Mark R. Howard
Generational differences in Florida
In the wake of the massacre of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, I had a conversation with my son, who’s 21.
We talked about the shooting and the outpouring from both the LGBT and broader communities that followed. Blood donations. Expressions of support via social and traditional media. The 40,100 people who showed up at pride night at a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game — the first regular season turnout of more than 40,000 since opening day 2006. The range of events, and emotions, at pride weekend in St. Petersburg, where about 200,000 people gathered. A daytime block party and evening parade on Saturday occurred with no major disturbances — and no arrests.
My son, like most millennials, has grown up in a time when openly gay friends and acquaintances are part of the social fabric. He and most of his contemporaries tend to view discrimination in LGBT issues with the same incredulity that most Baby Boomers felt about racial inequality during the civil rights era. Just as issues like voting rights and access to public accommodations for African-Americans seemed clear-cut to us, gender equality issues like samesex marriage for them are a shoulder shrug, no-brainer. Who is hurt by a wedding?
My son was curious about how gay and transgendered people had been viewed when I was his age. For most of my youth, I told him, there had been such contempt for homosexuals that they were forced to live invisibly. In elementary school in the early 1960s, children I went to school with wielded the term “queer” as the ultimate insult without having any idea of what heterosexuality involved, much less homosexuality. To the degree that there was any awareness of transgendered people, they were viewed essentially as circus freaks.
I explained to my son that even at college in the 1970s, during a decade otherwise liberal in most things, few gay people at my school had dared to acknowledge their sexuality.
My own attitudes, I told him, had begun evolving when I realized at some point in my working life that I had a number of gay colleagues — people I thought I knew but then realized I didn’t know at all since I’d been ignorant of such a central aspect of their lives. As I grew older and changed workplaces, that number included people who not only lived openly, but advocated — some stridently, some quietly — for gay rights.
I told my son I will be forever grateful to one female colleague who, during a conversation at work, explained calmly and quietly the difficulties and indignities she and her partner suffered in trying to handle routine matters like insurance, wills, buying property and the like because they could not marry and gain the same legal protections as heterosexual couples. After a minor emergency put her in the hospital, her partner had trouble getting in to visit her because she “wasn’t family,” she told me. “You have to understand that in the eyes of this state,” she told me, “I’m not a person the same way you are.”
My son and I discussed how much prejudice still exists toward the LGBT community. I posed a question to him: How did he view people who aren’t overtly bigoted, who support the idea of gender equality, but who, because of their faith or just their life experience, still feel in some way uncomfortable with, for example, the picture of two men or two women walking down the aisle together? Or with people conforming with a gender different from that of the body they were born with?
For him, most of those people are simply “backward” — not much different from overt bigots. Many millennials share that perspective. After the massacre, a young woman wrote a guest column in the local paper rejecting the outpouring of solidarity with the victims of the Orlando massacre as insincere, as a way for some to erase the identities of the dead and injured and gloss over the fact that most were non-straight, non-white. “Saying ‘we’re all Americans’ after this massacre but not in everyday life is not solidarity. It is refusing to see us when we’re alive,” she wrote.
She may be right. I do find it ironic that sports teams hold pride nights and wear pink shoes in support of breast cancer awareness while locker rooms continue to be among the most homophobic and least women-friendly environments anywhere in the country. Ultimately, as the writer observed, the humanity of those whom many of us have grown up seeing as “different” is not up for question. She was right in saying that “opposing our existence isn’t a rational opinion; there aren’t two equal sides to this.” Anyone “uncomfortable” with gender equality issues needs to reflect on the fact that a lot of people were “uncomfortable” with full civil rights for African- Americans as well — over time, persistent discomfort lands you among the bigots.
But I have some sympathy for well-intentioned people whose life experience or faith makes it difficult for them to fully embrace a new set of norms as quickly as some might like. I hope those who are still “uncomfortable” in some way and members of the LGBT community can find ways for the kind of conversations that lead to understanding.
A friend has a job in community relations for a company in Orlando, making sure the company works with as many minority vendors as possible and also diversifying its customer base. She once told me she loved her job because “I’m the kind of person who isn’t comfortable in the room until everybody is comfortable.”
It’s an admirable way to live — and keeping everybody in the room and comfortable is a great goal for us all.