By Sean Kosofsky
As a young gay man I feel a duty to use my column to honor all the GLBT activists and leaders that came before me. Many of us clap at the right moments when these leaders receive their lifetime achievement awards, but rarely, if ever, do we pay tribute to our GLBT elders.
It occurs to me frequently that so many in our community enjoy the benefits of a rich, vibrant, visible and healthy community, but do not realize that they owe it to the courageous and bold leadership of veteran GLBT leaders who have made huge sacrifices so that the rest of us can enjoy life uninterrupted by prejudice.
The fact that many in our community can go out to certain bars, restaurants and parts of town without suffering a hate crime is a tangible benefit of decades of education and networking. The fact that some in our community never actually had to “come out” because they were always “out” to an accepting family is proof that our elders laid the groundwork for such an environment.
When we see Gay/Straight Alliances in schools, same-sex wedding announcements in the paper, GLBT characters on TV, inclusive text books in college or businesses adding domestic partner benefits – this did not come out of a vacuum and it certainly didn’t just come from activists today asking for these things.
How many of our GLBT veterans will be remembered? How many will not have buildings, books or scholarships named after them? How many of them sacrificed their jobs and their families and their relaxing weekends so that the world would be more just? How many dedicated every waking moment of their free time to raise money for friends dying of AIDS? How many spent sleepless nights planning demonstrations, marches or town hall meetings? How many of us even know the names of three GLBT veteran warriors in our own community?
Henry Messer, a founder and mentor to hundreds for over fifty years, still serves on Triangle Foundation’s board. He also works tirelessly on data entry and cooking lunch for the staff at Triangle. Charles Alexander continues to contribute his brilliance, wisdom, talent and humor to thousands of fans of his art and writing. Jan Stevenson poured blood, sweat and tears into the birth of a GLBT community center and continues to deliver quality and reputable news to our community without fail every week in these pages. She does this with her partner Susan Horowitz. Together as business owners they continue to touch people’s lives through activism and commerce. Joseph James will receive the lifetime achievement award this year at the Community Pride Banquet on June 22, and I was humbled to see Detroit shed a tear for that man at his memorial service. The list goes on. A movement that forgets its history is doomed.
We must sit down with our elders and talk to them. We mustn’t simply siphon their wisdom, as if they are never ending fountains of information waiting to tell the tales of their coming of age in this beautiful movement of lovers. We must share. We must ask and tell and question and promise to honor their contributions with time, money and integrity. We must carry on their message and their work.
In advocacy circles we talk about the ways that older adults in our community are discriminated against. We talk about lack of services, patronizing caregivers and forced invisibilities in the decision making process, but we never talk about the harm that is done by not honoring and celebrating each mentor and leader that cut the brush from the forest so our paths would be less treacherous. I am saddened today when I see so many of our young GLBT people enjoying the privileges of American life in 2006 without at least being conscious of whom and what they owe for those privileges.
There is no such thing as a world without struggle. The experience of the world is painful, but thanks to those who went before us, we know better how to prevent that pain and how to heal from the burns of a cruel world.
Thank you to all the brilliant, powerful and anonymous leaders whom I will never meet or know. Your memory lives with each word I write.