Despite recent legal and social progress, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals face discrimination in many places around the world. Youth, in particular, suffer harassment and even violence.
In the United States, grass-roots organizations combat prejudice and ensure the safety and well-being of LGBTI young people. ShareAmerica talked to advocates for gay rights about what it was like for them or their loved ones to come out of the closet and what would help the next LGBTI generation to thrive.
Aram Vartian, videographer
The process of coming out can be very lonely. Aram Vartian, a videographer from the Washington area, struggled as a teenager to come to terms with his sexual orientation and his fear of rejection by his family and friends. “I was 14 when it really rang clear — when I started going home and crying, when I really was looking for a way out, when I felt trapped,” he said.
Vartian found support at the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, a nonprofit that provides after-school activities, support and leadership opportunities for LGBTI teens. “There had never been a time before that where I had walked into a room with other kids and every single one of them reached out to me — every single one of them was happy I was there.”
Elysha Valera, marketer at Sharp Shirter, online T-shirt seller
“I didn’t really know how to tell anybody,” said Valera, who kept a journal in which she wrote her thoughts and feelings. It was as a student at the University of Maryland, she said, that she “found a circle of friends — people I could relate to.” She met them at the school’s LGBT Equity Center. Director Luke S. Jensen said the center’s mission is to connect LGBTI students with resources they need to thrive on campus. “We also try to … encourage leadership,” he said, “because we want our students to learn how to advocate for themselves and others.”
Valera produced and directed the university’s first Queer Monologues, a series of true-to-life performances dealing with the challenges of coming out and living as an LGBTI individual. The monologues were a hit with students and with Valera’s parents. Though they initially had been uncomfortable with Valera’s sexual orientation, they attended. “My dad probably teared up at some point,” she said.
Joubert X. Glover, government patent examiner
Glover wrestled for months with how to come out to his parents.
When he finally mustered the courage to tell them, they condemned him and temporarily withdrew him from school. “It’s Mom and Dad, and they’re supposed to be there for you,” Glover said, acknowledging his devastation. He turned to G@MIT, a campus gay-rights organization. There, he said, “I can talk to other people, and I can say, ‘You know what? I’m not feeling great today,’ and not be judged.” He developed leadership skills at a summer camp for LGBTI youth sponsored by a nonprofit called Campus Pride.
“I want to try to help other individuals,” Glover said, “to know that they are loved and cared for before, during and after this whole process.”
Jai Rodriguez, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
“Coming out is personal,” Rodriguez said. “I came out on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy [a 2003–2006 reality TV show]. I wasn’t particularly brave; I didn’t think anyone would see the show. Before then, people didn’t know. Being gay wasn’t and isn’t something that defines me.
“The show forced me — it was titled Queer Eye. The word ‘queer,’ unique and with a positive power, helped. When the world celebrated the thing I thought I should hide — being gay — I embraced it. Queer Eye was the first all-gay cast on network TV. I won an Emmy Award for it. That’s acceptance.
“Dozens of men and women have told me that coming out was easier for them when the show was on because their parents went from not knowing any gays to inviting five gay men into their homes via television.”
Cason Crane, adventurer
“My coming out was relatively easy; I grew up in an open-minded community with an accepting family,” Crane said. “Despite this, I experienced name-calling because of my sexuality. I overcame it, but realized how lucky I was. Many young LGBT and questioning Americans face worse.”
Crane, who was the first openly gay person to climb Mount Everest, said, “LGBT and questioning people need political protection and accepting communities.”
“Our country is quickly adopting more positive legal frameworks to ensure equal rights for LGBT people. But we need to match that with progress in our communities. Adult allies should offer support to young people who might need it in order to come out. Support can prevent suicides.
“I hope for more progress, both politically and in communities, so that young LGBT Americans will be able to come out in a positive environment.”
Judy Shepard, co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation
Shepard and her husband lost their son, Matthew, to a murder motivated by anti-gay hate. She said that one reason families reject their LGBT kids is that they think that being gay is a choice their kids are making. “Many parents think that if their child makes this choice, he or she rejects the family’s interpretation of religion.”
“Families need to understand this,” Shepard said. “Being gay is not a choice — it’s who you are. Within the family, condemn offensive remarks about LGBT people. Respect is a basic part of kindness and humanity.”
Wade Davis, director, You Can Play Project
“As a gay man and LGBT advocate,” Davis said, “I’m not looking for ‘acceptance’ because that language implies that I need to be tolerated and creates a dynamic where LGBT people are seen as ‘other.’ We should all celebrate and learn about our differences and should embrace the fact that we are all human beings.”
Davis, whose project is dedicated to ending homophobia in sports, said: “We need to create spaces that engage people in conversations where all points of view are valued, free from the fear of judgment. It is only through vulnerable and honest dialogue with one another that we can see each other as mirrors that reflect back our shared humanity.”
Staff writers Andrzej Zwaniecki, Kathryn McConnell, Sasha Ingber, Mary-Katherine Ream and Mark Trainer contributed to this article.