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Who Are Tomorrow’s LGBT Leaders?

Thursday evening, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion following a screening of Out in the Silence at the Westmoreland County Community College (WCCC) Gay and Straight Alliance. A screening of the film is always a powerful experience for me. I think so much of the film and the messages it has to offer. Couple that with a lively discussion by a group of young people and it is an evening that is hard to beat! Who are tomorrow’s LGBT leaders? They are the many smart, courageous and innovative kids who are forming and growing GSA’s all across the country. I use the word “kid” with affection and appreciation, but in reality, the crowd was wonderfully mixed in terms of age and gender. There were several parents there with their high school aged children. Younger and older people, all getting together to create a community of support.

I think so highly of Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) groups, and often think, if there is one type of group that we need to be supporting the growth of groups in new areas across the country, it would be PFLAG. PFLAG provides a space for many who are within the LGBT community as well as family and friends to gather for support. Especially in small towns and rural settings, were people may not feel comfortable being out, this is so essential. Though, I also think that another type of group which is maybe even more essential, are GSA groups in both High Schools as well as colleges. GSA’s allow young people a space to begin finding the courage to be themselves and seek out other folks who will respect and support them in real and meaningful ways.

Seems to me there are two paths upon which change is being created. One path is political, where we fight for legislation that protects people against discrimination, and provide equality. These battles on a local, state or federal level are critically important, and while we may wish equality was chose to being achieved, it is in reality not close enough. Much more hard work needed on this front. But the other path is also extremely important. Maybe more important when you think about it. The other path is all about empowering individuals to be proud of who they are, comfortable in their own skin, and willing to share their voice in all aspects of their lives. GSA’s go far at both of these paths.

Even if we could wave a magic wand and tomorrow, have laws that provide complete equality, gay, lesbian bisexual, and transgender folks will still be treated as second class citizens. Without the social change, there will remain loud and angry voices spreading hate and misinformation. The end to this will come as we couple political gains with a growing acceptance and respect within our culture overall. The growth of this acceptance can happen only as more and more people are out of the closet and being authentic in all areas of their lives so that their real lives, their real stories can counter and dispel the misinformation and the lies. GSA’s provide a venue for young people to begin to “be out” in important ways. The more confidence their build within themselves, the more they can carry that with them everywhere, and the less likely they will be to compartmentalize and live in the closet.

So often as youth come out, they learn to hide their true self out of fear of violence or other repercussions. This is almost essential for many youth to make it through high school. But what if, starting in high school and continuing in college, these youth came to see that they don’t have to hide themselves? What’s the likelihood that they would then step off into their adult life, less closeted and more likely to be their true self at all times. College is a time in our lives when we perfect living in the closet. We may not need to do it, like many of us did when we were younger, but we keep compartmentalizing out of fear, and a lack of self confidence.

Two bigger themes are on my mind as I write this today. The recent series of 5 gay youth suicides that have been so prominent in the news. We know that homophobia kills, especially when joined to isolation and a lack of support for being yourself. But the other big theme is National Coming Out Day, which is October 11th. Yes homophobia kills, but living in the closet goes a long way to helping to create and maintain an environment where homophobia can thrive. I’ve often wondered what would happen if every gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and supportive straight ally would all come out and be loud and proud. How far might that go to diminish and destroy homophobia.

So, I was thrilled to see a GSA with so many smart, active and courageous young people involved, and exited to think about the role they will play is the struggle for full equality. They will be tomorrow’s leaders, helping to make gains on both the political and social paths.