Dear Gay White Brothers

I hope we don't soon forget what silence felt like when hatred was directed at us, and instead reach back through that door. In this legacy-defining moment, what choice will you make?
03/28/2016 10:01 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2017

Dear Gay White Brothers,

What's the difference between a gay white man and a white man?

No, this is not the start of a joke recently told by Donald Trump. It's a question I've been wrestling with lately as we continue to make gains in legal equality and social acceptance within the United States.

What will it be like as the "gay" part of "gay white men" gets waived into a new state of normalcy? What will it be like to just be white men -- not gay white men?

Of course, each of us has our own unique lived experience and journey, and our gay identity wouldn't disappear, nor would our challenges. To borrow a phrase from Michelle Alexander: like racism, heterosexism is highly adaptable. Gay kids continue to be bullied at school and kicked out of their homes. Gay seniors get forced back into the closet at nursing homes. Gay white men remain the largest group of those living with HIV in the U.S, even as black men account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses.

We are fighting back against so-called "religious freedom restoration acts," we are lobbying Congress to pass the Equality Act, and many of us continue to face economic hardship and discrimination when seeking employment or housing. And yet, it feels like we're at a formative moment in the identity of gay white men in America.

My fiancé and I (he's white too) have set our wedding date in the fall. Once that ring is placed onto my left hand, I'm officially welcomed into an elite class. Married. White. Man. I stand with my husband at U.S. customs and we collectively have nothing to declare. I slide the mortgage papers along the table for my husband to sign as we buy our first home together. I tell the hotel clerk that my husband will be arriving after me and she asks for his name without pause.

But we can't ignore the fact that alongside the headlines featuring gains in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) equality are those accounting racial injustice and the widening gap between rich and poor.

Our community has learned so much, and there's a common struggle we share with those marching in the streets for dignity and justice. As we continue to fight new and old battles -- all the while becoming more equal under the law and in our lived experience with our white straight brothers -- we are faced with a new choice: What do we do with the lessons we've learned, the resources we've built, the privilege we've been given, and the access we have to power?

In September, President Obama reminded us of the duty we have to be champions for justice:

"Harvey Milk once said, 'If a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.' But to those of us who've made it through those doors, we've got a unique obligation to reach back and make sure other people can make it through those doors, too. We have a responsibility to stand up to bigotry -- not just against us, but against anybody, anywhere. We have a responsibility to stand up for freedom -- not just our own freedom, but for everybody's freedom... because we remember what silence felt like when hatred was directed at us, and we've got to be champions on behalf of justice for everybody, not just our own."

I think of the skills of those who learned to lobby and write op-eds and talk with their friends and neighbors about equality for LGBTQ people. I think of the millions of dollars we collectively raised and poured into winning the freedom to marry. I think of the mayors and governors and elected leaders around the country with whom we've built relationships. I think of the courage and strength it took to say the words "I'm gay" for the first time.

What if we took all of that and threw it at our world's greatest challenges? Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Black Lives Matter organizers as we collectively demand justice and systemic reform. Lobbying our elected leaders to protect transgender people from discrimination and violence. Marching with the DREAMers as we fight for immigration reform. All while acknowledging our allies and the debt of gratitude we owe to Julian Bond and Dolores Huerta, Jeanne Manford and Zach Wahls, the St. Vincent's nurses and Unitarian ministers, and all those who made our struggle their own.

There was a time in your life when no one stood up for you. We now have a choice to make about what is expected of us. Ten years from now, a gay white kid will come out and may never know any form of discrimination based on his sexual orientation. As he forms his identity, will he expect himself to have a responsibility to stand up to bigotry and fight for freedom for all?

I look to leaders like Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson, who recently became a visiting professor at Georgetown Law to share the lessons learned from the successful marriage campaign with other organizations, causes and countries. He's using what he learned after decades of fighting for marriage equality to help advance global human rights and address domestic issues like immigration, voting rights and education reform.

I am inspired by Charlie Rounds and his husband Mark Hiemenz, longtime marriage advocates in Minneapolis, who last year answered President Obama's challenge around My Brother's Keeper and began donating and raising funds for local groups expanding opportunities for young men and boys of color. I applaud Jon Stryker and the Arcus Foundation, which recently announced a multi-year, $20 million commitment with NoVo Foundation to advance transgender equality in the U.S. and globally. I cheer on my friend and former colleague, Rep. Jon Hoadley, who cut his teeth in LGBTQ politics and now fights for issues like gun safety, education reform and government accountability as a member of the Michigan State House. They and so many others know that the fight for equality and justice didn't end with last summer's marriage victory.

So, what's the difference between a gay white man and a white man?

That's for us to decide. I hope we don't soon forget what silence felt like when hatred was directed at us, and instead reach back through that door. In this legacy-defining moment, what choice will you make?