By Liz Massey, May 2018 Issue.
I have to admit it – I cried recently watching the protests that happened in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, led by students around the country. They happened in places I never expected (Idaho!) and included participants who were 12 years old and even younger. I have also been amazed by the focus, passion and strategic fortitude of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who have been instrumental in leading this student movement for more sensible gun laws.
Watching this latest generation of activists rise up to meet this crisis has been particularly interesting for me as a member of Generation X. We are that small but mighty (compared to Boomers and Millennials) cadre born between 1965 and 1980 that is currently the “sandwich generation” grappling with the challenges of middle age. Some of us have kids who are Millennials (born 1981 to 2000) and grandkids who are Centennials (born after the year 2000). Some of us are helping our elderly parents as they age. And all of us who are LGBTQ are wedged between a generation that was absolutely devastated by the AIDS crisis, and one for whom increasing acceptance and visibility have always been the norm.
For that reason, I actually relish my generation’s role at this point in time. We came of age, and many of us came out, at a pivotal moment in American queer history. Marriage equality litigation in Hawaii began in 1991 – the year I graduated from college. The 1990s were filled with incredible challenges (including Amendment 2 in Colorado and Romer v. Evans), but our community made incredible strides in terms of visibility and acceptance, as well. We were fortunate enough to have a network of AIDS service organizations and LGBTQ-specific nonprofits operating in the community when we became adults, and we participated in their growth, development, and reconfiguration. We were lucky enough to have a few role models to look up to, and we were privileged to become role models ourselves for others coming after us.
Our liminal role continues to this day. We are still bridge-builders. We can appreciate both current-day social media organizing and the analog “old school” methods that rallied a crowd when needed back in the day, including phone trees. (Phone trees!) I remember that we had one queer-identified newspaper in the Midwest when I first explored coming out. It covered NINE states. Today, many LGBTQ people and their allies have access to a rich variety of media, print, online and elsewhere.
Another way in which we “stand in the middle” is through our collective experiences with oppression. I didn’t have to sneak into my first gay bar, but members of my generation do remember our opponents suggesting a quarantine for HIV-positive people and trying to prevent us from protecting ourselves against discrimination and anti-sodomy laws. I went to college in Lawrence, Kan., just 20 miles from the Westboro Baptist Church. The Phelps cult protested pride and the funerals of people with AIDS, in Kansas City and around the country, regularly throughout my 20s. We remember our LGBTQ history, partially because we lived through some crucial moments in our community’s ongoing liberation narrative, and partially because we were mentored by the generations before us, who got things in motion after Stonewall.
Throughout the past few years, I have been overjoyed to watch young activists from the Millennial and Centennial generations come into their own, participating in and now leading protests for a variety of issues, including LGBTQ liberation. I love their confidence and relative lack of cultural shame, and I love their appreciation of intersectionality and the spectrums of sexuality and gender expression. A lot of them understand, in a way that perhaps my generation and those preceding it did not, that all marginalized people are in this resistance movement that’s proliferated since 2016 together.
Perhaps my strongest realization when I’ve reflected on Generation X’s position in the contemporary American LGBTQ equality movement is how much we need all the other generations who are alive right now. We need our older siblings from the Baby Boom and the Silent Generation, who have so much to teach us about thriving in the face of stigma and adversity unimaginable by today’s standards. And we need our younger relatives who are just now hitting adulthood … they will lead us all to a vision of community that is far more equitable and just than our current embodiment of it.
Every one of us has a story to tell about our journey with the LGBTQ community, and every one of us has a contribution to it that only we can provide. As the long-time United Farm Workers activist Dolores Huerta put it, “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.”