06/06/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Words and Images Do, In Fact, Matter

President Obama is the first commander in chief to openly support equality for gay couples. He mentioned his daughters as the moving force behind his change of opinion. Sasha and Malia have friends with parents that happen to be gay -- and Mr. President feels they should have equal rights, the exact ones he has. It's fascinating to me how kids simply don't care -- they look beyond race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation, and act without regard to anything but human compassion. While many claim that America is a melting pot, I would argue that the world "playground" is better suited for that title.

I am a child of gay parents. My parents have a unique story. They fled from Nicaragua after the Sandinista Revolution, which, according to President Reagan, brought democracy to the developing nation. I've always loved both of my moms. They have done everything possible to make me the success they came to this country for -- and they did it by hosting an open, honest and welcoming environment. Hearing our president make a bold statement is not only satisfying, but also empowering.

I proudly volunteer as GLAAD's national chair of young adults initiatives at the annual GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. You see, the fight for equality is only half the battle. What I have the pleasure of doing is bringing approximately 1,500 young adults to the show to gain empowerment. The GLAAD Media Awards Young Adults Program offers a momentary respite for these young people to be themselves. Young adults are able to meet some of their favorite LGBT-supportive celebrities, learn about LGBT organizations at our resource fair and watch the amazing awards show free of charge. The end of every show brings me pleasure, but also sadness. Sadness because these young adults might return to homes that are unaccepting, schools that don't have the tools to properly support them and to communities that will look down on them like second-class citizens. I can only hope that they have other places of respite.

When these thoughts come to me, I am reminded of my parents' struggle as teenagers in a country that had zero respect for their existence. I become grateful for the supportive environment they've given me as their gay son. I mentioned that equality is only half the battle; the other half is social acceptance and respect. We, as a nation, can create policies -- but they don't mean anything unless we shift the social climate. Look at Argentina, for example. They lead the world in LGBT-inclusive policy, but being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender still carries some level of shame. Does that make legal progress false hope?

My hope in our society is to create a culture that not only has legal equality -- but full equality. Here in the States we have a strong tool to accomplish that: the media. So many stories are told each and every day. As a society, we value the power of storytelling -- we use it to amplify voices. Will & Grace was not just a sitcom -- it told the story of two gay best friends. Countless LGBT characters have become beacons of hope for so many young people: Kurt from Glee, Cameron and Mitchell on Modern Family, Emily and Maya from Pretty Little Liars, to name a few. Each of these characters has changed LGBT perspectives on their respective shows. As these characters transform the lives of their TV show counterparts, they change the landscape of America -- viewers begin to realize that their stories are just as funny and sad as anyone else's -- no difference.

I can keep citing numerous fictional characters, but the most powerful stories are the ones that are real. Stories like those of Jamey Rodemeyer, who died by suicide last year. Stories like the one of Jamey's sister Alyssa, who has become a strong advocate for safe-schools policies because of her brother's story. These stories are the real-life complements to the characters we see on television. Moreover, we see tragedy trump comedy. We see Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh and Raymond Chase take their lives. We see the horror that happens when a child like Larry King gets beaten. I hear stories of teenage students from schools whose Gay-Straight Alliance is losing faculty support and college students who are meeting gender-neutral policy proposals with lots of resistance.

My parents came to this country because they found hope in America. Today young LGBT people in America deserve to have hope. I urge any reader to ask themselves what roles they've played in a bullying scenario -- were you a perpetrator? A target? A bystander? An ally? Ask yourself what needs to change in order for a young person to live a healthy life free of discrimination. And finally, ask yourself what you need to do to contribute to a better, more inclusive society.

It's easy to forget what happens in the time between the playground and the board room -- or in some cases, the chambers of Congress. As children become teens, we've prepared them with mixed messages of love and hate. Pair that with the complexity of identity development and we have the perfect recipe for bullying. It's a social problem that has created a big head-scratcher for policy makers and elected officials. Even worse, it's a social problem that has been the cause of many lost lives. What good is equal protection if you can't control the bias that exists in everyone's minds?

Our president and his family heard these stories and were moved by them. Tell these stories to a national audience, and we have the power to shift sociocultural values. Tell these stories successfully and we have the GLAAD Media Awards. And finally, tell these stories to 1,500 young adults and we have teenagers that have found validation, inspiration and motivation in what I anticipate will become their moment of hope.

Lester Alemán is a senior-volunteer at GLAAD and works with the GLAAD Media Awards planning committee as the National Chair of Young Adults Initiatives. He is the former Director of the Stonewall Resource Center at Grinnell College, where he also received his bachelor's degree in Sociology. Lester currently lives in Los Angeles and works full-time in the education sector.