We so enjoyed ourselves, that what we had anticipated would be an hour easily turned into two.
Ray and I were at Stork’s having coffee with Charles Ignacio and John Catania, partners in life and work. In 1992, Charles was the original co-producer of “In the Life” the first television series of its kind about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, that was aired by PBS stations around the country. John joined the producing team a year later. It ran for 20 years.
If you had longed for a reliably-positive, televised representation of your life, when there were none, can you imagine how exciting that conversation with them would be for us? In 1992, the World Health Organization was finally getting around to declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness, and the School Board in Fairfax County, VA, repealed a law banning verbal abuse of gay students because they feared it would promote homosexuality. Gay people around the country searched newspapers and TV programs for positive news about and portrayals of themselves. It was in this climate that In the Life was born.
“You guys are pioneers,” I said with some awe. “You changed the way the community saw itself. You saved lives.”
“In the Life” had stories about, and interviews with, out and proud LGBT public figures, and our allies. It was masterfully edited, beautifully presented, faithfully watched, and highly praised.
“You’re a pioneer, too,” John said to me. “Your book, 'On Being Gay,' really helped me. After I read it, I gave it to my mother to read.”
“It was a G-rated book that every gay person could comfortably give to their parents,” I mused.
“And you guys are pioneers as a gay couple. Forty-six years,” Charles said to us both.
“In Boston in 1976, some gay people felt that us being together for six months was a big deal,” Ray said.
When you’re the first to do something significant, and helpful to yourself and to others, many people consider you a “pioneer” such as Mary Any Horton, the first transgender person at Lucent Technologies (naming herself in 1987, and transitioning in 2001,) Elaine Noble, the first gay person to be elected to a State House (1974,) Dave Kopay, the first guy to come out in the macho world of the NFL (1975,) and Bill Johnson, the first gay person to be ordained by a Protestant denomination (1972.)
A pioneer is defined as “a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.”
The “area” that we’re focused on here is the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer movement that was created to gain the same rights and liberties as were enjoyed by non-gay, cis-gender people. To explore and settle this place of equality, as well as the freedom to be unique without worry, we all had to come out in an often dangerous, very threatening environment.
There are plenty of pioneers in this movement because there are so many “firsts.” Who started the first gay newspaper, radio program, civil rights legislation, and outreach to their religious leaders? Who was the first to compete openly in the Olympics, and who came out first in their corporation? The list of “firsts” goes on and on, as does the list of pioneers.
The thing is, most pioneers will tell you that being the “first” wasn’t their goal, and while it might please them to be thought of as courageous, their actions were motivated by the hunger to have themselves and others be seen and accepted as full and equal partners with heterosexual and cis-gender others in the pursuit of truth, justice, and happiness.
It’s usually only people in your generation, and people who are conscious of our history who know or care about what we pioneered. Last night at cards, I explained to a lovely, kind, successful, gay man in his 60s the pioneering accomplishments of Urvashi Vaid, Kate Clinton, and Vito Russo, none of whose names he knew. The three others of us at the table had just assumed he knew the people we were mentioning and their significance.
While it’s nice having your work recognized as meaningful, each generation has its own stories and its own pioneers. It’s been 30 years since the Fairfax School Board allowed for abuse of gay students out of fear of otherwise promoting homosexuality, and in 2022, the Florida Governor instructed the State School Board to do the exact same thing so that we gay citizens of the sunshine state don’t have the ability to “groom” young kids into homosexuality and transgender. Just when you think the snake is dead it rises to strike you again.
Many people in my Baby Boom generation feel that many young LGBT people have no awareness of the hardships we took on in order for their lives to be more carefree than ours. But the days of their lives, though they don’t look the same as the days of ours, are not carefree. And while only a few among today’s youth might know about the significance of “In the Life,” far fewer in my generation know the names of the pioneering LGBT young generation members who are standing up to Right Wing Republican governors, legislators, and school boards across the country.
Those in my age group did what we did because it needed to be done, and we were eager to do it, without thought to who would know or remember. Individuals in the following generations of LGBT people are also seeing what needs to be done, and are doing it without needing, or even thinking about being remembered as a pioneer. We all should take comfort in knowing we’re making it a better world for the young LGBT people who will be born after we die and are forgotten.
Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at Brian-McNaught.com. The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.” Brian has a weekly YouTube/FaceBook podcast called, “Are You Happy Without the Movie?” and McNaught's latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray: Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives” is available now on Amazon for $14.99.