(NOTE: The International Transgender Day of Visibility is March 31.)
I recently learned that according to a new report, the number of people in this country who identify as LGBTQ has increased by 60% since 2012. Particularly, younger people are more likely to identify as LGBTQ, with nearly 16% of people ages 18 to 23 considering themselves something other than heterosexual. While the report suggests that this is because younger people are now more open about their identity, it's important to remember that doesn't mean there were fewer LGBTQ people existing before. We were often forced to stay in the closet for fear of discrimination.
But the closet doors are opening, and our community is contributing more than ever.
I grew up in the South Side of Chicago and, back then, we didn't have as many resources to learn about other gay or transgender people. But my mother told me a long time ago, "If you are ashamed of who you are and what you do, then don't do it."
I have never been ashamed of who I am. I was a girl the moment I was born: My mother knew it, my grandmother knew it and I had the magical forces of all these amazing women in my life telling me, "You are precious and you are special." I transitioned in the 1960s, a few years before Stonewall, and knowing I had my family's support was incredibly encouraging. I was well protectedthey've always stood by my side, and in back of me, and in front of me.
I also had support from my chosen family. I was introduced to the drag ballroom scene by Wilbur 'Hi-Fi" White, who was an incredibly talented entertainer. The balls were so grand and elegant and that's where I met so many gay people, transgender people, and people who were just unafraid to be themselves. I learned a lot from them and I loved spending time in a community where I belonged.
The love and support I received growing up influenced me so much, and as a trans woman, I wanted to offer that to other young trans people, which inspired me to start a charm school for homeless transgender youth at Chicago's Center on Halsted. When I would visit the center and see those youngsters looking tattered, not knowing how to dress or present themselves, I thought about the women in my life who were instrumental in teaching me about everything, not only about clothes and makeup, but also to how to be a more grateful and compassionate person. I saw those young people and thought, "They need someone to help them I'm going to help them." I took all of these lessons I had learned from my mother and grandmother and created a space for other young folks to feel supported. The students from these classes were the ones to start calling me "Mama Gloria."
As a trans elder now in my 70s, I never thought I'd see the day where so many transgender young people are able to live their lives so freely. But we still have a long way to go. I have been denied housing and access to church because of my identity. Trans people are still being targeted and hurt and murdered. Kids are being thrown out of their homes because of their identity. Not enough people are paying attention or doing anything about this. We need more people in our cities and states to stand up and help the LGBTQ community.
But I still believe we are living in a world that is steadily moving toward goodness. With the confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine as the first-ever transgender assistant secretary of health, and the Equality Act being passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, it's time for people in the government to see just how deserving we are of basic human rights. We are smart and talented and ambitious and we are going to continue to fight.
When I think about the future for LGBT peopleand, especially, transgender peopleI think about my friend Luchina and her daughter, Gia. I think of how vital it is for parents to love their children unconditionally. I want young transgender people like Gia to be able to experience the same love and support I had growing up. We need to love each otherthat's what it's all about.
I'm not the type of person to sit back and be quiet about anything. I'm a fighter. I want my voice to be heard, and I want a better life for the LGBTQ community.
LGBT elders paved the way for the younger generation and it is amazing to know that these younger kids are embracing their identity and getting to live as their true selves. They're not afraid to tell the world that we aren't all the same, and that's okay. It is such a joy to witness because the truth is, if everybody was the same, this would be a boring world. We need to embrace these differences. We need to join forces and collaborate with each other. If we're given the chance, we are going to be a force to be reckoned with.