LGBTQ History Month

(C) 2019 JJ Shaun
Sign in front of the Rainbow House in Topeka, Kansas

October is LGBTQ History Month. Why do I mention that you ask? Well, if you haven’t already figured it out, I’m a lesbian.

I struggled with my identity in the early 80s when being gay was still considered a “mental illness.” It took a while to admit to myself that I was attracted to women, and not be afraid to live in my own skin. Of course, like many lesbians, I spent the first few years trying to prove to myself and everyone around me that preferring women in my personal sphere was a “phase.” I was miserable.

When I finally let myself feel what came naturally to me, I went wild. At one point, I embarrassed myself so much, I considered, for a split second, throwing myself over the fantail to end my misery. I didn’t. I made it back to San Diego, ran away from my first command, and kept to myself at the second.

At that time, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) was not friendly to the “gays and lesbians” in the service. If we wanted to go to a gay bar, we needed to go somewhere with no military presence. The Naval Investigative Service (NIS, the pre-courser to NCIS) had agents looking for gays in the nearby establishments. If we got caught, we would be charged one of the articles of the UCMJ (I forget which one) and discharged with either a bad conduct discharge or a dishonorable discharge. I wanted neither, so my last two years, I kept my head down and completed the rest of my enlistment.

I moved after leaving the Navy. I had a new life waiting in a new state. Since then, I have been a vocal advocate for the LGBTQ community.

When I was in college, I joined the staff of the college newspaper to hone my copyediting skills. The Editor-in-Chief and Opinion Page editor asked me to write a weekly column because I was a “non-traditional” (read older) student. I might be able to impart valuable wisdom to the younger generation. One of my columns was a coming-out column, about the same time that Ellen DeGeneres announced “Yep, I’m gay!” to the world.

My wife and I participated in many a Pride March, and in 2000 drove to Washington, DC, to march in the Millennium March on Washington for Equality. We participated in the mass wedding at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. It was one of the most critical events of my life.

A bare year and a half earlier, on October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a young college student at the University of Wyoming, Laramie, was brutally battered, tortured, lashed to a fence like a scarecrow, and left to die. The outrage in the community was still bubbling in April 2000. I believe the national horror of that moment was a turning point in the LGBTQ movement.

Being a gay person in America doesn’t come without its hazards. Whether man, woman, or gender-neutral, gay people continually look over their shoulders when out in public. I’ve mentioned in past posts that a group of us attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally every year. While it is a public event, it does carry an element of risk, just like any other open event these days. Though I’ve never felt unsafe at the Rally, I’ve always kept an eye over my shoulder, not feeling completely safe, either. Of course, because of the motorcycle gangs that attend, the police presence in Sturgis, and the Black Hills, in general, has gotten heavier over the years.

In 2019, the newspapers are still full of reports of this queer person or that transgender person beaten to death because of their identity. Being an out person is liberating but frightening because of the ever-present risk of getting blindsided by someone else’s hatred. Not that it stops us from going out and expressing ourselves. To me, that makes it essential that I be myself and not try to hide who I really am. Many of us have done that for far too long. Experience has taught me that some people don’t think they know any LGBTQ people, so I tell them that, yes, they DO know someone gay. I just do me.

Even back in the 80s, many of my immediate crewmates knew I was gay. They protected me like they would have any other shipmate. My sexual identity meant little to them. What they looked for was: Could I do the job? As long as I could, I had their respect, and they had my back. One of the last days in the service, I came out to my supervising officer. He could have ruined my life but knew the rules were hosed up. Thank you, Lieutenant.

Whether you are aware or not, chances are you know someone gay, lesbian, bisexual transgender, or queer-identifying. The possibilities are good that you are related to them, and they are afraid to tell you. You might even suspect that a loved one is gay, but they are still scared to let you know. Many young LGBTQ people end their own lives because they’re afraid to disappoint their family because of their identity. Or they are bullied to death by classmates and peers 

I could keep going about famous people throughout history who we suspect of being gay or lesbian. Not that their sexual identity was anyone’s business, but the subject seems to fascinate people who identify as “straight.” 

Trust me; we are just people like everyone else in the world.

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