help organize the march “I started e-mailing anybody I knew that was involved, even in a small way, and was like ‘I want to help.’”

Kat Michael echoed this sentiment. Michael, a junior originally from Louisville, is the president of the Student Identity Outreach (SIO) at Western Kentucky University. SIO took 18 students to Washington, driving nearly 1400 miles round-trip in less than 48 hours. But for Michael, the trip was worth it. It was great to see that number of people come from such long distances,she said. “The way the people managed—fly, train, car, boat it—they got there and that’s really encouraging to see with this movement.” Michael says that hailing from the south, people often think LGBT people aren’t organized. She wanted to dispel that myth.

For Tobias Packer, it was an opportunity to represent not only himself and Equality Florida, but also transgender Americans. “There are definitely moments where I have felt, as a transgender person, excluded or overlooked intentionally or unintentionally,” Packer said, pointing specifically to the 2007 passing of a non-transgender inclusive Employment Nondiscrimination Act in the House of Representatives. (The bill died in the Senate.) For Packer, the march was a way to take his—and Equality Florida’s—message to a national level.

Taking it to the national level was, in essence, the theme of the National Equality March. Seeking equality in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states is a fairly sweeping statement, which is just fine in Tanner Efinger’s book. “I’ve always felt that a national strategy was the best way to go,” he said. “For me it’s not about marriage in California, while that would be great and open a lot of doors. For me it’s about the 16-year-old kid in Alabama who thinks his only option is suicide.”

It will be accomplished.”

While the march gave Millennials a chance to vent their anger at the establishment, it also served as an opportunity to rise to the challenges facing their movement. “In many ways it represents a passing of the torch,” Sam Sussman said. “The demographics are changing. I think now you see a new civil rights movement brewing among young people.” Sussman predicts the movement will now be carried by younger people.

Kat Michael also believes that this new generation has risen to the challenge and is beginning to take over the reins of the movement. “The youth is really what’s going to carry this movement forward,” she said. “Those individuals who have been fighting this fight their whole lives, who were part of the Stonewall Riots, are getting tired now. They have beaten down a path. It is our time to pave it now.” Michael believes the real point of the march was to inspire a new generation of LGBT leaders.

This sense of a generational shift was one of the most prominent themes for Mario Nguyen. Following his speech, Nguyen says he got an overwhelming response from his elders. “I got a lot of messages from people over 45 saying ‘I’m not concerned because you’re somebody I know will take care of this. What I couldn’t do in my generation I see it in your generation, already accomplished.’” Nguyen points to the fact that two Millennials were chosen to speak through the Equality Idol competition as evidence that a transition is occurring within the LGBT rights movement, and he is ready to embrace the challenge. “It will be done this generation,” Nguyen says. “My generation will fix it, and it will be accomplished. I will get married, without a doubt.”
Still, Nguyen isn’t without criticism of his generation, which he still views as apathetic. He was particularly hard on the gay community in Bowling Green, which he was “thoroughly disappointed by.” “With the exception of SIO… they stayed here for fun. They didn’t want to ask for work off. A lot of them had the money, a lot of them had the ability.” Nguyen, who traveled with a group of friends to DC (including Adam Swanson, a WKU student heavily involved with Tanner Efinger’s “Postcards to the President” but was unfortunately unavailable for comment as of press time), says a lot of LGBT locals decided to forgo Washington, instead opting for a trip to Miami.

Kat Michael expects that level of apathy to change, though. “I think a lot of people with this movement have just been sort of complacent in allowing the movement to happen, but I think that’s definitely gone now,” she said. “Everybody knows we’re here now, and now it’s time to actually start moving.”

Tanner Efinger agrees, saying he feels the ownership of the movement more so than ever before. But he wants people to remember that the work doesn’t end at the march. “The point was to get [the youth] there to mobilize, to galvanize, to excite them,” he said, “but let them understand that this doesn’t happen if you just march and go home.” Efinger, like Nguyen, wants to hold his contemporaries accountable for the future of their own movement. “Our hope is that everyone will see that they need to work now.”

Where Nguyen sees apathy, though, Tobias Packer sees diligence. “Young people have always been a part of this movement,” he said. “There are young leaders who have been unlocking a lot of the doors and pushing for a lot of the victories that we’re standing on the precipice of now.”

Where do we go from here?

The one sentiment echoed by Tanner Efinger, Kat Michael, Mario Nguyen, Tobias Packer and Sam Sussman was that the work does not end with the march. The words of Cleve Jones—“we are not organizing to march; we are marching to organize”—resonate with these five individuals, all of whom headed back to their respective states eager to continue working, feeling they have established their presence in the broader LGBT movement.

“I was in between Julian Bond and Cleve Jones,” Efinger said. “I can’t even imagine that before. I just felt so humbled and so honored—but also like I belonged there, as well, like I had a place beside them. I didn’t need to be somebody to stand next to them; in fact, we were the same.”
Efinger returned to West Hollywood, where he is still working as a cocktail waiter, but with a renewed sense of service. He plans on continuing with Postcards to the President and remaining active in Equality Across America, a new national organization born of the National Equality March. “From here we organize everyone in their congressional districts…what we’re really trying to do is plant the seeds of social change,” he said. And while he’d like to return to his original passion—writing—right now his activism has taken precedence. “I want to get this done now,” he said.

Postcards to the President is also a project Mario Nguyen is eager to work on. He’s also planning on using his talent for public speaking to further the cause. (In addition to speaking at the march, Mario is part of the WKU Forensics Team, currently ranked as the best forensics team in the world.) He is in talks to speak at Quinnipiac University next spring, and he would like to do more speaking engagements if possible. “My thing is speaking and will forever be speaking. Until I lose my voice I will speak.”

Sam Sussman, on the other hand, is going to continue his political advocacy with the Alliance for the Realization of Legal Equality. He’s also beginning to work with a new national organization, The Right Side of History, a campaign which, according to its website, is “a movement of young, inspired Americans who have committed to no longer be silent. “ Sussman hopes to begin a chapter at Binghamton University. Also in Sussman’s future is a statewide initiative to pressure four to five select New York state senators to vote for marriage equality. Sussman hopes to secure enough votes to pass a marriage equality bill through the New York state assembly next year.

For Tobias Packer, Florida is home, and Equality Florida where he belongs. He is preparing for the 2010 legislative session and hoping to push a statewide, LGBT inclusive civil rights bill through the legislature. Equality Florida also has plans to, for the sixth consecutive year, attempt to repeal Florida’s statutory ban on gay adoption. He hopes that those who went to the march will follow his lead and get involved in the movement. “The reality is there is work being done in almost every corner of this country,” he said. “My wish for this march is that all the people that came out really turn to see what work is being done where they live.”

Kat Michael returned to WKU ready to continue working with SIO. “The work hasn’t stopped for me, it hasn’t stopped for my members,” she said. “I don’t think any of them feel that things have stopped now… we’re all really willing and ready to go.” She says that the march was SIO’s way of showing they’re going to be a permanent presence on campus, and that they exist to serve more than just their friends. “We’re not just here to hide and take care of our own friends, we’re here to take care of everything,” she said.

Thinking back to the day of the march, I’m left wondering what effect the National Equality March will have. It is not the first, or the biggest, LGBT rights march on Washington. Yet somehow, this one feels different. This one feels like instead of capitalizing on momentum the movement had, the march itself created a sort of momentum, sending grassroots activists into the trenches, prepared to wage proverbial guerrilla warfare in the name of equality.
It also feels different because, for the first time, my generation—the Millennials—is beginning to take the reins. What’s unique about the burgeoning leaders is that they are, for the most part, amateur activists. For every professional lobbiest or community organizer are dozens of people like Kat Michael, Sam Sussman, and Tanner Efinger who started organizations aimed to make a difference—not because they were paid to, but because they saw a need not being met.
And while the LGBT movement gears up for fights over marriage in Maine and domestic partnerships in Washington state, these five young leaders expect things to continue trending toward equality, and expect their generation to take a more active role in these struggles.
“This is just the beginning,” Mario Nguyen said. “We may lose the battle, but the war’s what we’re after.”

And the Millennials are running in, guns-a-blazing.