what trump can't erase: the courage, the activism, the noise

Let’s make this a day to commemorate the strides our LGBTQ community has made during the Obama administration, and to plan a path forward.

by Daniel Reynolds
Jan 20 2017, 3:30pm

When I came out to my mother in 2003, I remember, above all, the sadness she expressed at my revelation.

"You've chosen a hard life for yourself," she said, with tears in her eyes. She didn't have any gay friends. For her, the label was so closely tied to the AIDS crisis, the despair of the drug-addicted, and the young boy who was killed not long beforehand outside of Laramie, Wyoming.

In a way, she was right. While I did not choose to be gay - a fact I always believed, though for my mother, it took a few years of convincing - I did choose to be out of the closet. I did so with flamboyant determination, without really knowing or considering the lifetime of difficulties and dangers that I could face by doing so.

These difficulties, particularly the social consequences, soon became apparent. It was quite an education for a privileged young white boy from the suburbs. Overnight, it seemed that a labyrinth had descended on my life. Literally and figuratively, I could no longer take a straight path. Walls had been erected. Doors had closed. Old friendships dried up, and others failed to take root. Life felt harder, lonelier, but also, paradoxically, more liberating. Freedom isn't free, I learned, and its gain ultimately required sacrifices.

These sacrifices extended beyond the stigma of my school's social scene. I was an Eagle Scout in my local Boy Scout troop. But after learning that its guidelines forbade both gay youth and gay leaders, I drifted away from the organization. I also parted from the Catholic Church. I fell in love for the first time, but with the dream of marriage equality seeming so far off, I didn't fall as completely and deeply as I would have dared. And as an out student, there were certain professions that also seemed off limits, with places of employment that would never hire - or would immediately fire - a queer like me. So I studied English and the arts, and tried to use what I learned to advocate for those like me in whatever small ways I could.

In 2008, I graduated from college and Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Looking back, that year marked a blossoming of freedoms, which were put into motion by none other than the commander-in-chief. He would become the greatest ally the LGBT community has ever known in the White House.

While in office, Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, nominated 10 LGBT federal judges, and named seven out ambassadors. He evolved on the issue of same-sex marriage and became its supporter. Then came the Supreme Court decision, United States v. Windsor, which found a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Following was Obergefell v. Hodges, which brought marriage equality to the United States. And last year, The Stonewall Inn, considered the birthplace of the LGBT rights movement, was named a national monument, a sign to all that I - we - are a part of this nation's history.

Every day, this history was in the making. I watched it. I watched as polls soared in support of same-sex marriage in the U.S. After this right came to New York, I ran down to Stonewall and marched in the Pride parade the next day, hand-in-hand with my partner. I rejoiced in California with the defeat of Proposition 8, and watched in awe as the White House lit up in rainbow lights. Along the way, the Boy Scouts repealed their ban on gay youth and leaders. The pope asked, "Who am I to judge?" At times, I could have wept in disbelief. Here was more freedom than I ever thought possible. The walls were falling away.

Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election - and his host of anti-LGBT cabinet picks - have stirred old fears in the LGBT community, my own included, that the walls would return higher than ever. Trump's vow to erase Obama's legacy, partly by rescinding his executive orders, gives real reason for concern. Many of these orders are aimed at promoting diversity and defending federal workers against workplace discrimination. Moreover, the promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the nomination of Jeff Sessions - an antigay candidate once rejected from a federal judgeship due to allegations of racism - to the office of attorney general, and the influence of vice-president elect Mike Pence, who signed a so-called religious freedom (a.k.a. license to discriminate) bill in Indiana, are just a few other reasons for LGBT folks to worry about the future.

However, Trump will not be able to erase all of the civil rights gains made under the Obama administration. For one, the so-called ally of the LGBTQ community has pronounced the issue of same-sex marriage "done" and "settled." And even if he were to wage war, its undoing would require two opponents of the issue to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, when there is only one seat open at the moment. The Hate Crimes Act, which was signed into law by Obama, cannot easily be destroyed by the stroke of Trump's pen. And neither can he stop the wave of support the LGBT community has received from Americans.

In fact, there have never been so many openly LGBT people in the United States. A recent Gallup poll tallied our numbers at 10 million, or 4.1 percent of the population. We're coming out like never before. Our numbers and our allies - the network of parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends who love and advocate for us - will ensure, as Obama often says, and Martin Luther King Jr. said before him, that the arc of history bends toward justice.

Indeed, for LGBT people worried that the end of the Obama administration will lead to regression, it is worth noting that we have never been so visible and so vocal. "You had the power all along, my dear," Glinda told Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. And Obama said in his farewell address, "I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change - but in yours."

The ability to change cannot be erased. In fact, it is what brought us here to the most liberated moment for LGBT Americans in history. Obama reminded us of this in his final press conference, when he remarked on the progress of LGBT rights.

"I could not be prouder of the transformation that's taken place in our society just in the last decade," he said. "I've said before we made some useful contributions to it, but the primary heroes in this stage of our growth as a democracy and as a society are all the individual activists and sons and daughters and couples who courageously said this is who I am and I'm proud of it. And that opened people's minds and opened their hearts. And eventually laws caught up. But, I don't think any of that would have happened without the activism, in some cases loud and noisy, but in some cases just quiet and very personal."

This is also what Trump cannot erase: the courage, the activism, and the noise, which will only amplify if hard-earned rights come under siege. It is what will keep driving us forward in the years ahead.

He can't erase my own coming out over a decade ago, and the people I've touched and will impact in the days to come. He can't destroy the memory of my mother, who asked just last year with such joy, "How's my son?" She was looking, not at me, but at my partner standing by my side.


Text Daniel Reynolds
Photography Tony Webster via Flickr Creative Commons

Donald Trump
LGBTQ rights