Keeping It Real: Grit, grace and gaps across our LGBTQ+ generations

By : Nathan Bruemmer
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Pride Month is a wrap. This year was monumental—50 years since Stonewall.

What began as a single confrontational event that turned into a one-day march, grew into a weekend and then blossomed into a weeklong festival, has matured into a month of non-stop activities for all ages. However, we can’t seem to agree on how we define Stonewall. An uprising? Protests? Riots? What happened and who was there continues to be debated. But 50 years ago, the world changed.

Stonewall’s 50th Anniversary was a significant component of most Pride celebrations this year. How could it not be? 50 years—it is a timeline that feels both recent and ancient, depending on whom you ask. And perhaps that is why, more than ever, I noticed an interesting intergenerational conversation developing. I could honestly use some rest after the whirlwind of Pride. Instead, I find myself reflecting on the intergenerational dialogue and wondering if it will continue once all the flags, banners and rainbows are put away. As an LGBTQ+ advocate focused on youth and trans issues, I hope they continue.

I’m a Gen X-er and a student of generations. I credit reading the book “When Generations Collide” while a 7th grade teacher as the impetus for my fascination. As a new teacher, I struggled to connect with the younger generation. Perhaps some would argue I didn’t need to “connect” with my students; that my job was simply to teach them science. However, I would disagree because I started to notice an erosion of trust occurring in my classroom. I noticed wariness creeping into the clubs I moderated, sneaking into the sports I coached and influencing the relationships I fostered with my students. I wondered why. Was it me? Why was I “out of touch?” Was I simply getting old?

Now, 20 years later, I work for an LGBTQ+ youth organization and I center my advocacy on the needs of our youth. Working in this capacity provides a somewhat unique opportunity to connect to different generations through programming, fundraising or simply meeting the parents of LGBTQ+ kids. I have the privilege of speaking with both the old and young—and I gotta tell ya, “the generation gap” has grown.

How can this be? Many organizations and partners reach out to encourage intergenerational programming. There are mentorship programs that encourage intergenerational connections. Many people understand that bridges must be built across generational gaps in order to nurture a cohesive society. We know the need is there, so why are we coming up short? Why does such a significant disconnect exist? The mystery of intergenerational disconnect cannot be answered succinctly, but it is a mystery that we should all strive to solve.

The solution may lie in conversation. So much of our history continues to be passed down to younger generations through storytelling. Many of us have vivid memories of stories told over meat and mashed potatoes, but how do we encourage dialogue between generations that no longer sit down at the dinner table together every night? How do we preserve our history and share it with future generations? What are the repercussions if we don’t?

As I recover from and reflect on the celebration and beauty of Pride Month, I can’t stop thinking about how we share our history. I can’t stop thinking of definitions and the repercussions of storytelling. I reflect back and I recall the interviews with people who were present at Stonewall. I recall overheard stories at concerts and parties; some quite sincere and some full of hyperbole. Which stories will inspire the next generation? And, which generation gets to decide the lessons from Stonewall?

It is an interesting question and one that I discussed with a dear friend named John who has since passed. John was from “the old country” and he would often tell me how the old generation needed to pass down the “right” message. They were thorough in their storytelling; they needed their stories to be told and their lessons to be learned. Yes, of course I thought, you must know your history or you are doomed to repeat it. An avid history buff, John believed this too, but he philosophized—what if you told the stories but left out the grudges? What if you told each story as a lesson colored by forgiveness?

You see, John believed that we pass down our prejudice along with our precious lessons. He wondered what would happen if we were all more intentional about how we told our history. Would the pain and hate and anger drift into the past? Or would we truly be doomed to relive it? When we honor our history we honor the older generation, and I firmly believe this is beneficial to society. But I have begun to question how we do so.

My generational perspective is this. History teaches us how far we have come and recognizes the brave souls that have brought us here. It defines and separates generations yet connects us all. We must find a way to honor the struggle without passing along all that other stuff John and his generation warned me about. We must nurture intergenerational connections that build our understanding of how the world has changed. Because we have work to do in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality—and after all, depending on your perspective, 50 years is simultaneously a blink of an eye and an eternity.

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