Wow! I never thought I would hear an American president do what Barack Obama did in his recent speech to the United Nations: call for the civil and human rights of gays and lesbians around the world. Those of us who grew up alongside the LGBT movement can't help but wonder how different our lives might be if we were growing up today. The freedom to live life as who you are (no matter that it is still sometimes difficult) is something many thought would never happen. Same-sex marriage is legal in six states, two Indian tribes and the District of Columbia. Civil unions in others, federal hate crime protections and gays and lesbians serving openly and proudly in the military -- it's truly a brave new world!
It's very different from when there were no gay-straight alliances, no discussion of homosexuality in health education classes, and no daily drumbeat in the press, with role models to look up to and emulate. Bullying of LGBT students wasn't an issue because people weren't willing to admit that there were LGBT students. The word "gay" wasn't heard, but "faggot" often was. I graduated high school six years before Stonewall, a political junkie, and I spent my high school and college years, and into my first professional job as a teacher, fighting for others' civil rights and women's rights but hiding who I was from everyone, including myself. There are many similar stories.
Many in my generation refused to accept that they would live their lives as homosexual. There were girlfriends and boyfriends and the desire for a husband or wife, a white picket fence and the 2.5 children that were the goal of every young adult at that time.
Recently, friends saw a picture of me at 16 and commented, "What a cute twink you were." Well back then, who knew what the word meant? Many now realize how we missed out being ourselves and living an honest life from puberty until we dared "come out." When we did, the first question was, "When did you know?" My answer was age 12. But then we often only knew we were different and ashamed of the feelings we had for a same-sex friend. To borrow a phrase from the women's movement, "We've come a long way, baby!"
Many became active and then activists in the LGBT movement because we never wanted another young boy or girl to have to, or want to, live a lie. While not being religious, I believe in God and that he or she intended us to be who we are. It is both maddening and humorous to hear religious fanatics who believe that God is responsible for everything and never wrong explain why he or she didn't mean it in the case of "homosexuals."
The fight for human and civil rights for the LGBT community continues. One can't pick up a paper, go online or watch TV without reading or seeing a story about the LGBT community. There are good and bad stories, but nevertheless, no child should ever again have to grow up thinking that they are the only one with sexual feelings for a same-sex friend. We read more about bullying and suicide, but we also support organizations like the Trevor Project and have LGBT role models and just decent human beings working to protect our young people. The LGBT community went through the devastation of AIDS, seemingly alone, but that experience did bring us closer as we found solace in each other as we fought this scourge. Today we still fight HIV/AIDS, but as part of a worldwide effort, with not just the LGBT community doing battle.
We have Democrats and Republicans like Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney publicly supporting same-sex marriage, and we see polls confirming that more than 50 percent of the population agrees. Yet we have most of the Republican candidates for president trying to outdo each other in their zeal to deny rights to the LGBT community. We have a president who is supportive and has fought for our rights but who hasn't yet found the courage to fully "evolve.. He must know that the faster he evolves, the safer our young people will be.
Today we have role models and examples of LGBT people leading happy, successful and safe lives. They include the family next door with two mommies or two daddies, leaders in business, the arts and politics. There are fewer "firsts" for LGBT individuals to achieve, which is always a great sign, as it has been for other minorities fighting for their rights and acceptance. We have openly gay ambassadors and congressional representatives.
But there is one important first that we can make happen next year. We can elect the first open lesbian to the United States Senate. We know that there are other closeted LGBT community members in the Senate, and by electing Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), we just may give those others the courage to "come out" and be themselves. Our young people will be safer when they do.
As we move toward 2012, we need to celebrate where we have come from, and at the same time rededicate ourselves to working for a future in which every child can grow up in a world where they can live openly and honestly. The new Gay Voices section of The Huffington Post can help that happen and is another indication of how far we have come.