Positive Living: Without oppression, who are we?

By : Greg Stemm
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When I moved to St. Petersburg in the summer of 1983 I couldn’t serve openly in the military. It was unlikely that I could be hired as a teacher. I couldn’t adopt children. There were no local and huge gay pride celebrations. Most of the bars weren’t in great areas of Tampa and marriage was a pipe dream no one ever seriously thought we’d see. Such was gay life in 1983.

Flash forward to now. Men introduce their husbands; women introduce their wives, and they may introduce you to their children. We can serve our country. St. Petersburg hosts an LGBTQ pride celebration that draws well over 200,000 people. The library in my little town of Gulfport has an LGBTQ Resource Center that has brought us national acclaim. Gay characters and role models for our young people abound on TV and in mainstream society we are mostly seen as upstanding citizens, not mentally ill patients or sexual deviants who should be pitied or shunned.

The progress we’ve made in the past 35 years would absolutely stun that earlier version of me in 1983. I know that it can be argued that we still have a long way to go. You can still get married in Florida in the morning and fired from your job for being gay in the afternoon. I’m not about to argue that the fight for full equality is still not a tough road and much work still needs to be done.

But looking back on the way things were and the way things are now, you could say that while there is still some discrimination, oppression of the gay community is pretty much history.

That puts us in an interesting predicament. The entire history of the LGBTQ community — until very recently — was defined by the oppression we received from mainstream society. Much of who we are and who we have become has been defined by that struggle.

I know personally my first real struggle against oppression was against my parents. While I didn’t come out to them until I was 25 and had been living in Florida on my own for three years, their surprisingly brutal reaction to it oppressed me in ways that I believe led me to becoming such an activist for LGBTQ issues.  If they had openly embraced me I believe my life would have been very different. I may have never had the motivation to speak out to parents to love and accept their children just for who they are. That oppression defined me as an activist.

The United Methodist Church – the religious fellowship I grew up in – continues to oppress gay people by labeling them sinners with a lifestyle inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. Leaving that spiritual oppression and the church behind, I began several years of painful searching until I came to the Quakers who embrace me as a child of God; made in his/her image which may be gay or straight. That oppression helped define me as a spiritual person.

I can find so many examples in my life where it was oppression that was the driving force.  I see so clearly that I wouldn’t be the same person without it.

In our community it was oppression that led to Stonewall, flourishing gay pride celebrations all over the country, a fight for equality in the military, a Catholic Church with a pope who asks “Who am I to Judge?” and of course the long, difficult and ultimately successful road to marriage equality.

So I have to ask the question, now that overt oppression is out of the picture: who are we?

To answer that question we first need to ask, who do we want to be? Our experience of oppression uniquely positions us to be the advocate for others who are being marginalized in Trump’s America. With our experience of unrelenting lobbying for our rights, who is better positioned to help these dynamic young people in their quest to be safe in their schools? With our experience of oppression, who is a better ally to the Me Too movement as we strive for true equality between the sexes? Black issues, Jewish issues, Muslim issues … any community who has been marginalized by this radical administration can learn from our experience and benefit from what we have learned from the decades-long school of hard knocks we have been through.

Who we are is who we have always been. We have been a constant beacon of equality, arguing for what is best about the American dream for everyone.

So, who are we? To quote Martin Luther King, we are “free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty we are free at last.” We’re free. Now, what we do with that freedom is up to us.

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