Positive Living: Say Gay and Trans – Please!

Many who know me understand that my LGBTQ activism comes in part from growing up alone and scared in the cornfields of Central Ohio. I never even met someone I actually knew was gay until I was in college.

It was dreadful. I felt absolutely and completely alone – and scared to death someone would find out why. Even in college in the early 1980s I had to be closeted, although I learned later that many of my frat brothers shared this experience.

My small liberal arts university has since started all sorts of programs to support LGBTQ students, and good for them! Otterbein University now says “gay” proudly and without reservation. Interestingly enough, they have had some issues with the United Methodist Church with which they are affiliated but have steadfastly persevered. Again, good for them.

I have pledged my life in part to make sure no other LGBTQ youth feels the isolation that I did way back then. Bullies on the playground called me a f**got because I liked (and excelled) in theatre instead of the all-encompassing football of the area. My church told me I was going to hell for my feelings and as for my parents, let’s just say they seemed blissfully unaware of their queer son until I mustered the courage to tell them otherwise when I was 25 years old.

The way they reacted was the way I was afraid that mid-western parents of an only child would react. Just awful. If you want to know why I am a founder of St Pete Pride or an active board member of the LGBTQ Resource Center at the Gulfport Public Library, my childhood is the answer. I wanted to make a difference in my community. My activism comes from a deep place.

It’s why I feel so strongly about speaking out against that dreadful “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” bill recently passed by our state and signed by that monster in the governor’s mansion. As with “45,” I refuse to use his name in print.

I believe most of us have had the experience of a well-meaning person asking when we knew we were a member of the LGBTQ community. I believe that has much meaning in the current atmosphere that seems to think “shielding” students from LGBTQ issues will make them go away.

It won’t. What it will do is make those young kids feel “less than” or as isolated as I did in those cornfields 50 years ago.

When did I know I was gay? That’s a tough question, as the answer came in segments rather than an all-at-once epiphany. I often share that in Vacation Bible School – when I was the age of LGBTQ youth targeted in this bill – there was a picture of David and Goliath in the Bibles we used.

I was particularly drawn to those images. Someone asked me one time if I liked David or Goliath better, and as my current attractions would seem to indicate I liked them both.

Certainly being gay wasn’t a choice. Exactly when would I have made that decision, was it at my locker between homeroom and Honors English? If anything it was probably more in gym when they put me in a locker room. I knew I was “different” before I could put a label on it. Not to be too spiritual for some, but I believe God made us the way we are and that no “choice” was necessary.

Thank God we don’t live in 1980 anymore. Gay people get married, we have children and little Johnny in the first grade may very well be sitting next to Susie who has two moms or two dads. Or maybe Johnny himself has two same-sex parents. Are we going to pretend they don’t exist?

Youth have eyes and ears and in case some haven’t noticed, there are a plethora of LGBTQ characters on the TV these children are watching. I believe the monsters in

Tallahassee want us to go back to a “simpler time,” and I can say from personal experience that such a time was horrible for many lonely kids like me.

Those times are over. The sooner our society moves on and accepts things the way they are and not the way they inaccurately remember them being, the better our children will be in the process.

Our young people are looking to us to lead, so say “gay” and say “trans” like so many activists are doing. Say it loud and clear. Make it undeniable that being gay or trans isn’t wrong or a choice and it certainly doesn’t mean being alone or less than. To our young folks, we love you unconditionally.

Be the voice. Our children are listening.

Greg Stemm is a longtime resident of Pinellas County and a founder of St Pete Pride. He currently sits on the board of the award-winning LGBTQ Resource Center of the Gulfport Public Library and is an outspoken activist on many issues, including HIV/AIDS education.

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