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Tomorrow's GLBT activists: Why the Gay movement is in good hands
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Tomorrow's GLBT activists: Why the Gay movement is in good hands

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

These are exciting times. These are progressive times. These times belong to us all, but our future as a community rests in the hands of the unlikeliest of heroes: LGBTQ people 30 years and younger - tomorrow's Gays.

I recently spoke with seven LGBTQ young adults from the greater Seattle area. From a questioning teenager to a well-adjusted college student, the environment they grew up in, when and how they came out, and where their Pride rests are but a small piece of the pie for these Queers. They are energized. They are beating the drum of equality now. They don't want a slice of the pie they want the whole damn thing. Rest assured, the Gay movement is in good hands.

Meet the video game and MTV generation. They don't write letters because they can't remember a time without e-mail or text messaging. Chances are their family did not sit down to a nice meal together every night - that's assuming, of course, the parents are still married. They are latchkey kids who microwave their dinner and download music and porn while referencing Wikipedia for homework assignments.

All of that is what's on the surface. All of that is what we think we might know about the post-Cold War babies. But look a little deeper and what you may find will put a smile on your face. These kids are fearless.

21-year-old Jordan Petersen looks upon his youth with fondness. He said the hardest part of growing up Gay was coming to terms with being Gay and accepting himself. But once he did, there was no turning back. Jordan was always well-liked in school, played sports, earned good grades, and was confident. He was elected Longview, Washington's first openly Gay Homecoming King.

"I know that growing up Gay is very hard for a lot of people," Jordan said. "I had a fairly easy time, and my sexuality has always been a relatively minor issue in my life."

Katherine Miller can relate to Jordan. The 20-year-old Lesbian, who goes by Kat, said she does not look back at her years in a Seattle high school as negative. She said her sexuality was an issue, but only because she didn't understand it.

"I always had a large group of guys as friends that I was emotionally attached to. I didn't talk to girls as much because a majority of them were straight and I didn't understand them," Kat recalls. "Perhaps the hardest part about growing up was not understanding why my male friends kept on wanting to date me. Even when I did date them, I didn't like them touching me. That is when I realized I was a Lesbian."

Russian-born Sergey Smirnov didn't come to Seattle until he was 11 years old. Now a 21-year-old man, he looks back on growing up Gay as a positive experience. A self-described cheery person, he said he could count on one hand when the issue came up in a negative way.

"Tolerance is a two-person play. People arrive at their worldview through a lifetime of learning which cannot be changed on my command," Sergey said. "I do my best to understand where they are coming from, even if I completely disagree, and I hope that they will have learning opportunities to examine their values."

Not everyone had as easy a time as Jordan, Kat and Sergey.

Karsen Farmer has met with resistance nearly every step of the way whenever the 18-year-old brought up his sexuality.

"At my school and in my life I've run into many bigoted and homophobic people," he said. "Still, I refuse to believe they have any merit in telling me how to live my life. I will continue to ignore their uneducated remarks and disgusted stairs."

Megan James is the Q in LGBTQ: Questioning. The 17-year-old Mercer Island teen grew up in a household with a Lesbian mother, and considers herself lucky to be a part of a young Gay movement. Megan said most youth are much more open to new ideas and are sometimes a lot more accepting. She said being young and still questioning, plus dealing with all of the other things that go along with being a teenager, can be tough.

Vicente "Kince" de Vera, 23, was born into a strict Roman Catholic household in Manila, Philippines. He realized the best way to change people's views was to just "be Gay" and show them that other than sexual orientation, it really didn't make much a difference. "I would do things like hold hands with my boyfriend in public," said Kince. "Change starts with initiative; in a way, it was like telling everyone to just deal with it."

Hector Sanchez is Bisexual. The 21-year-old was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and said growing up with the secret was difficult because, like Kince, his family has a religious background. Still, he's managed to keep his faith and become proud of his sexuality.

"In most Latino families you will be treated differently if you are Gay or Bisexual. Our culture is still living in old times," Hector said. "Being a proud Bisexual Latino, I am not scared of what people might say. I am not a bad person."

"Nearly every day of high school, I was verbally attacked for being Gay," said Karsen. "I have only been physically attacked once and it ended shortly because of help from friends. I would say that is the most I can ask for in these times."

Although times have changed since Stonewall, it can still be dangerous for LGBTQ youth. Statistics show that most high school and college students who identify as LGBTQ encounter some form of discrimination, sometimes resulting in violence. The suicide rate for LGBTQ youth is also much higher than the national average for their heterosexual peers.

Hector said there is a lot of male posturing within the Latino culture, which can sometimes become violent towards Gay men, motivated out of fear of themselves.

"There are statistics out there that show, among Latino males, something like 65% will, somewhere in their life, experience a Gay situation - that's higher than most cultures," he said. "More than half of the guys who act so macho are doing so because they are scared to be themselves or come out of the closet."

Kat said although she's never been physically attacked she was alienated for a bit while people figured out that her being a Lesbian didn't mean anything bad.

"They had to see that I didn't change as a person," she said. "But the people I associate with are not hateful people."

For Jordan he found the struggle closer to home.

"My younger brother was struggling with my orientation for a while, but it would only come out when he and I would get into big fights over unrelated topics," Jordan said. "He would call me things like 'faggot' and say other rude remarks. He got over it after a couple of years. Other than that, I never once experienced verbal or physical attacks from peers."

Still, Jordan maintains that he doesn't think his experience was that of the average LGBTQ high school student. He also believes that growing up in Washington probably helped; the state, he said, is progressive.

"I've been verbally accused of being a Lesbian," said Meagan, who is still in high school. "I've stopped someone from being physically attacked because they were Gay."

Kince said he'd been put down many times in his life for being Gay.

"Verbally, yes. Though, in most cases it's been because I was, in a way, ashamed of being Gay myself," he said. "Once I owned up to it, I realized I had far fewer problems."

Coming out of the closet is a pivotal and undoubtedly important time in an LGBT person's life. Some are forced out, while others are kicked out, and for some, coming out was as easy as ordering dinner at a restaurant. Regardless of how old you were or what calendar year you decided to claim your place among the ranks of the LGBT community, it's a defining moment in your life. Sergey knew he was Gay when he was 12 years old. He'd just moved to the U.S. from Russia. When he decided to go public with his sexuality, he told friends first. He didn't know how his parents would take the news.

"I came out to my friends when I was in high school," he said. "I only recently came out to my parents. They were very supportive."

Meagan said she began to question her sexuality when she was 15. "The first person I told was my ex-boyfriend last year. He just kind of smiled," she said. "I would say that I am 'out.' I have told girls at my school that I like them."

Ultimately, Kince was aware of his sexuality at an early age, which he estimates to be around 8 years old. He thinks people really always knew but coming out was "a whole different ball game."

"There were many different 'outings' in my life, most of them small, but I'd have to say the biggest one was when I was 14. At the time, my Lesbian aunt was living with us. I ran away from home, got online at an internet café, chatted with her, and told her to break it to the family," Kince remembers. "I ran away because I didn't want to be there for the initial blow when my father found out. My mother, of course, had known for years. I took the bus home to find my father was at church. My mother decided it would be best for one of the priests to break the news to him, telling him it was okay for [me] to be Gay."

For Kat, the realization that she was a Lesbian was gradual. She said she didn't "feel like a Lesbian" or like any major changes had taken place - she just came to the conclusion that she was more physically attracted to other girls, and the word for that just happened to be "Lesbian."

"My family, particularly my mother, suspected I was a Lesbian even before I did. I was 18 years old when my mother asked me if I preferred boys or girls. My immediate family is very accepting," said Kat. "Other people, I tell when I need to tell them. Just because I am a Lesbian doesn't mean I have to go out of my way to let everyone know. Likewise, I don't feel like I need to hide my sexual preferences when I talk about who I'm dating or my involvement in the Queer community."

Karsen said his coming-out story was hard to explain. For years he locked away his attraction to men. He said the denial began to make him physically ill. "I couldn't hide the truth from myself anymore. So one night I cried and cried and repeated to myself that I was Gay and that I needed to accept that," Karsen said.

He told a school friend who, in turn, told him to tell his parents. He said it was difficult but he knew he had to tell them before he lost his nerve. The next day Karsen walked into his mother's room and said, "We need to talk."

"She told me I was too young and couldn't know how I felt; she then proceeded to assert that I needed psychological care," said Karsen. "A week later she threatened to tell my father if I didn't agree to care."

Karsen beat her to the punch. He told his father that weekend.

"He told me that he loved me and then discussed safe sex. He cried and so did I," he said. "My siblings soon found out and adjusted rather quickly and surprisingly, they were open to my newly found sense of self."

In school, we all learned that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But when it comes to Gay history, this aspect of human development has largely been left out of textbooks across the nation and across the world. LGBTQ people have been around since the human race began; still, most young Gays do not know what impact their Queer ancestors had on the world.

"I'm not familiar with many historical Gay figures or movements. The only reason I know anything about Harvey Milk is because of the movie," Jordan said. "I guess I could be considered part of the MTV generation, where the most prominent Gay figure for me growing up was Pedro Zimora from the Real World."

Like Jordan, many young LGBTQ kids grow up watching Gays portrayed in movies or on TV. The hugely popular Showtime series Queer As Folk and primetime TV's Queer Eye For The Straight Guy were, for many, the first exposure to "others like me."

The seven youths unanimously agree that Gay history should not be left out of the public school curriculum. After all, shouldn't the Gay civil rights struggle be acknowledged when talking about civil rights in general?

"I know the basics of Gay history, but I find there's a limited amount of media that's available - and an even more limited amount of classes that teach anything related to LGBTQ history and culture," said Kat. "However, due to the current political climate, I think there is an increase of media coverage of LGBTQ issues, so I find I'm more informed about current history."

Karsen thinks history is important because "if you understand your history it can help you understand yourself." He said it also could act as a catapult to help someone see that they can make a difference in the world. Sergey believes that, due to the lack of attention to the subject in public schools, self-education is essential. Kince couldn't agree more.

Regardless of how much they've all learned about the past, they recognize that the importance of what's happening in 2009 will have a great affect on the future. Like Kat said, the attention is on our community more than ever before.

This year's Gay Pride celebrations have begun. It's that magical time of year when LGBT people ask the world to look at our Pride. The weekend celebrations are a time when each of us takes a moment to reflect on what makes us so Proud to be Queer.

"Am I proud to be Gay?" asked Kince. "Are you kidding? Absolutely! So many great and successful figures from yesterday and today are Gay! I could easily say I have a lot more under my belt in terms of life experiences than the average person my age, and I attribute a lot of that to being Gay."

He said he feels like LGBT people are exposed to more. "When you are dealing with so many controversies on a day to day basis you're forced to think and to make decisions about who you are, what you do, or how you react," said Kince.

"That, in itself, builds character."

"I'm as proud as much as a Questioning person can be," said Meagan. "I'm proud to be a supporter of the LGBTQ community." Hector's Gay Pride, although newly found, is evident. He said, "We are human and we deserve respect just like any other person in the world. Sergey said he is as proud of the Gay aspect of his life as he is of the rest of it, and while Kat doesn't think "pride" is the right word to describe how she feels as a Lesbian woman, she said she is certainly not ashamed.

"While I wouldn't point out to strangers that I'm Gay - because it is none of their business - I would never want to be any other way," she said. "I will always believe that everyone is just the same, despite petty labels."

Jordan said everyone has the right to be proud of who they are. "I don't think there is anything to be ashamed of. As long as it's with another human being, love is love. I think we should all be proud of the way we were made regardless of whether or not there are people out there who don't think you should be proud."

Karsen is very proud to be Gay. He said without it, he wouldn't be himself.

"I want people to understand that the LGBT population is not deficient of feelings," he said, "it's important to not step on our every dream and thought, like same-sex marriage. I, along with many others, will not stop until we're treated just as fairly as everyone else."

Meagan said she has just one message for the LGBTQ community: "Stand together, that way we will never be alone."

Hector would like to see a world where the separation of church and state is realized. "Everyone has the right to be happy and do as they desire. Gay couples don't ask me for money, or do not depend on me to feed them or to help them live. So why is the world acting like Gay couples want something? They just want equality," he said. "I know the Bible says marriage is between a man and a woman, but we are a more open society now. God loves us all equally, so why does a priest stand up and discriminate when God himself does not?"

Sergey doesn't see that we need to fight for equality, but equity, instead. "Equality is important, equity probably even more so. To me, equality means that someone with power has decided to grant equal rights to the subordinate groups and identities. Equity, however, comes from the more innate balance of partners - that those with too many and too little rights, benefits, and positive outcomes will become distressed and attempt to even out the scale," he said. "This is the ideal that everyone must strive for, and we will hopefully find ourselves halfway there."

Kince believes the road to a better quality of life for LGBTQ people lies within each of us. "Be yourself. Really, truly be yourself," he said. "If you can't accept and respect yourself, how can you expect others to do the same?"

He said people take for granted all the things Queer individuals have brought to society and thinks it's time for society to stop picking and choosing. "It's deathly ironic that the same people who spend loads on expensive couture are also the first to put down the Gays that designed them. Then there are the people who love the classy, chic, happening restaurant, but scoff it when they discover it's run by a Lesbian couple. There are all sorts of things right under people's noses, and they either don't acknowledge them or turn a blind eye," he said.

Karsen envisions a world dominated by love rather than hate. He said in 10 years he expects Gay marriage will be legal in most of America, as well as in other countries. He also expects to see many new Gay families sprouting up around the world living harmoniously with their straight counterparts.

"Once someone was asking harsh questions about me being Gay," Karsen remembers. "I told them it's not who you love, it's how you love - and that was the end of said conversation."

The seven young LGBTQ activists, students, and leaders feel confident and ready in their generation's ability to take the reins and lead the movement into the next 30 years, regardless of where life may take them. Still, they say, there is something wonderful about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

"I'm so glad I live in Seattle," said Kat, "Even if some people think the LGBTQ community is 'outlandish' and 'unconformist' or even 'disgusting and wrong,' they usually keep their opinion to themselves because they rank in the minority opinion. I feel like I could say whatever I want to about my involvement with the Queer community to just about anyone and not fear the consequences. There are strong LGBTQ roots in western Washington."

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