I’ve been racking my brain lately to try and remember the first advocate I was introduced to as a child. As a good Catholic, I’m pretty sure it was St. Francis of Assisi. He was the patron saint of animals.
I was introduced to a long line of other saints in Catholic school, but in the secular world I found so many more. I learned from and was inspired by Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela and so many more.
However, when I question, “Who was the first LGBTQ+ advocate I was introduced to?”—I am slightly appalled that I can’t remember. Who were my advocates? Where were my role models? As an LGBTQ+ youth searching for self and tribe, I read whatever magazines I could get my hands on at our local gay bookstores. The characters I read about—the stories they told—they all seemed like advocates to me. After all, simply sharing your truth can be an act of advocacy.
But advocacy often requires more than personal storytelling. It requires stepping beyond personal boundaries and standing up for other people and telling their stories. So, when I get right down to it, I realize that the first real-life advocates in my life were a bunch of Tampa locals who met up in a former bookstore to talk about overcoming discrimination and inequality. That was 20 years ago. Eventually, these advocates grew bold, their mission grew clear and those meetings grew into one of the most effective statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations in the country.
I didn’t know what I was there to do. I just showed up because I needed to do something. I needed to meet other people who also needed to do something. I needed a tribe. I needed a voice. I needed to do anything to feel as though I could possibly make this life better for my community and myself. And so, I showed up.
We met. We marched. We strategized. We made phone calls. We protested. We connected with each other.
It’s been a couple of decades now. Can that be real? Suddenly, I realize that I have spent years of my life in active advocacy—as a volunteer, as a staff member, as a board member or as a consultant.
I have also realized that my advocacy began well before I walked into that bookstore; well before those first meetings. I didn’t set out to become an advocate; I set out to merely survive. I set out to learn to cope with the discrimination casually hurled at me.
When I was seven, I remember the hurtful and snide remarks a stranger made to my mother because I was so masculine looking. I remember being publicly “outed” and then bullied in high school. After that I began to act out and I remember my principal encouraging me to drop out of high school because I was never going to amount to much anyway. At 20, I remember Chicago police officers barging into and pulling me out of the ladies’ restroom at Midway Airport to check my ID.
I remember each and every instance my personhood was challenged. I still experience those moments, but now I am mostly numb to the pain it used to cause. The numbness can be helpful as I continue to advocate, and this numbness makes me realize that there is a personal cost to advocacy.
It takes intentional effort to stand up for yourself and others. Progress comes at a cost. I have never measured that cost, but I am certain others have. There are likely academic studies out there on the psychological impacts or the emotional impacts of long-term discrimination and the toll exacted from those that fight against it. Unfortunately, we must continue to pay that toll.
There is still so much work to do. There is still so much discrimination and hate, and we continue to see our LGBTQ+ experiences and our right to authentic lives challenged. I think about the next generation of advocates taking on these challenges and choosing to make advocacy their mission. We must give support to these warriors. We need their energy and enthusiasm because the level of exhaustion reached from constantly fighting off discrimination is indeterminable.
I reflect today on what that cost is individually as well as collectively because I acknowledge this very contentious political moment. I see and hear the increasing rhetoric of hate and the swelling vitriol of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and so much more. I have seen many advocate friends exhausted and beaten up. I have watched them step away from pubic advocacy. I have even encouraged some to step away as the strain and stress invaded every nook and cranny of their lives. The work has gotten harder. The price is too much for some.
An increasing number of articles offer suggestions for advocates to determine when to take a break, to encourage self-care, to find community, to seek counseling every few months, among other approaches. I have also seen new faces and new advocates step forward. All the advocates who have stepped forward for a reason, for a season, or who have made it their life’s work humble me and inspire me.
I may need to take a deep breath one day and step away again on my advocacy journey. I hope I recognize if that day comes. If I don’t, I hope the people in my life might clue me in. Until then, I know the price to pay is far too high to do nothing.