For gay people, coming of age in the modern world arrives with a series of wild fluctuations. Not just navigating a shifting identity, but also having to weather the ever-changing political climate.
In the early 2000s, the word “gay” was still widely used as an insult, and the humanity of gay people was openly up for debate. I remember watching a presidential debate as a young person and the only thing both candidates could agree on is that marriage should be restricted to one man and one woman. Then in 2015, queer people’s rights were finally codified when the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges, establishing same-sex marriage throughout the United States and its territories.
The same year, our cultural conversation increasingly began to include trans people – not as the butt of sitcom jokes, but rather as people openly living fulfilled lives. Less than a decade later, we’re now witnessing a rash of anti-trans legislation that continues to spread nationwide at terrifying speed. This can be whiplash-inducing for young queer people: You can have rights on a Tuesday, only to have them revoked on a Thursday.
Around 2010, a campaign started going around the internet in which early YouTubers talked openly about their sexuality, promising young people in sometimes teary videos that “it gets better.”
The “It Gets Better” campaign is an Obama era artifact – a sugary promise of hope to closeted middle schoolers. The campaign pushed the belief that gay people would continue to live better lives, ignoring at least 100 years of historical evidence that shows how gay rights tend to fluctuate. Queer millennials grew up on a diet of believing you just have to wait things out, and then it’ll somehow be easier to be yourself.
My fellow queer millennials: We were lied to. It doesn’t get better. In fact, in your lifetime, it could get worse, perhaps even worse than it is now. We have to release the cultural coping mechanism that allowed us to believe that our earlier struggles would make it easier for young people today. This hope doesn’t hold water when teens in Iowa are today being denied care that was available 10 years ago.
For queer people, it doesn’t get better. Not without hard work. Instead, we will have periods of rest and celebration, followed by periods in which we are again struggling to preserve and reclaim our rights.
I’m sorry that doesn’t fit neatly on a T-shirt. And I’m sorry the old optimism we grew up on isn’t holding up. But I promise you, if we continue to fight, there will again be a period of rest and celebration for us. Hang in there. We need you.