I’m a gay man in my late 60s. And I am heartsick over the message I’ve hearing lately, louder and louder it seems to me, that cis-gendered, middle-aged white guys like me are “establishment,” part of the “elite,” not radical enough to be worthy of full citizenship in our community.
I feel like I am being marginalized and rejected by a generation for whose well-being and freedoms I was fighting long before they were born.
Life was very difficult for gay people when I came to D.C. in the early ‘70s coming from a small town where I learned very well as a teenager how it feels to be ostracized, hated and bullied.
I worked for the federal government and was terrified of being found out, as there was a ban on gays and lesbians working for the government the first few years I was here. I remember being afraid to call any of my gay friends from work for fear I’d be “caught.”
Still, I fought to help make things better for our community, volunteering at the gay hotline to help people who were closeted and needed someone to talk to, marching in the Pride parades even though I was scared someone from the office would see me. But all of us knew it was important that people did see us, no matter the consequences.
You can’t know what it was like to be gay back then unless you lived it. I do feel proud that we helped to create the freedoms that we enjoy today. The National March on Washington back in 1979 was an empowering event.
I lost my lover to AIDS in the 1980s back when the federal government didn’t give a damn about a bunch of “fags” dying. I still tear up about all of that, writing this 30 years later. I lost most of my friends too. Yes, I protested plenty, including the FDA takeover to get some action on drug treatment. And I volunteered as a “buddy” for PWAs for a long time.
That’s why it hurts now to hear that I am not an authentic part of my own community, the community that I’ve worked to help over my whole adult life.
I don’t need gratitude but the judgment and contempt are hard to take.
I wish you had been at the Gay Men’s Chorus concert that I attended a few weeks back. The audience gave a loud, sustained ovation to those attendees who had been at the 1979 March in which you participated.
So, yes — many in the LGBT community are grateful to you and your generation for all the difficult, sometimes dangerous work you did to help make our country so much freer for LGBT folks and are profoundly moved by your bravery and sacrifices.
That said, none of us can get everyone to see the world in the way that we do. As time goes by, newer generations will always see history through their own varied lenses and judgments. And communities — LGBT included — often have a tendency to splinter. Alas, venom can come with the splintering.
Sure, there are people out there who are going to put you down, minimize or ignore all you’ve done and say you’re just not good enough to meet their standards. But you don’t have to listen to or agree with them. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Your job is to hold onto your own knowledge of all that you have accomplished so far and to keep believing that your life has been worthwhile. If someone else has a different view, that doesn’t make them right and you wrong.
Please consider that you already know how to do this, because you grew up in a homophobic world and still managed to keep believing in your own worth. You have a lifetime of experience discarding the judgment of others when you know that their judgment is not accurate.
I’d like to make a suggestion: Start speaking in public about your life. A lot of LGBT people would be fascinated to hear from an eyewitness participant to our struggle over the past decades and I sense it would do you some good to share your story and experience our community’s gratitude in person.
I would also like to suggest that if you have not already done so, you record an oral history with the Rainbow History Project, an organization dedicated to collecting and preserving LGBT history in metropolitan Washington. Future generations will want to hear stories like yours.
Take care of yourself, and keep your head high.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT individuals and couples in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@michaelradkowsky.com.