LGBTQ+ stories, in honor of Pride month
Pride month is an important time for the LGBTQ+ community; it’s a moment to celebrate together, learn about collective history, find solace in others and feel seen. This month — and every month — we honor, support, uplift and advocate for LGBTQ+ individuals and their voices.
A few members of our community shared stories about what pride means to them, and how we can build a more compassionate world for the LGBTQ+ community.
Diving into Joy
During one of the many sleepless nights I spent in the summer of 2014, I found myself deep in a YouTube hole of transgender transition videos, terrified and sobbing. At the time, I was in a residential treatment for my eating disorder and had just realized that I am transgender. I’d expected relief at finally discovering this part of myself, but terror consumed me instead. I am an athlete, and had been recruited to swim for the women’s team at Harvard. I feared that in coming out as transgender, I’d lose everything.
In 2015, I joined Harvard Men’s Swimming & Diving, and became the first transgender athlete to compete for a Division 1 men’s team in U.S. college sports. I’m currently the only known trans athlete to have competed for all four years.
To me, pride is competing on that men’s team as a transgender man, despite everyone’s disbelief at my ability. Pride is competing on a men’s team even when people misgendered me and called me a woman, even when people questioned or directly rejected my belonging and manhood. Pride is showing up to practice every day in my Speedo — top surgery scars and all — nearly naked in my transness. Pride is my top surgery scars themselves; they are my story written in bold across my chest. Pride is the very love I have of my transness.
And pride is communal. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the Brooklyn Liberation March in Brooklyn, NY. I spent most of the day in tears—of gratitude, of connection, of joy, and of grief. As an activist, the record-breaking number of legislative attacks on trans and queer youth in the US and UK bring me to an exhausted devastation. I often wake up tired and fearful of the day. But the trans and queer community is burgeoning with a resilience and empowerment like no other. In all the systemic oppression and queerphobia, trans and queer joy is, somehow, still palpable.
I watched so many beautiful trans people — especially trans people of color — beam and bask in the collective trans and queer joy at that protest. And I sobbed tears of joy and gratitude.
Because that ability to find community together, to find joy despite all of the hatred, that is our true pride, and that is what pride means to me.
Pride is not always rainbows and parades. In fact, most of pride to me is that feeling in my chest, that glint in my trans brothers’ eyes, that determination that we will persevere through any hatred we encounter. Pride is the reminder that we stand on the shoulder of giants, the reminder that Black liberation is absolutely integral to this fight, the reminder that — like my friend Mila Jam says — we fight for a future in which trans and queer joy are not only present, but familiar.
Learn more about Schuyler Bailar and his work here.
A Future That Acknowledges Our Past
Donnya D. Piggott
Pride immediately conjures images of rainbow flags, bright colors and groups of LGBTQ people having a blast and living their best lives.
However, beneath the parades, the parties, and the corporate color logo changes during the month of June lies a history of shame, persecution and social and political struggle that has haunted LGBTQ+ communities and individuals for centuries.
Even in 2021, there are people who are ostracized and don’t feel comfortable in their own skin.
In some places, trans people are still denied their right to healthcare. In others, LGBTQ activists are still arrested and imprisoned for advocating and demanding equal rights. At the same time, other countries have decriminalized homophobic laws and are working toward inclusive policies in the workplace and beyond. In others, marriage equality is finally a reality. Persecution and progress are happening at the same time.
Pride Month gives us a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come, to give space to the persecuted and underprivileged and to celebrate the victories we’ve won today.
It’s a combined energy of solidarity and community. While our communities are fragmented and separated by borders, social and cultural identities, it’s important that we combine our efforts, knowledge, and resources to serve and celebrate our LGBTQQIP2SAA [ lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex, pansexual, two-spirit, androgynous and asexual] community at large, all across the world.
A New “Normal”
Mohsin Zaidi (author)
Once upon a time, pride meant nothing to me because I existed in a world in which the word did not. Not because I was born before the Stonewall riots of 1969, or the first Pride march the following year; but because I was born into a world that feared the word and sought to shield me from it. A dirty word treated as though it possessed the violence of a dirty bomb.
I also grew up in a household where it was inconceivable to be gay. Fear was the prism through which pride and I first met. To be afraid of something, you must believe it can harm you. It must be stripped of its humanity, left to take on a monstrous quality. This monster visited me in adolescence and I did my best to run from it. I did so silently because it was inside of me. No child should learn to keep secrets in this way. The very definition of childhood is innocence, but we are robbed of this because all we feel is guilt.
When I could no longer outrun my fear, I hid from it. Pride and I existed in the same space but did not acknowledge each other. Its presence in me grew stronger, however, demanding to take up ground that it felt unfathomable to cede. Nothing short of a war raged inside. Outside, the crossfire manifested itself as hatred of otherness, a need to be “normal.” The first time I drove past a London Pride parade — with my father, on our way to the mosque — I felt only abhorrence. I was not raised in a house whose foundations were built on hatred; my faith taught me only love. But the world had told me that the monster must be killed, and I tried my very best to slay it. Pride to me, then, meant only fury and inner conflict.
From my restricted view, I saw a community with no other dark-skinned person among its numbers. For the longest time, pride meant being alone. Isolation was the feeling that engulfed my family in the aftermath of revealing my secret to them. There was no pride in doing what felt impossible but imperative.
In time, self-acceptance crept in, bringing with it a sense there might be something to be proud of. The absence of the colourful array of our stories renders us unseen and, for me, pride became the opportunity to tell stories. Writing my memoir, A Dutiful Boy, was a way of vocalising what had been invisible to so many for so long. Defiance became the order of the day — defiance against the stigma, against the homogeny of the visibly queer community, against the monster created by other people’s notions of morality.
I’ve come to accept that the only vantage point I need to concern myself with is my own.
I found love in June in 2016, and that love has lifted me up for the past five years. That same love has found its way into my parents’ hearts, and their acceptance is an example to us all. Pride means love. To find this place in which we can love and allow ourselves to be loved, however, is a luxury seldom afforded to much of our community. In 69 countries where homosexuality remains illegal, this place is impossible to find. We should remind ourselves of this every single day. Pride means nothing while the monster still lives.
Compassion Starts at Home
Andrew Zanevsky (as told to the Team at Archewell)
My wife and I are immigrants from Belarus who came to the United States 30 years ago. Our youngest daughter, a 25-year-old transgender woman, came out when she was 21. Truthfully, we were unprepared when it happened, and didn’t fully understand what it meant.
The first few days were difficult. As parents, we build these trajectories in our minds that our children will follow. When your child says, “I’m transgender,” that trajectory completely shifts. You think to yourself: “My child will be discriminated against. Their life will be more difficult.” You’re afraid and worried. You just want to take that pain away and protect them from the world.
The thing is — it’s not about you or me. It’s about your child; it’s about my daughter. We have to be strong and show our children that we will support them. For my wife and me, it was important to immediately start researching and learning more so we could create a compassionate environment for our daughter.
When your child knows they’re loved and that you’re on their side, they’re much safer in the world, and it becomes a more compassionate place for them.
What helped me during those first difficult days was remembering that nothing has changed about my daughter since she came out. She knows that I love and support her. She knows that it doesn’t matter what gender she is, or if she changes her pronouns or her name. I still love her. My daughter is not defined as a transgender person. She is so much more. She may face more discrimination and bullying at work, at school, legally, or from society, but all I can control is letting her know that I’m on her side.
I take every opportunity to speak to the public or to my friends and colleagues about my experience. In doing so, I shift people’s scale of acceptance. When my daughter was ready, we sent an email blast to 160 people. We knew that our child would look different, have a different name, have different pronouns, and we couldn’t keep silent. We wanted her to be proud and to be herself. In our email, we included links to websites where people can learn more. So many misconceptions about the LGBTQ+ community come from ignorance, but ignorance can be cured.
My goal now is to help shift society as a whole. One way I’ve done that is through my involvement with PFLAG (the first and largest organization for LGBTQ+ people, their parents and families and allies). I found new friends, family and support systems through the organization, parents who have more experience supporting newcomers. If you are a parent to an LGBTQ+ child and are struggling to cope with this change, seek support. Talk to your partner, your family and friends. Go to meetings. Head to PFLAG.org. If you’re part of a community, advocate for leaders who support the rights of the LGBTQ+; recognize that their rights won’t diminish your own. When everyone stands up for marginalized groups of people, it doesn’t make your group any less important. It helps everyone. If you’re a human, you stand up for all rights when you stand up for human rights. Educate yourself. Find your community. As you learn, many of your fears are put away.
From Shame to Pride
For half of my life, I lived a lie in which I was ashamed to be gay, and I focused all my energy on protecting that secret fiercely. I grew up playing rugby — it was my whole life — and to be different than any of the other lads just wasn’t an option.
Except it was slowly killing me from the inside. Despite all my success on the pitch, I thought about killing myself daily. When I actually tried to do it, I knew something had to change. 15 years ago I told some of my closest teammates my big secret, and it was the start of getting to where I am now. It was another three years before I decided to finally speak publicly about my sexuality, and I became the first professional rugby player to ever come out (more than a decade later, I’m still the only one). It was a big deal, and my story was splashed across the front pages.
As hard as it was for this big, strong rugby player to say the words “I am gay,” they also set me free. When you have a secret, that’s all you focus on, 24 hours a day. To finally be able to think about something else — anything else! — felt like freedom.
Since then, I’ve tried to use my platform to help others, and improve diversity in rugby and sports more broadly. To help more people be proud of who they are. There are incredibly talented people who are not making it in sports simply because of the way they were born; because of their sexuality, their skin color, their background. That needs to change, because we’re all poorer for it.
Now, shame has been replaced with pride. I’m proud to be gay and of the impact I’ve had.
But my freedom was short-lived, and shame once again reared its ugly face when I was diagnosed with HIV. I had a new secret to protect; one that I might have kept private, but the decision was taken out of my hands after journalists found out and began to blackmail me. The day they told my parents remains one of the very worst days of my life. It still makes me feel sick to my stomach — even though my mum and dad always have and always will be my biggest supporters.
Instead of letting the newspapers decide my fate, I chose to take back control and make a documentary about living with HIV. By doing it on my own terms, I could use the opportunity to educate people about all the jaw-dropping medical progress in preventing, testing for, and treating HIV since the 1980s. I could let everyone know that by taking one pill a day, I’m protecting my body from the virus and will live as long as anyone else; and that because of this treatment, I can’t pass HIV onto my husband.
For good measure, on the same day as “coming out” as a person living with HIV, I signed up to do the Ironman — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run. I wanted to show that my diagnosis doesn’t make me weak or ill and that with treatment, HIV is no longer a death sentence — even if that meant learning to swim in just a few months.
My documentary, HIV & Me, is absolutely one of my proudest achievements. It started so many conversations about HIV, and I’ve had so many messages from people saying they hadn’t realized all the progress that has been made. I’ve also been contacted by others living with HIV to say thank you for educating so many people about the virus — that’s what really makes me proud.
Pride to me, is about freedom, authenticity and the opportunity to fulfill your potential without being limited by prejudice or fear.
Whether it’s waving a rainbow flag in a parade or holding your partner’s hand walking down the street, pride – and being proud – is important.
I want to see a world where LGBTQ+ people don’t need to endure days, weeks, months or years of trauma, anxiety and fear before getting to the “good bit.” I’m committed to being visibly proud and sharing my story for those who can’t — or can’t yet — to hopefully help build a world where everyone can be proud of who they are.
Gareth Thomas is patron of HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust. His latest project is Tackle HIV with ViiV Healthcare, focusing on ending the stigma surrounding HIV through education and information.
Love Conquers All
Even though I’ve been transitioned for over ten years, my journey into my queerness is a very recent thing. I’ve never been one for labels; I find them limiting. It’s probably a reaction to growing up Black and people constantly making assumptions about who I am. To me, LGBTQ+ was just another label that could be used to erase who I was; who I am.
In the past couple of years, however, I’ve learned more about the origins of Pride, and the history of Black queer folk and it’s helped me embrace my queerness.
To me, pride, and ultimately queerness, isn’t about identity. It’s about freedom.
Freedom to throw off labels. Freedom to let go of expectations. Freedom to embrace otherness. Freedom to love yourself and others for who they are. Freedom to shine bright in a world that tells you that you shouldn’t. And most importantly, freedom to dream of a world in which differences are celebrated, there’s no need to be brave to be yourself, and where love really conquers all.