You can learn a lot from a conversation. This year, as we honor the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, we had an idea: what if we brought LGBTQ+ people from their 20s to their 70s, of different backgrounds and identities, together to talk? What could they learn from one another? How would their experiences coming out from the 1960s to the aughts differ?
So, I invited six people — most of them strangers to each other — to my home one Tuesday morning for a candid, real conversation about our lives, our hopes, our fears, and our dreams for a better future. We were gay, lesbian, transgender, nonbinary. We were raised in Pentecostal homes, in atheist communities, and in military families. We were from places as far apart as New York and Nigeria. The conversation that followed was at times tender, sometimes a little tense, but always illuminating.
We are gay, lesbian, transgender, nonbinary. We were raised in Pentecostal homes, in atheist communities, and in military families. We are from places as far apart as New York and Nigeria.
Angel Ayon, 24
Community Organizer for the Latino Equality Alliance
"I'm a fat, brown, nonbinary queer. I dress as a sad boy. My pronoun is elle in Spanish."
Belita Edwards, 70
Former Navy Auditor, Army Officer, and Substitute Teacher
"My preferred pronoun is she/her. I'm a lesbian."
Rizi Timane, 42
Transgender Coach and Therapist
"I'm originally from Nigeria and West Africa. I identify as a transgender man. My pronouns are he and him."
Sable Boruff, 66
Former Personal Assistant
"I'm a lesbian, and I prefer the pronoun she or miss."
Jazzmun Nichala Crayton, 50
Health and Policy Coordinator at SSG/Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team
"I am a black trans woman. I use fem pronouns. Call me goddess, queen, or anything higher."
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick, 33
"My pronouns are he/him, and I identify as a gay, cis guy."
Coming Out and Owning Our Identities
Belita Edwards: I didn't really have to come out because my father was gay. I knew I didn't like males from a very young age. My sisters and everybody were having boyfriends, and I couldn't do it. At 17, I stumbled into this club — and it was a gay club. That's when I knew. It was explosive! I just couldn't stay away. I met my soulmate there at 17.
She was married at the time, due to pressure. She is from Kansas, and her husband realized what she was and told her it was OK, that she could bring women home.
But when she brought me home, he saw this other connection, that it was the permanent kind, you could feel it — and he wanted me out of there. He became very threatening to me, and we had to leave; that's why we went to Chicago.
That was 1966. We didn't walk down the street holding hands — but we didn't hide it. We had friends from work who would invite us to dinner. It was like everybody knew but nobody cared, so I didn't get that thing that I hear about, like the demonstrations and the hate, thankfully.
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick: Mine was different but not bad, either. I came out when I was 21. I come from a military, Catholic, Puerto Rican, Irish family, which is a lot of different things over your head.
For a long time, I was operating under the sense that I was just a "very creative" straight guy. I had brainwashed myself. It took years but, eventually, I met this one guy [at 21], and it was different. I realized that I didn't want what I had with him to not be every day.
It took me probably two or three years after that to come out to my parents because I was very concerned about whatever judgment they had, even though I had an aunt who identified as a lesbian. She was accepted by my family, but there still was a tension, that this "alien being" was in the family.
Eventually, I sent them a note in the mail with their Christmas present, and they were totally cool. I think they were trying to navigate what it meant, as I was, because that was years of my life they had no idea about. Now, things are great, and it's very comfortable — but there definitely was some time of strangeness.
Angel Ayon: I come from a long line of butch lesbians. My godmother is a butch lesbian whose godmother is a butch lesbian.
I knew I was interested in mujeres (women) at 8 or 9. When I was around 12, I got outed as bisexual from family. That was my first coming out, and then finally, in high school, once I got with someone, I was like, "Mom, I got something to tell you. I'm with a mujer." Then all the inter-Latino tensions hit.
Luckily I had Tumblr, where people created content I could show my mom: I busted out a genderqueer PowerPoint to explain my queerness. [Laughter] I'm like, "OK. Think about this with gender but sexuality: I'm fluid."
My mom's down with me, luckily. She's second-generation: my great-grandmother and my grandmother immigrated. My mom was very Chicana, Americanized. She's like, "You're my daughter. I'm always going to love you no matter what." And now that I've come home from college and I'm rooted in all my identities, it's like, "OK, Mom. You live with a nonbinary person." So it's always a pressure of, "Why don't you shave your chin hair? Why don't you do this? Why don't you do that?"
KRF: What's interesting in that story is that you were able to harness the community, à la technology, to be like, "Here's a PowerPoint presentation to explain this."
Sable Boruff: That's because [they're] young. In our day, we didn't have PowerPoint. Prior to the internet, prior to the whole shebang, we had to do it the old-fashioned way: "Alright Ma, I got something to tell you."
But I was also really lucky. My father was in the theater. He wasn't gay, but he was a writer and actor. My parents had gay male friends because of that, and they weren't prejudiced at all against gay people. When I finally did come out to my mom, she was sort of hoping it was just a phase — but that was as far as it went. She loved me unconditionally. I had a wonderful mother. And my father was fine with it, too. I really feel very grateful that I didn't go through the absolute hell that some people do with religion.
That's devastating stuff — and a lot of people don't even make it. They end up committing suicide. I'm very grateful I didn't have that.
Rizi Timane: That really touches me as well, because I am one of the people that had the religious experience. I came out three times.
At 8, I first came out to my parents. I remember clearly walking into my dad's room and saying, "Daddy, I'm a boy." He said it was a phase. Both my parents did.
It lasted continuously until about age 12, when I came back again and I said, "Well, it's not a phase, because I've been praying," since I grew up in a very religious home. My mother is a deacon of a church. I told her, "I've been praying every day for God to stop the feelings, but it's actually intensifying — and now I have been praying to wake up as a boy and I'm not waking up as a boy, and I'm getting kind of suicidal feelings as breasts are developing." Then my first period came and I ended up hospitalized for three weeks because of the dysphoria.
A few friends told me, "This is the body God gave you so, if you like girls, then you're probably just a lesbian and really confused." I then said, "OK, I'm a lesbian," and that resulted in the beginning of a vicious set of exorcisms that my mom would have, to try to save my life, because [the church] considered it demonic possession.
I think the worst was around age 12. I was watching TV, and they walked in, her and about 12 church elders, and just switched off the TV and had me kneel in the middle of the room. It was an ambush. They were screaming and praying in tongues and hitting me with bamboo branches, splashing holy water.
It was probably around my mid-20s that we got to a compromise state where, as long as I was dating someone and I called her my friend and never threw it in their faces and kept kind of half in the closet about everything, we had a family relationship.
Come age 35, I had been feeling the worst gender dysphoria, realizing that I needed to live my authentic life at any cost. Even though I knew from experience that this is probably going to break us apart again, I did it. I said, "I'm going to start hormones, do top surgery. I'm doing this because I need to live." They did stop speaking to me again for quite a while — but I did begin my transition and, honestly, I was really happy. I had my life just how I wanted it. I trusted and believed that, somehow, if they loved me, they would come around — and I'm very happy to say they have come around.
SB: That is such a story of triumph for you.
BE: [Rizi], you helped me understand [trans] struggles because I really didn't get it. I'm happy for you. You got proof your parents loved you. It was just a process for them to work it through.
Jazzmun Nichala Crayton: I grew up in a religious home, too. I was constantly coming out to somebody. My parents are still entrenched in religion, and it's interesting, because sometimes I think it's also a level of education, and I find with my family that they love me. They love me — but there are conditions, right? "I love you, but I can't condone . . . "
KRF: The whole "Love the sinner, not the sin” thing?
JNC: Yes. I came out when I was 18, as gay, because I wanted to move out. I had to lie until I was 18 . . . I knew who I was but, in the church, you don't throw out all your cards. I was afraid of exactly what [Rizi] went through. I was not about to have nobody start doing exorcisms and praying over me.
And I'm always dealing with some sense of abandonment because my mother had me when she was 18 [or] 19, and there was no real relationship with my father. He never really sought me out or tried to build a relationship with me. There was always this angst or this feeling of, "You don't give a f*ck about me." So, I didn't give a f*ck about him — but I love my mama. I adore my mom and I didn't want to bring no harm and no shame to her.
I try to put myself in my mom's shoes, to be gentle, be kind.
Understanding the Transgender Community
KRF: I love your point, Jazzmun, about constantly coming out. I feel that all the time, even if it's something as small as being asked in a store why I'm looking at more feminine things. I'm curious how everybody sees queerness fitting into their lives, day to day?
JNC: I love the time we're living in. It's a really fascinating time, and I like that even the word queer has came back to us, but in a healing form. When I was growing up, "queer" was a negative thing. It was not good to be "queer" or "fag" or "queen"; all that stuff was bad news. I remember "sissy" was shunned in the gay community. Now? I love that all the kids vogue!
It's about you being able to fully express yourself and be able to change the whole makeup of how [you] feel and how [you] look at any point. You tell us who you are, not "we tell you."
I'm impressed because I do work in the community and everyone's telling me who they are — and I have to practice. I have to tell the old girls, "You got to learn this foreign language. This is the wave of the future." And sometimes I go to these conferences and I'm just crying because I'm like, "Oh my God. They got language for their feelings." And I'm like, "Wow. I wish I had a language like this for how I felt!"
AA: Yeah — but we got our culture from you all. The everyday struggles that you all lived allow us to build on it.
Many of us are still going through our struggles. Our young people are still getting locked up. Our young people are still facing homelessness. But it's the continual knowledge and sharing of our traditions that y'all created that gets us by.
BE: I like the fact that you all walk down the street holding hands, because that was one of my pains. I could not hold her hand walking down the street or show that affection. We couldn't get married. Now you can get married — and I'm happy for you all.
But I was having a problem with the language. We need to have a class in this. What do these terms mean? Why do we even have these terms? When you say, "I identify as they and them," it's like, I can't wrap my head around it.
AA: When I say my pronouns are they/them/theirs, I'm asking you to see me as a nonbinary person and not to call me "she." If you can't deal with it, I work with it. But I want you to at least respect me enough to refer to me by what I want to be called.
You have pronouns. It's just, you never thought of it.
JNC: I love that we're here, because so many people have died because they weren't "enough." Because they weren't enough of a woman or enough of a man — and no one wanted to give them an opportunity to be who they were.
A lot of times, gay men were expressing femininity, but it was like, "Don't do that because sissy is outlawed." . . . Can you imagine all the time walking down the street, people misgendering you, calling you by the wrong name? It wears on you. It's just really heavy.
SB: I have male gay friends that said, years ago, that very effeminate gay men were discriminated against by the gay community itself because they frightened the ones that were not so effeminate. And they didn't want to be associated with those stereotypes. Even within the community, there was prejudice.
JNC: People want to appear safe. People want to navigate the world where there's comfortability. Don't get comfortable. Because things are changing right in front of you. If you don't get on this little bandwagon, you're going to get stuck in your limitations.
RT: I was working at the LA Gender Center. At one point, as a therapist, helping families when younger children wanted to transition, something happened that educated me. A 13- or 14-year-old child came in with their parents. The mother was upset, saying, "I just don't understand what you want. I am supporting you, and I don't know what you want." And the child broke down and said, "But that's the thing: I don't know how to explain. I don't want to be a man. I don't want to be on testosterone." So then, the parents are like, "How are you transgender?" And [the child] said, "I feel like I'm Prince. I want to be able to wear my high heels and my pink pants and a blouse and have long hair or maybe have short hair. And maybe today I want to wear some makeup, and tomorrow I don't. . . . I'm they, and I need you to get it. I need you to understand.”
BE: Well, I want to change my pronoun.
KRF: You can. You absolutely can.
AA: What do you want to change it to?
BE: They/them. The more I think [about it], that's exactly who I am. I've got the masculine, and I've got the feminine: it's both there.
What it Means to Be LGBTQ+ Today — and Creating Our Shared Future
KRF: I'm curious, as queer people together in this room, what do we think are the biggest issues our community faces?
SB: Trans issues are really big right now. Especially with them trying to ban trans people from the armed forces — and all the political stuff going on against trans people. I think that's a cutting-edge issue.
RT: People don't realize that the military employs about 15,500 transgender people. That's a bunch of jobs for people that are already disenfranchised, already having difficulties getting jobs. One of the things we're trying to do is train employers on how to have transgender people in the workplace as well.
BE: I'm confused, because how [does the military] know you're transgender unless you tell them? If they don't have a need to know . . .
JNC: You want to create a space where people are allowed. You could come in and hide your identity — but why?
BE: You're not hiding it. You're just not bringing it up unless you have to.
JNC: But it's who you are.
RT: I think what you said was, "Why would you say it if you don't have to?"
That's the thing. With being trans, you have to. In some cases, you have to transition. If I'm saying, "I was born in the wrong body," part of my journey to not be depressed and anxious and suicidal is to start taking hormones so that I can start transitioning and everything. As soon as I start taking hormones, you're going to see that. I can't hide that I came in looking like you and six months later . . .
JNC: There's them/they, right? We've got to allow them/they to be in the military, too.
AA: When I'm thinking about where we are now and where we're going, I see the folks who are in these systems who don't have that choice. All of our detained trans folk of all races and genders. I think about the over 100 trans Latinas and trans folk who are held in detention right now, waiting to see if they'll be given political asylum or sent back to their countries that don't want them, who are killing them. They don't have communities of care to deal with their mental health, their food, their needs of security, their basic needs — and love. As well as our incarcerated folk!
JNC: Mental health. Basic things. We're talking about basic things that are not being met.
KRF: There are a lot of issues that we have that are unique to the queer community — but in a sense, almost every issue is an issue that relates to us. Fighting for racial equality? Fighting for gender equality? We're fighting for all of these things. That's exciting and, in some ways, overwhelming.
AA: I have learned — and this is not only about queer issues — but just really in general in my life: there's a tremendous power and joy in being authentic and being authentically yourself, whatever that may mean. It's tremendous.
Even straight people — everybody! — can do it. There's a tremendous power and joy in that.
BE: I really, really appreciate the younger generation. I feel so proud of them, with all of this educating me.
I just want to learn. I never understood why somebody would want to change their bodies. Just going to all these groups [like this], I get it, and the suffering . . . because I didn't believe it. I didn't at first.
JNC: But not all of it's suffering. Some of it's complete joy. Some people are like, "Honey, this is where I'm going. This is my direction. OK. Let's make it happen." [Laughter]
Some people have been living in their truth the whole time. They just want things to match up for them. How they felt on the inside, they want it to match up on the outside.
AA: I believe that all these talks are important, rooting ourselves back in community and finding a community — and please welcome our babies and our older folk and our homeless folk in the community. That's how we learn to deal with conflict and we learn how to deal with that nastiness so that we can live better.
RT: What I have personally learned from the whole conflict and eventual reconciliation with my family, something that seemed completely impossible, is that if we do not stay open — be your authentic self and stay open to understanding — we never would have gotten here. . . . [My family] are, right now, in the house waiting for me to come, so we can go watch movies.