Column: Then and Now for the LGBT Community

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One of Ray’s and my favorite television programs is Supernatural. It’s about two, hunky, demon-hunting brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester. Each episode begins with a “Then,” which shows scenes from past programs that are relevant to what the viewer is about to see. When the producers feel we know where they’ve come from, the television screen announces “Now.” That’s when we discover this week’s often homoerotic, culturally cutting-edge, funny story line.

As we Baby Boomers reach retirement age, many of us reflect upon the “Then” of our lives. There was a story in the newspaper recently about a sixty-something, gay couple whose home burned down, eliminating all of their reminders of the “Then” in their lives. Sometimes, we want to reflect upon the past because the future doesn’t seem to have as many possibilities for fun.

Our bodies are less attractive to those with whom we fantasize having sex. We spend most of our social time talking with friends about their and our ills and pills. We sense the ride is nearly over, and with the same frustration we felt at the end of any amusement park ride of our youth, we’re thinking “Not yet.” But until our dying breath, there will always be a “Now” to be lived with possible joy.

For example, let’s begin with a “Then” from my life. It’s 1966. I’m an 18-year-old, closeted, but popular senior class president in an all-boys Catholic school taught by the Christian Brothers of Ireland. I’m physically attracted to other students and to a couple of the faculty members. But it will be eight more years before I’m able to come out publicly, and only after drinking a bottle of turpentine.

If I had wanted to come out to my 200 classmates in a student assembly, I would have probably had to use the word “queer” to describe myself, just as the school’s guidance counselor did to refer to homosexuals. My classmates wouldn’t have understood the word “gay.”

In 1966, many of us watched the very popular television program Star Trek in which a group of attractive men and women were on a space-oriented mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” One of the crew members, Mr. Sulu, was played by 30-year-old, closeted, popular actor, George Takei, who didn’t come out publicly until 2005, though he had been in a relationship for many years.

In 1967, Anderson Cooper was born. Several years later, the parents of Jacob Randolph were born.

It’s time to jump to the “Now.”

Anderson Cooper is the openly-gay host of his own television program. He is one of the most respected journalists in the world, and is at the top of most people’s list of the “Sexiest Gay Man Alive.” On his program, he has YouTube sensation, Jacob Rudolph, a handsome, popular student-actor who received a standing ovation from his 300 senior classmates when he came out  to them as gay in a student assembly.

"I've been acting every single day of my life," he said. "You see me acting the part of 'straight' Jacob, when I am in fact LGBT." He then defined the acronym as standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. His classmates understood what he meant when he said “LGBT.” They knew the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, as did the school’s guidance counselor.

One of Jacob’s heroes is George Takei. Anderson Cooper surprised Jacob during the student’s visit to his television program by having Takei join the discussion. Jacob jumped up and excitedly hugged the actor when he saw him. There they sat and talked, three generations of gay men, all out of the closet, living happily and proudly in the “Now.” The storyline of gay liberation from “Then” to “Now” is thrilling, and has a happy ending.

But the storyline isn’t over. Recently, Ray and I sat in the bedroom of a neighbor friend who is dying of cancer. I’ve cooked meals for the family, and we’ve shared some of them with our friend, his wife, and their adult children in his bedroom, talking about our favorite television programs or what movies we’ve seen.

On our recent visit, besides meeting family in-laws who were coming to visit before it was too late to have meaningful conversations with our sick friend, I met a young, country doctor from North Carolina. I told him that I envied his life of being able to heal people’s illnesses. I shared that I had spent my life educating others on LGBT issues.

“I could use your help,” he told me. “I had a young girl commit suicide recently because she was lesbian and afraid of people’s reactions to her. And I’ve got a transsexual patient who is getting all of her information from the Internet. She feels completely alone. I told her that I don’t know much about the issue but that I’m willing to learn.”

After promising to be a resource for the doctor and his LGBT patients, I reflected on the “Now” of that bedroom scene. An openly-gay man talked to a country doctor, and the room full of other visitors, about the challenges of transitioning from a male body to a female identity in the Bible Belt. The straight doctor knows the terminology, and goes to a Presbyterian Church that is very supportive on gay issues. He nevertheless lives in a place where no high school student would dare come out to his or her peers in a student assembly. In his area of the country, where many of his patients are missing teeth, and where some of them want to pay for their medical bill with turnips, also lives a transsexual woman who wants to start hormone therapy, but can only find information on the Internet, and doesn’t know where else to turn.

Those of us who worry that the ride is almost over, and who feel that the rest of our lives should be spent savoring the successes we’ve seen in the gay liberation movement, need to remember that the “Then” should be cherished, but the storyline isn’t over. The script is still being written, and we’re in it. The “Now” includes us, as well as some of the people who watch Anderson Live and nevertheless feel quite alone and in need of our help.

Brian McNaught was named “the godfather of gay diversity training” by The New York Times. He works with corporate executives globally, is the author of six books, and is featured in seven educational DVDs. He and his spouse Ray Struble divide their year between Fort Lauderdale and Provincetown. Visit Brian-McNaught.com for more information.


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