The 40-Year Advance for LGBT Equality

Posted on in On Our Radar by Tom Ammiano

Reasons to Be Grateful
(“Kiss Cam” Not Included)


If I think about 40 years of gratitude, it has to be gratitude for the changes we’ve won. But we still have more to do. Today we have a president who refers to gay men and lesbians as “our brothers and sisters.” That’s not what we had for most of the past four decades. Those were decades of silence in the face of a disease killing our people and decades in which we were told that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a policy we should like. We are grateful for how far we’ve come from that.

The focus of my gratitude, however, is on the activists—gay and lesbian and transgender and bisexual activists and our allies—who have worked for this change. It hasn’t been handed to us. Ours is not a passive gratitude. We came out and went out to get what we deserved. I’m thankful for that.

Look at all the positives we’ve seen: official acknowledgement of the rights of transgender people, positive images and support in popular culture from Modern Family to the Harvey Milk postage stamp, the emerging voice of LGBT athletes, and yes, the growth of marriage equality. If Rip van Winkle fell asleep in the Castro in the 1970s and woke up today, his head would be spinning.

Giddy gratitude, however, is balanced by sober sadness. I don’t want to be Debbie Downer, but you have to recognize that in the depths of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, we lost beloved friends every week. Even as we fought for attention to the epidemic and fought against homophobic bias, some of us could not even count on living until 2014. The odds were against us, it seemed, and yet here I am.

I am here, and I’ve been here since Harvey Milk was a leader. That’s why I often find myself reminding people of Harvey’s advice that gratitude for progress has to be accompanied by vigilance. We must stand sentinel, or what we have built can be eroded away in a flash. History has shown this over and over. Closely connected to that is Harvey’s message that the LGBT struggle has to be allied with other struggles. We have to connect the dots to other communities. We have worked with labor, with the disabled community, with those concerned about housing, with those seeking funding for mental health services.

In part, it’s because those struggles are our struggles. It’s also about having friends when you need them. Without the support of a union, the struggle I faced as a teacher coming out 40 years ago would have been harder. Housing? Homelessness rates are highest in the LGBT community, especially among youth. Every issue is our issue. LGBT is truly everywhere.

That doesn’t mean I think assimilation is the answer. I have a more gay liberation perspective. We are different; we aren’t cookie-cutter people. Our community contributes in its own unique ways, and we don’t want to apologize.

Not apologizing is something we learned from having to battle AIDS. I’m grateful that we learned it, but I wish we didn’t have to. We had to push for the recognition that this disease was affecting people and needed to be addressed, and it took political will to make that happen.

We can be grateful that we’ve reached a time when the medical community doesn’t just consider it a gay disease. So many things about the LGBT community used to be reduced to how we had sex. When you said “gay,” people thought everything was about sex. Now, there’s way more recognition that there is a gay culture. We are not just in a few neighborhoods—Castro, Polk, Valencia—but all over the city. You can do that when you’re not worried about being beaten up, when you’re not worried about being evicted because you’re gay. These are big things that we should be very grateful for.

There are still a few frontiers for the LGBT community, and we can at least be happy that they are discussed. One area is the realm of gay and lesbian athletes. That they can come out at all is a step, but many are still closeted or punished (losing endorsements, for example) for speaking out about who they are. And you would think we’re still back in high school with the limits on public displays of affection. It’s rare to see a same-sex couple holding hands, let alone kissing in public, outside the “safe” neighborhoods.

And as a baseball fan, I’m disappointed that the Giants’ “Kiss Cam” doesn’t seem to find any gay or lesbian fans. In San Francisco! If one of the baseball players wants to volunteer for same-sex “Kiss Cam,” I’m willing. The team had a slogan around the early 1990s, “We’ve got a Giant attitude.” If they can bring about Kiss Cam equality, then we’d have a Giant gratitude.

Tom Ammiano has served San Francisco for four decades as a teacher, civil rights leader, educator, supervisor, and assembly member. In 1975, he became the first public school teacher in San Francisco to make his sexual orientation public. He was elected to the School Board in 1990, to the Board of Supervisors in 1994, and to the California Assembly in 2008. His bills have protected domestic workers, transgender students, domestic partners, victims of bullying, LGBT foster youth, and tenants.

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