As bleak as it is at times I find great comfort and encouragement when I examine how far we have come and the progress we have made. The President signed into law the Matthew Sheppard James Byrd Hate Crimes Act in 2010, DADT repeal was finally a reality (though still not implemented), and we have seen several states in our country pass marriage equality bills or civil unions. This last decade has been a historic one for LGBT people.
When I look back at my teenage years of angst (and sometimes of sheer torture), I can see even more concretely the progress we have made. I survived my terrible teenage years in the 80's when Reagan was President and the conservative wave had washed out the revolutionary one of the 60's and 70's. I would dare to bet that even in the 60's and 70's the revolution didn't make it to Carroll County, TN.
In the small town where I survived my youth there was no "gay". It wasn't necessarily that "gay" was a bad thing; it really just didn't exist. We had no gay role models, no gay community members, no Ellen and Portia, no Melissa, no Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; nothing identifiably "gay". I remember as a child being shocked at the one gay image I saw in my early teens: a gay pride parade in San Francisco with barely dressed men adorning chains. This is what "gay" was, and I wanted no part of it. My first introduction to "gay" on a local level was even more shocking and disturbing than the one on television.
I grew up in small town USA. In the South. There we no nearby big cities, only a chain of small communities, one after another, one no different than another. The only educated people were the female teachers and their male superiors, most of whom were related. There wasn't a big city you could get to in under an hour. There were no bookstores, cafes, or art galleries. The only entertainment for miles was a gas station with a game room in the back, one pool table and a couple of video games. I spent my teenage years in that dark room. Usually high on something besides life.
The community's first notice that "gay" was in our midst was after a tragic murder. We woke up to the newspapers with a picture of a man being arrested for the murder of a well respected man in the community. The victim was a postman and the father of a classmate of mine. Reportedly, the victim had harassed a gay male couple living next door to him. The harassment had gone on for some time and had apparently gotten quite constant. It went on until that day when one of the gay men walked out of their home and shot and killed the postman. Of course, looking back I know that there was more than one victim. The gay couple had endured quite a lot before one of them snapped. But they would never be viewed as victims. They would only be viewed as sinners, sodomites, unnaturals, perverts who deserved the constant harassment because they had the nerve to "flaunt" their perversion and corrupt the town's children. Gay people in San Francisco paraded scantly clothed in chains; gay people in Tennessee were murders. There were no norms for comparison, only stereotypes.
I can't begin to understand how it must have been for that gay couple who, for whatever reason, stayed in that backwoods town regardless of the harassment. I can understand harassment, bullying, discrimination, and living on the edge of reason, as I am sure most LGBT individuals can. I have occasionally thought of that couple and how different things could have been for them now; or maybe not.
It wasn't until my 20's, that I experienced another encounter with "gay". I was working at a bookstore that had just opened, the first bookstore that had ever opened within 60 miles of where I grew up. Two women, a lesbian couple, had opened the bookstore. It was the fourth in a chain throughout Tennessee that they owned. And every gay and lesbian within driving distance was flocking to the business with resumes in hand. It became an enclave of LGBT community, a safe space for people who were either out or who didn't mind people assuming they were gay. That bookstore changed my life. It introduced me to a gays, lesbians, and transgendered people who, although they had noticeable emotional scars themselves and probably stories much more horrific than mine, were comfortable with who they were. They were fully clothed, chain free (well, except for one), normal, comfortable, intelligent, and funny people. It was an epiphany. It is also where I met Mary who, for reasons I often don't understand, still chooses to love me.
Now young people don't go to bookstores near as much, they have the internet and Nooks and Kindles. The World Wide Web has created safe places to discuss one's sexuality and awkwardness and a way to link with other likeminded folks. Whatever your wierdness there is an internet page dedicated to making you feel a wee bit more normal. However, it has also provided another avenue for bullying, hate, and outing. The good with the bad.
I know people who are gay who live in and around the community I grew up in, who are out. People who spend most of their time drinking, or clubing, or doing whatever they can to exist in the safety of the place they grew up in, while seeking shelter from the homophobia that still surrounds them. There stories are now different than mine in some ways, but identical in others.
There are still small towns and communities just like the one I grew up in; small towns in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, places I wouldn't wish on anyone who felt the least bit out of the norm, especially if the reason was one of sexuality or gender identity. But there are inroads being made. There are, role models, LGBT images in film and television and politics. Progress is spreading, howbeit slow, too slow for me. Also too slow for the youth who commit suicide, the victims of hate crimes, and for all LGBT people who are victims of an oppressive and unjust system. Regardless, I take comfort and encouragement in the fact that we have come a long way. And I hold closely courage and determination as I look down the road ahead.