Honoring My LGBTQ Elders

Apparently, May 16th is National LGBTQ Elders Day. I'm not sure I knew this day existed until today, but I've seen several social media posts about it. While I believe in the importance of recognizing those like Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Harvey Milk for all they sacrificed I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize two elders who deeply impacted my life without even knowing it.

In 1981 I was a young, closeted teenager in deep turmoil about who I was and what my religion and family had to say about people like me. I had never knowingly met any LGBTQ people. My only images of what I imagined gay people to look like were muscled, smooth, bronze-skinned Chippendale dancer types who I could only dream of looking like one day. I had never even thought of two people of the same sex being in a relationship. I only knew I liked boys and no one should ever know about this or I would be an outcast.

Once a month our small Baptist church would go to a local nursing home in Mattoon, Illinois to hold services for the residents on a Sunday afternoon. Each month I noticed a particular older couple who came to visit a friend or relative who was a resident there. They stood out because they were two of the sharpest, most stylishly dressed people to walk through the doors there. One of them was a beautiful, classy older woman who always looked like she just stepped out of the department store with a brand new dress on. The other was also a woman, but she wore a well-tailored suit complete with a necktie and hat. Arm in arm they entered confidently. They were all smiles as they greeted the familiar faces of staff and residents they knew from their regular visits.

I was infatuated with them. I stared in wonder and amazement as they confidently strolled through the community area where we were gathering to hold a church service. I had never seen anything like this in my life. What were they? Who were they? How could they be like this? Why were they so confident and happy?

I didn’t understand, but I knew there was something magical and beautiful about what they had. I wanted what they had. I never met them. My parents would have been horrified if I had. I never knew their names. I know nothing about them, but I can see in mind’s eye as if it were yesterday. Without speaking a word to me they said, “You don’t have to hide who you are. You can be happy and proud. You can love and be loved just as you are.”

When I was a teenager I didn’t know what Stonewall was. I didn’t know who Harvey Milk, Marsha P. Johnson, or Sylvia Rivera were. I didn’t know what Gay Pride was. I didn’t know what LGBT meant. I only knew I was different and that those I respected at that time called people like me a sinner, sodomite, queer, faggot, and said they should be stoned to death.

These two women were my only window into a world I didn’t know existed and never dreamed I could be happy in.

I often wonder who the elders were in Marsha P. Johnson’s life? Who were the elders in the elder’s lives? Take a moment and reflect on those who impacted your life by just being themselves. I’d like to hear your stories. Tell me about your elders. Let’s keep their stories alive! Email me at Joel @joelspeaksout.com

Joel Barrett


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Joel Speaks Out

Kansas City, MO