As Barack Obama prepares to take up residency in the White House and become the 44th President of the United States, I’m thinking about generational transitions. President-Elect Obama is one example of a generational transition as the first President born in the 1960s. The election of Bill Clinton was another moment of generational transition, then of people who grew up during the 1960s. It makes me wonder, what is the significance of generations and to what do we owe younger generations?
My own thinking about generational transitions comes from my experiences as young lesbian (I came out in 1988) and what I felt at the time was a lack of leaders ahead of me who were role models and mentors. Part of that perceived lack was not only a limited number of people, but also a lack of visibility of the people who were from the generations preceding me. I’ve now learned about Sally Gearheart, Judy Grahn, Virginia Apuzzo, and a host of others who were out and speaking out on behalf of lesbians and gay men and our demands for equality. At the time, however, when I was eighteen, nineteen, and twenty, many lesbians from other generations were telling me to not be too open and to think about my professional future and my ability to find work and build a life without being labeled a lesbian too publicly. I never took that advice. Things worked out anyway.
I hope that things are different for young people coming out now. Certainly there are many more signs of open and vibrant lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and leaders than there were twenty years ago. At the same time, I’m aware of how many young queers today are homeless and kicked out by their families and communities.
Sassafras Lowrey, a fantastic young activist, has just edited an anthology called Kicked Out about young people who have been kicked out of their homes as a result of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. These are heartbreaking stories that Sassafras has gathered, but they are also stories of hope and resilience. Unfortunately, the stories of young queers being kicked out are not new.
In my hometown of Detroit, MI, too many young queers are living on the streets or in marginal circumstances as a result of being queer. It’s not a new phenomenon; it’s been happening since I worked there in the 1990s. Today, however, the challenges of young queer people are being met on a daily basis by the Ruth Ellis Center.
Ruth Ellis was a long-time activist in Detroit and in many ways embodies the spirit of generational visibility and knowledge and affection transfer between and among generations. Ellis lived to be 101 and along the way provided support and assistance, both material and personal, to hundreds in the GLBT communities in Detroit. Today, the Ruth Ellis Center, headed by the incredible Grace McClelland, provides housing, street outreach, and a drop-in center for queer young people in Detroit. These are vital services that are the result of the dreams and hard work of many people in the Detroit area. McClelland and her team of staff and volunteers are making a real difference and ensuring that young queers are cared for in meaningful and life-giving ways. To me, they are models for how our queer community should be.
We all have an obligation to care for the next generation, not just as parents or role models, but also as activists and advocates. Young people need the support and good-heartedness of our community for them to find lives that are good and meaningful and fulfilling to them. As we watch a new generation take up residence in the White House and as we remember through the new film the generation of Harvey Milk, let’s commit ourselves personally and communally to helping GLBT young people in every way that we can. If our lives our to matter in the annals of history, we must ensure that their lives matter today and in the future.
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Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.
This is column #26 dated 21 December 2008 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.