I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a hero lately, spawned mostly by my recent involvement in a project called Queer Heroes NW, created in partnership with Q Center (Portland's LGBTQ Community Center) and GLAPN (the Gay & Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest). The idea behind the endeavor was to focus in on individuals who have helped shape the local LGBT movement here in Oregon and southwest Washington, honor them for making our community safer over the years, and teach a new generation about how we got here from there.
Often, when I think of the history of the gay rights movement, only of a few select big-name activists come to mind. It's easy to forget about all the people who didn't make the papers or have a movie made about their impact, and in so doing, we skip over the people who have put their neck on the line for our local communities, with little or no recognition in return. Part of the goal in creating Queer Heroes NW was to secure these brave souls a permanent spot in our queer history, and also to thank them for the work they have done to make us free and keep us free.
Over the years I have had many people touch my life in heroic ways. I was always picked on for being perceived as "girly" or "gay" growing up, and by the time I reached high school, the bullying was unbearable (like it is for many gay kids). I had one teacher who stepped into the role of queer hero #1 on the first day of my freshman year. His classroom instantly became a safe haven for me, and I knew that I could always count on him to stand up for me, shut down the meanness, and help cultivate allies with the other kids in my class through his teachings of acceptance around diversity. He was not gay himself, and I'm sure this was not a popular role for him to take on with other teachers or the administration, but he never backed down. Every day from the time I arrived in his classroom to the time I left, he was in my court. There were times when he would watch to make sure I was safe during lunch, and there was a whole year when he walked behind me as I went from his classroom to the next one. We made a deal that he would walk far enough back that none of the other kids would know, but close enough that people would be on their best behavior, thus creating a hedge of protection of sorts around me. This was a brave move on the part of this kind man. The safety and support he provided me was enough to keep me in school and earn him the title of "queer hero" then, and still to this day.
Years later, as I was struggling to make it in the music industry, another kind man named Perry Turcotte reached out to me and offered to place my music videos in a new show he was producing for MTV, called NewNowNext, which would air on a brand-new network experiment aimed toward the LGBT community, called Logo. I of course jumped at the chance. From there, he basically took me under his MTV-artist-development wing, flying me out to New York City to be interviewed, airing my videos in heavy rotation on the channel, and eventually having me host the show and appear in commercial spots for the network. He believed in me, in my music, and in my then-unknown ability to speak publicly about my experience as a gay man in a straight world. He saw something in me that I had yet to look at, and in doing so he really set me up for every bit of success I have had in the years since. His efforts to honor my queer voice and push me out into the mainstream as myself were heroic not just for me but for queer people everywhere who had, up to that point, not seen my kind of queer on their TV screens. What Perry did for our movement in helping to create and cultivate Logo (which, in the years since, has become a cultural force to be reckoned with), and what he did for me both professionally and personally, has earned him the #2 spot on my queer hero list.
At the end of 2010, a third queer hero landed in my world. After years of loneliness and isolation following years of sorrow and disappointment, I met a sweet, gentle, beautiful man. For the first time in my life, another living creature was able to touch me physically in ways that did not freak me out, trigger or confuse me, or in any way resemble the horrors of abuse that I had endured as a young child. This man could really see me, and he was able to meet me where I was right then and honor that space, something no one else had been able to do before (or had even tried to do). A great sense of calm came over me the first time we were naked together. I was not afraid to be close to him, and I actually enjoyed feeling vulnerable with him. The experience of letting go and trusting this person to take me somewhere new during those initial encounters was both healing and spiritual. His patience with me, his willingness to wake me up from the living nightmare I had been playing out for decades, and his continued love, patience, and compassion since have changed me forever. To be kind is one of the most heroic things a person can do. It seems so simple when you think about it, but it's actually quite rare to find someone who is willing to kiss your scars. This is the stuff queer heroes are made of.
Who are your queer heroes? Have there been people in your life who have celebrated your existence in ways that have left you changed, made your world safer, or helped you along in your journey toward freedom? I encourage you to honor these people however you can, even if it's just by paying the kindness forward and stepping into the role of hero to someone else now.
You don't need superpowers to save someone's life. Sometimes all it takes is being there.
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