This week I had a great honor. While we in the US are concerned with the state of our struggle for equality and worry each day how the Trump administration wants to dismantle the gains we’ve made, I had the opportunity to meet this week as part of a program from the US State Department called the International Visitor Leadership Program. Seventeen future leaders from central and South America visit the United States, and what the program does is try to show young future leaders of various countries how the US political system operates. Part of that is community involvement, including the LGBT community. The fact that this is still being done under Trump makes me wonder how long before Mike Pence pounces on it.
The program is over 40 years old, but in recent years, they’ve tried to show progressive movements in the US to the visiting delegates, and many of them were progressive themselves.
There were a few who identified as gay or lesbian, and one who was trans.
Sitting in an office that publishes an LGBT newspaper once a week and has a full staff amazed them. When I told them this is true in most major America cities, they were more than surprised.
The 17 included representatives of Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Guatemala. They all had, it seemed, one question: How did the LGBT community get this far to what they saw as acceptance?
I tried to explain that it took about 50 years and AIDS to organize us to where we are today, then explained that we feel there is still much work to do in our very own community. Racism, transphobia, homeless youth, and elder-housing issues are among them.
I asked about the situations in their countries, and my heart sank. One by one, they talked about persecution and the need to remain in the closet in most of their homes. Most were happy to have a gay Pride day once a year. One told how a gay priest in Santo Domingo had disappeared after coming out. The one thing that most had was their Latino heritage, and I suggested the issue of machismo. Others stated the issues were with the indiginous populations, whom many of them represented, and religion.
In the end I found myself being a cheerleader and explaining what it was like in the US in the 1950s and 60s, with many similarities to where they are today. And I explained that in 1969 we decided that it was time to define ourselves and to Come Out, and that is when the change began.
They wanted hope… I then explained they were the hope, and they are.t
Mark Segal is publisher of Philadelphia Gay News. His new memoir And Then I Danced is out now. This was first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.