For the past several months, we've been hearing about how "it gets better." I love the Trevor Project--it's hugely important, and it will save lives. But as LGBT people plugged into the gay community and gay media, it's easy to start thinking that positive messages are virtually ubiquitous.
A few miles away from your local gay pride parade, though, there's a 13-year-old boy crying in his room because he was beaten up for asking another boy to a dance. There's a 40-year-old woman down the street who thinks that killing herself would be better than coming out to her husband and kids. And these people aren't necessarily the ones watching "It Gets Better" videos. I know that if I had watched one of those videos six years ago, I would have thought: Maybe it will get better for them, but it won't for me. Campaigns like the Trevor Project are terrific, but it's crucial to remember that they are strategies, not solutions.
I've mentioned that I moonlight as a community college English professor. Six weeks ago, one of my students came out to me (asking during office hours, “Uh… I was wondering, mmm, what it’s like to be… uh, different?”). Let's call him Doug. Doug is 21. He had only come out to a few of his friends, and none of them were gay. He desperately needed practical advice about self-presentation, dealing with parents, dating, safety, etc. I'd never mentioned my own sexual orientation in class--but, heck, I regularly wear a shirt and tie, so I'm not exactly closeted. Because I was identifiable as gay, he decided to come out to me.
Over the course of the quarter, Doug and I had a few conversations about his sexual orientation. When I told him the outlines of my *own* story, his look of relief nearly made me cry. (Especially since, less than a decade ago, I was in Doug's position, coming out to a gay professor of my own.)
Although Doug lives in a relatively cosmopolitan area, and although he's on the Internet constantly, he had no idea that there are two gay pride celebrations within an hour's drive of his house. I showed him some pictures of a few gay neighborhoods online, saying, "There are places where you can hold another guy's hand and no one will even blink." Doug couldn't believe it--he just stared, open-mouthed, at the pictures of rainbow-flag-adorned buildings.
Doug isn't particularly "sheltered." He's a smart, pretty typical 21-year-old kid from a conservative family in a moderate-to-liberal area of the country. Yet he didn't have a single gay friend, and was afraid to join the college's LGBT group for fear that his straight acquaintances would find out. The last week of class, he gave me a big hug and told me that talking to me had changed his life. Doug had even mustered the courage to come out to his father (who was pretty upset about it, but told Doug he still loved him).
If I hadn't been identifiable as gay, Doug wouldn't have approached me. But by being my normal self in the classroom, I did something good. Visibility of regular ol' gay people (even if they’re cramming subject-verb agreement down your throat) is invaluable to kids--and adults--struggling with self-acceptance. It's one thing to know in the abstract that life is improving for LGBT folks, but there's no substitute for seeing gay people in your community who are out and "normal" and happy: reading books at the library, shopping for groceries, going to movies with their partners.
Many of us think a lot about the perils of being butch. To be comfortable in our own skin, we often have to be outsiders. We get called "sir" in the restroom. We get stared at in the department store. And often, this sucks.
But we also have the great privilege of being one of the most obviously, identifiably queer subgroups of the entire LGBT community. Just by showing up as ourselves, we raise visibility. Remember that you are doing awesome, important, life-saving work just by showing up as you really are. In ways that you may never know, your identifiably gay self is making some other questioning person more comfortable, more confident, and more hopeful.