“It gets better.” This is what we are told. We are told this by a campaign by Dan Savage to help bullied kids, in particular bullied queer kids. For a while, for a long while, it was kind of true. Yes, in the just over a decade since I came out as trans I have had my fair share of unpleasant encounters with bigots or the system in general, I have also encountered so many people, loved ones and strangers alike, that gave me hope for my future. I remember what things were like when I was a kid, the dark days of the eighties, and got to see all that “it gets better” unfold before my eyes.
Thirty years ago, when I was just a teenager, our President seriously considered “quarantining” queer people to stem the advance of AIDS. In case you cannot read new-speak, what he was actually saying was we should be put into camps. Let me make it clearer: concentration camps. I had to hear adults argue about whether my still deeply closeted self should be put in a concentration camp, and hear other adults treat that like it was a respectable if wrong opinion.
Thirty years ago, during that height of that epidemic I got to hear my father, and my parents’ peers, people who were allegedly “liberal” and “open minded” on queer issues for their time make the joke: “What does AIDS stand for? Adios Infected Dick Sucker.” I do not suppose I need to tell you what it does to a teenager, an assigned male teenager, who had indeed sucked a dick, hear that come from people they thought loved and respected them. That they respected in kind. There are many reasons for my struggles with depression, but I can probably hold this up as where it began. People I loved said I deserved to die, even if they did not know they were talking about me.
“It gets better.” We are told, and for a while after that it did. Whatever your opinions on military service, and I now have my reservations, for the first time we were talking about letting our LGBT country men serve. People were abandoning the closet. Straight folk stood up for their queer friends, if not all queer people, against bigots in their own family. We found out some of our biggest stars were queer and straight people celebrated them, even as we lost them to that horrible disease. There would be times it was hard to believe. Matthew Shepherd taught us it may get better but it was not good enough. I do not like thinking of his death in a positive light, I think it sullies his loss, but it was a wake up call for would be allies, and now those straight people were standing up against the homophobes in their families, even if they did not know a gay person.
“It gets better.” We were shown, as those that would abuse us were the ones exiled to ridicule. Now queer folk could serve openly. Cis gay folk got the right to marry if they wanted. Pride Parades were celebrated by the whole community. We had openly gay politicians, and even openly trans presidential appointees. After so many years being targeted, trans folk finally had positive, non-caricatured role models on television, played by one us! Then after so much fighting we won one of our biggest victories ever, something so simple that it should not have ever been necessary: the ability to use public restrooms in peace.
Of course it was short lived. If it was ever alive to begin with. In that time I certainly, even with the new allies, with the new laws, with the new executive orders, still did not feel safe in either restroom. Still, it felt like “getting better.” But that was about to change.
Because a man running on a platform of xenophobia, catering the the lowest elements of our society became President. While keeping some protections for us, others, most notably those for school children, our most vulnerable, have been wiped away. The fearful and the base religious zealots who supported him have felt empowered to attack us at every turn. In the time since his election I have faced more incidents of harassment for being trans then I did the entire previous decade since coming out. It is socially acceptable to hate us again, and they will let us know.
I used to tell younger queer folk about the “bad old days.” I would tell them that, yes, there is still so much we need to do for each other, but with a mention of the eighties and how fortunate they are to not have to live through all that. I really, naively, thought that the worst was behind us. I honestly believed that for every hurdle there would be an open door and twelve safe havens. I was not so foolish as to think the finish line would be crossed in my lifetime, but maybe my nephews and nieces’, or their kids. I used to tell the millenials this, not because I wanted to finger wag or say they had it particularly easy, but to show that progress can be made, to show “it gets better.”
Now, though, these kids have to go through it. They will have their own eighties. They will have right wing religious zealots in their family feeling safe to abuse them again. They will be harassed, and even beaten, in numbers we have not seen since they were very small, if they were born at all. We will see more Matthew Shepherds. We will see even more Islan Nettles, because trans women, especially those of color, were never out of vogue as targets, and now, well we all are again. Two and a half decades of work almost evaporating, because too large and too active a minority of Americans love to hate.
“It gets better.” But sometimes, it gets worse.