Words To Live By: Courage

By : Rick Claggett
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Rick_ClaggettBy the time I was in the ninth grade I accepted the fact I was a homosexual. I wasn’t out or proud.  I was scared. I had done my time with self-loathing and trying to talk myself into being normal. My knowledge of the homosexual world revolved around what I’d picked up from TV, church, family and friends. Homosexuals were sinners, gross deviants who were to be laughed at and avoided. Although I didn’t feel that described me, I came to terms with it. After all, I thought boys were cute.

Toward the end of my freshman year of high school, I was given a glimmer of hope that maybe I wasn’t such a terrible person. I had a teacher who decided to stray from the normal health-class curriculum by sharing her story of homosexuals. She started the lesson off by referring to the community as gay. A student quickly asked if she meant homosexuals. She answered yes, but said they preferred to be called “gay” because their lives were about whom they love and not necessarily about with whom they have sex, a pretty ballsy move for a Southern teacher in 1990. She went on to describe gay people as normal. This was a first for me. I remember living next to a gay couple when I was in elementary school. Plenty of words were used to describe them, but normal wasn’t one of them.

The teacher then broached the subject of HIV/AIDS. She talked about gay sex and safe sex and fielded questions with honesty and confidence. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but until that teacher spoke I thought all gay men had AIDS and it magically manifested when they had sex. At the time I was focused on how this new information would affect my life. Looking back now, I think of how much courage she showed. She normalized gay for me in a time when that was unheard of. She taught me about HIV/AIDS when others were too afraid to talk about it. Her courage gave me hope and courage to start building trust in others. Within the next year my coming out story began.

I’ve thought a lot about courage over the past few days, thanks to When We Rise, the ABC miniseries that chronicles major milestones in the LGBTQ rights movement. This show is a must watch for all people, not just those in the LGBTQ community. It’s not without its production flaws, but the emotional history lesson is courageous to near perfection.

It’s heartbreaking to see the early struggles of the LGBTQ community. The psychological torture of being outcast by your family then being seen as sub-human to the rest of the world is enough to cripple even the strongest person. Now factor in the physical beatings from the police and the rest of society and you create a culture of anger and desperation. Out of that desperation began a movement.

Early LGBTQ history is full of people of courage. Women’s groups would rally in support of their rights knowing they would be arrested or beat or pounded with tear gas. Gay men would risk their jobs just by going to a gay bar, also risking arrest. The young, the not-so-young, women who loved women, men who loved men and transgender people fought together to advance the rights for all of them. They banded together to fight oppression and to fight HIV/AIDS. They didn’t have role models that looked like them, so they used each other as inspiration. They risked everything because they had nothing left to lose. They let the world know their names because they knew the more people that could identify someone in their life as LGBTQ, the more likely they were to see LGBTQ people as human.

Our community has made great strides since the riots of Stonewall and the rise of HIV/AIDS. Sometimes, though, it feels like we are fighting many of the same battles.

The most courageous action the early equality crusaders took was simply to be themselves. That remains true today. Yes, it takes courage to be a leader in front of a crowd and deliver a moving rally speech, but it takes just as much courage to be in that crowd. It takes courage to come out. It takes courage to be proud. It takes courage to dress your part and to walk into the bathroom you know you belong in. It takes courage to be feminine, to be masculine or to be both. It takes courage to go to a gay bar, to walk hand in hand with your partner and to fall in love. It takes courage to hold your leadership to a high standard of honesty and integrity, inside your community and all the way to the White House.

So rally together. Take the wisdom of the older and passion of the young to carry the movement forward. Say your name out loud. Be out, be proud and love. Be yourself and let that be a role model to someone else. You never know who will be watching. You never know who you will inspire to be themselves and carry the next generation closer to equality. Just like my ninth grade teacher who was only doing what she thought was right, and just like the many people who began the LGBTQ movement: Be courageous.

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