I went to the courthouse for my 18th birthday. Full of excitement and the promise of America, I proudly filled out my first voter registration card, marking “D” for Democrat. It was 2004, and as a young, openly gay American, I was ready to cast my ballot against the homophobic policies of George W Bush.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Bush coasted to re-election using lesbian and gay Americans as a wedge issue. Campaigning on a platform which included amending the US Constitution to explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage, Bush was aided by equally odious state amendments which drove evangelicals to the polls in record numbers.
In Kentucky, where I lived at the time, I spent the summer and fall of that year knocking on doors, introducing myself as a gay man. It was a daunting task, but one I felt obligated to undertake. My community was under attack, and I was compelled to defend it.
During those long afternoons walking the streets of Bowling Green, I had many people tell me they opposed my equality. Some asked me to repent my sins. Still others slammed doors in my face. There were the occasional supporters, and I even happened to knock on the door of an older gay couple. Mostly, though, I was met with unabashed homophobia.
Fifteen years later, it’s hard to remember specific conversations. One, though, has always stuck with me. She was, she told me, a mother with a son not much older than me. Perhaps because of that she engaged me for longer than most people cared to. She would be voting for the amendment, she told me in the most apologetic tone, but she hoped it wouldn’t discourage me. “You’re going to win,” she said. “I see it with my son. Your side won’t win this year, but it will eventually.”
I thought about that woman last night as I watched the CNN Equality Town Hall, a forum in which Democratic presidential candidates answered questions from the LGBT community about issues that affect us. There were many moving moments, but none stood out to me more than when Pete Buttigieg spoke about struggling to come out as gay: “What it was like was a civil war, because I knew I was different long before I was ready to say that I was gay, and long before I was able to acknowledge that was something that I didn’t have power over.”
That moment was a watershed moment in LGBT and American history. On national television, an openly gay presidential candidate stood with one of the evening’s two openly gay moderators—both among the nation’s most respected journalists—and told the country what it was like to struggle with your sexuality. Simply put, that has never happened before.
Today is the annual Coming Out Day. Around the world, LGBT people are discussing what it means to finally kick open the closet door and be your authentic self. Some are taking the opportunity to actually do it. Last night, all those people—whether out and proud for decades or just peeking out the door—got to see a viable candidate for US President tell us his story.
It’s easy to dismiss how historic this moment is. Marriage equality is the law of the land, and LGBT people are more mainstream and visible than ever. We’ve come a long way in a very short amount of time.
Because of this, many people—even within the LGBT community—want to downplay, or do not see, how important last night was. Protestors advocating for more action to curb violence against transgender women of colour interrupted as Mayor Pete was being introduced. Later, he was asked whether he is “gay enough” to advocate for our community, as though there is any litmus test beyond being exclusively attracted to the same sex. “When somebody is weighing whether to come out or just come to terms with who they are, it’s really important for them to know that they’re going to be accepted,” he answered. “There is no right or wrong way to be gay, to be queer, to be trans.”
Ending violence against trans women and discussions of diversity within our community are important. However, we should pause to reflect on just how much we’ve accomplished. An LGBT person asking an openly gay candidate for president whether he’s gay enough to represent our community is a stark contrast to where we were just four presidential elections ago. Let’s take a moment to savour that.
Mayor Pete might not win the presidency, but it doesn’t matter. He has already made history. His candidacy, and the forum we had last night, is a testament to the progress we have made in the fight for equality for all Americans. Thinking back to that woman on the doorstep all those years ago, I don’t know if we can claim victory yet, but last night, it sure felt like we were winning.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a writer based in North Carolina. He has previously written for The Independent, Salon, The Daily Dot, and more.