"I support gay marriage," was how she started her post. "But I don't see why the baker should have to serve the gay couple a wedding cake."
It was a relatively anonymous woman, a friend of a friend on Facebook. All I knew about her came from a glance at her profile: a blond woman wearing a blue bikini top with an American flag valiantly dangling in the foreground. She looked like an embodiment of a "Make America Great Again" postage stamp.
It was a small moment. But that paradoxical Facebook comment is a microcosm for what is happening across the US. The country, in its attitude toward LGBT people, is starting to take on the distinctive feel of 1998, and that is a threat to our communities both virtual and physical.
Anti-LGBT homicides spiked from 28 in 2016 to 36 in the first eight months of 2017 alone, according to the most recent data from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Perhaps even more concerning, the Trump administration has agencies rolling back policies that offered help to LGBT people. This includes arguing that the law does not protect employees from being fired for being gay, barring transgender people from serving in the military, moving to stop asking some teenaged victims of crime if they are LGBT, and even banning the word “transgender” from the CDC’s budget documents. The cumulative effect of this hostility, I fear, is to effectively drag the country back in time to when invisibility, harassment, and violence were mainstays in queer lives.
The reason I can’t stop thinking about is 1998 is that that was a moment when queer identity pivoted. It wasn't a cataclysmic shift, but a subtle one in which we started to be seen as human beings for the first time. For centuries prior, we were labeled everything from witches to sexual inverts to criminals, mentally ill, pedophiles, deadly disease carriers who trick normal, healthy heterosexuals into joining our ugly lair. We lived in secrecy, on the margins. Even for those of us who were out and proud, fear remained a familiar bedfellow.
It was in 1998 that 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die hanging like a tragic scarecrow in a field in Laramie, Wyoming. The wooden fence he was tied to became such a widely circulated image that it became almost a religious sight; the power of the tragedy held the nation's attention. The day a potential-filled young American lost his life to hate, the LGBT community's status was upgraded to victim. National news outlets started to cover LGBT issues more sympathetically. Mainstream politicians, as well as our neighbors and family members, started to pay attention to us. More of us started to come out—students, celebrities, parents, teachers. I was a little less scared walking down the street.
The next 15 years were a whirling dervish of progress and visibility (that was not without its great struggles and tragedies, for transgender people in particular). We had so much to celebrate and embrace—Ellen DeGeneres and the rise of LGBT representation in media, gay-straight alliances in schools, non-discrimination laws passed across many states, and LGBT people elected to offices. And of course, marriage was in the air.
We latched onto a narrative that spoke to people, one of love. People had a gay uncle, a bisexual daughter, a neighbor they always really liked who they found out wasn’t straight. We garnered sympathy and with it came the advance of civil rights.
We traded in the stealth bandanas in our back pockets for proud bands on our ring fingers, shelved the bottles of vermouth for bottles of formula, producing “gaybies” at record speeds, as if someone would take that right away. Because they might.
The pendulum is now swinging the other way. After trending up for several years, acceptance of LGBT people is now decreasing. A report released this year by GLAAD found that for the first time since before marriage equality, Americans had become slightly less comfortable with the idea of having an LGBT family member or seeing same-sex couples together publicly. This is described in the report as “a shift from allies to detached supporters," and it does appear that many think the fight is over because marriage equality is law of the land—donations to LGBT orgs dropped precipitously after the Supreme Court ended restrictions on same-sex marriages in 2015. That makes us more vulnerable to attack than ever.
One difference between now and 20 years ago is that homophobia and transphobia is now harder to spot, including by those perpetuating it. People like my Facebook friend’s friend approach with smiles and proclamations of “I support gay people,” all the while exhibiting behaviors that say otherwise. But the hostility remains—that’s why LGBT kids are more likely to be victims of online harassment and are at risk of suicide.
I remember a crisp October Friday in 1998, the sun dipping below the Hudson River as backdrop to the black and brown and white queer people, our genders a colorful blur on the Christopher Street Pier. Drag queens on roller blades vogue-ing their hearts out; lanky gay Boricuas who slept on the heating vents outside of NYU to stay warm through winter because their parents kicked them out; butch dykes who took on the role of mother to the rest of us. We stood solemnly amid the chaos of Manhattan, ignoring craned necks out of car windows on the West Side Highway, shoulder to shoulder, forming a big circle. No families, no laws to protect us. That circle was all some of us had. We lit candles to mourn the loss of our fallen Matthew Shepard. We were Matthew and he was us. He could have been us. We could have been him.
We were pariahs. Then victims. Then we glimpsed what it could feel like to be included, to access a sense of acceptance and safety generations before us had only dreamed about through gritted teeth. In some ways, it’s harder than ever to suss out exactly where we are and what’s needed to propel us forward.
That's why Pride is more important than it has been in years. We have more to lose.
Allison Hope is a civil rights advocate, communications professional and lesbian living in New York. She has written for the Washington Post, Slate, Time, Conde Nast Traveler, Bustle, among many other outlets.