As June comes to an end, taking with it our memories of 2019’s Pride speeches and parades, we must return to summer’s realities and to our challenging times.
Philadelphia has hosted Pride marches for many years. The first one, in 1965, wasn’t really a march. It was a gathering of conservatively dressed men and women, walking peacefully in front of Independence Hall, holding signs proclaiming their civil rights. Now of course, it’s a huge event whose highlights are scheduled to be televised by our local ABC affiliate.
Two days before this year’s parade, tragedy struck. The city’s first openly gay Deputy Sheriff and Liaison to the LGBTQ community shot himself as he sat at his desk. None of Danté Austin’s colleagues could believe that he’d committed suicide. None of his friends wanted to believe that terrible truth. No one in his family was willing to accept his forever absence.
People came forward to express their grief about this twenty-seven-year-old leader and to extol his qualities. Every rainbow flag in the city, including the one raised at City Hall, was lowered to half-staff in honor of Danté Austin’s contributions to Philadelphia.
Two days after Danté’s passing, Philadelphia’s Pride Parade stepped off on schedule.
I didn’t go to the festivities, but I know people who did. One super enthusiastic friend posted (via FB) how much she loved being in the midst of the celebration. She praised the zeal shown by so many of the young people who were there.
A sister W&W blogger, Val Agab, (“Diverse TV? Hell Yeah,” June 12, 2019,) wrote about the inclusion she saw when she attended her local Pride events. She was pleased to see more and more LGTBQ people of color taking part in the gatherings.
My friends’ comments reminded me of two things. First, brave, selfless gay and lesbian pioneers risked everything to pave the way for today’s young people. Second, representation is so important. I lack the words necessary to express how I feel when I see myself reflected in art, books, films, TV shows, print ads, and yes, in parades.
Being able to express openly and joyfully our right to be who we are still seems revolutionary because not long ago this wasn’t the case for many of us. We feared losing jobs, religious affiliations, friends, and family ties. The struggle was more than real. It was surreal. It tested belief systems, family systems, and pre-existing personal and professional bonds. The struggle made some folks stronger and more resolute. It caused others to retreat from themselves and the rest of their world. And it enticed more than a few to slide into bottomless bottles of alcohol, tap dance on the edge of their sanity, and grab the only thing over which they had dominion, their will to survive or their acquiescence to the finality of suicide.
I’ve heard people surmise that it’s easier for kids to come out today than it was for those of us of earlier generations. Frankly, I think their assumptions might be incorrect. The huge amount of media-dispersed news and information about gender identity and sexuality could be a pressure cooker for young people, be they gay, straight, a combination of both, non-binary, or none of the above.
While I don’t want to sound pessimistic, I am a realist who believes that after we’ve put down the parade whistles and removed the festoons from the floats, we need to deal with a serious issue. The wars we wage within ourselves combined with the hater-in-chief’s and his associates’ flagrant efforts to derail our progress toward our civil rights are taking a toll on LGBTQ adults and inflicting deep wounds on LGBTQ youth.
Recently the Trevor Project conducted a survey in each state. There were thirty-five thousand respondents. The study revealed that one in five young people identifying as LGBTQ, aged thirteen to twenty-four, attempted suicide in the past twelve months. One in three respondents identifying as transgender attempted suicide during the same time period. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed had seriously considered suicide. When queried why they’d either attempted or considered suicide, the majority placed the blame on the rejection and discrimination they’d experienced due to their identity and/or sexuality.
I suppose the notion of setting aside one month to recognize and celebrate our community is as necessary as designating February “Black History Month.” But I think doing so reduces the totality of who we are, at least a bit. Just as my discovery of more pieces of the mosaic of black history continues twelve months a year, I remain involved with LGBTQ issues all year long. My identity doesn’t diminish every time I flip a page in the calendar. I am who I am twenty-four/seven, and I refuse to box my pride of self within the walls of two months.
With these thoughts in mind, I suggest there must be some way for those of us who care to reach out to young LGBTQ+ people who feel lost and are in despair. We need to be present to listen to them EVERY month of the year.
And I regret never having met Danté Austin. I know I would have admired and respected him.
Please, let’s do what we can to help all the other Danté Austins who are in our midst.
Nat’l. Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text: H-O-M-E 741-741
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
Outside the U.S.: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html
Renée Bess is the author of five novels and the co-story collector of the Goldie Award winning anthology, OUR HAPPY HOURS, LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS. She and Lee Lynch donate all of that book’s proceeds to The Attic Youth Center and The Ali Forney Center. Renée is one of this year’s winners of the Alice B. Readers’ Award. Her website address is: http://www.reneebess.com