It’s Pride month, a time when San Francisco and cities around the world celebrate the strength, resilience, and sheer fabulousness of the LGBT community. If last year’s Pride was marked by celebration of our long overdue right to marry, this year’s pride feels more like a matter of life and death — *our* lives. As we continue to process the horrific massacre of 49 of our LGBT brothers and sisters in Orlando, we must come together, embrace, and celebrate one another like never before. Orlando was an extreme violation of a community safe space for LGBT people of color, and for those of us who have spent more nights than we care to admit partying, meeting friends and lovers, and building community in our LGBT nightlife spaces, this attack cuts to the heart of who we are.
(Photo: Castro vigil for Orlando massacre. Our community is under assault, but our community is strong.)
Politicians, corporations, and people of all stripes embrace Pride and wrap themselves in the rainbow. It’s critical to have straight allies — we could not do it without them — but we also need our own leaders, people for whom support for the LGBT community is wired in their DNA. We are so lucky to have these leaders in our community — LGBT advocates, nonprofit and corporate leaders, elected officials, and others who help move our community forward.
As a gay man and 19-year resident of the Castro, Pride is intensely personal for me, particularly as the person with the deep honor of occupying the seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors once held by Harvey Milk. There will never, ever be another Harvey, and we must remember what he stood for as we move forward as a community. Our community is under intense pressure on various fronts, whether violence, evictions and displacement, homelessness, or lack of access to healthcare. We have our work cut out for us.
I came of age as a closeted 17 year old gay man in 1987, at the height of the HIV epidemic when there was no effective treatment for the virus. People were dying, our community was being vilified, and there was virtually no support for those of us trying to come to terms with our sexuality. In 1990, shortly after I came out, my cousin Melissa and her partner Margie took me to a gay bar in Philadelphia. Margie told me: “It’s great that you’re out with the lesbians, but you also need gay guy friends. I wanted to invite some of my guy friends out with us tonight, but they’re all sick or dead.”
I had just turned 20, and that was my introduction to our community.
There’s been no more frightening time period for our community. I remember the first time I was tested for HIV, in 1991 in Durham, North Carolina, near my college. I went with my kid sister, and we were tested together. Back then, you had to wait a full two weeks for any test results. Those two weeks were marked by deep anxiety and fear.
I would not allow myself to be overcome by fear. Shortly after coming out, I began volunteering for an HIV hotline in Durham and with some training, began fielding calls from people who were in crisis or simply terrified. While our straight peers were hitting their sexual prime, our sex was all too associated with sickness and death. What I learned on the hotline was that we were all in some way experiencing profound isolation, fear, and anxiety about a basic human activity that for most people was intimate, connected, and joyous.
I was and am extremely lucky to have supportive friends and family, including my lesbian cousin, Melissa, my (now-deceased) transgender cousin, Denise, and my aunt Leah—a hero by any measure — who came out as a lesbian in the 1960s when being LGBT was still officially classified as a mental illness. My parents are the best people I’ve ever known, and they were unconditionally supportive. I’ll never forget the year they marched with me in the Philadelphia Pride Parade. They later joined PFLAG and wrote to their Congressman in New Jersey insisting that he support LGBT equality. My sister is a physician specializing in HIV care for low-income people.
These experiences have remained with me to this day and inform my advocacy for our community. HIV is still a very real threat. Our community continues to experience significant violence, with LGBT hate violence topping the list of communities targeted by hate crimes. LGBT people disproportionately experience homelessness. Because so many LGBT people lost much of their support networks during the HIV crisis, many suffer from isolation and depression, and too many LGBT seniors struggle with housing. Our transgender community continues to experience unacceptable levels of extreme violence (particularly transgender women of color), unemployment, and lack of adequate health care access. And, to this day, we have no federal civil rights protections as a community, and in dozens of states you can still be fired, evicted, or kicked out of a store simply for being LGBT. Indeed, North Carolina and other states continue to pass anti-LGBT hate laws that define us as second-class citizens.
Starting that first day on the HIV hotline in North Carolina 25 years ago, a deep personal resolve formed in me to fight for the LGBT community. It’s that resolve that led me to public service, and it’s that same resolve that has me more determined than ever to eradicate these inequities. Along the way, I’ve been honored to know and work with stellar LGBT advocates and to be mentored by them. Together, we have worked to support and strengthen our community:
As a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, I’ve continued to be inspired by our community’s strong leadership and honored to be able to work with these leaders:
Today, more than ever, I am immensely proud to be a gay man. Together, we have fought and survived the worst days of the HIV epidemic. We have come out of the shadows and claimed a seat at the table, winning elected offices around the country and even a United States Senate seat. We no longer have to rely exclusively on allies to push our agenda for us. We now have the capacity to put our own community members in positions of power to get the job done. We have demonstrated our immense capacity for love and achieved marriage equality. Make no mistake, we face very real challenges ahead, but we are resilient and we get stronger with every setback. We will win in the end, whatever the challenge. (Take note, NRA — we’re coming for you.)
Pride is about celebrating our community, looking back at what we’ve done and what we need to do, and, for me personally, remembering the happiness, and at times pain, that come with being a gay man. But that pain will never define us — because only we can define us. Here’s to an uplifting and beautiful Pride in San Francisco, in Orlando, and around the world.