Matt Comer

The defining decade of my youth

Filed By Matt Comer | December 31, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: boy scouts, marriage amendment, Massachusetts, NBC nightly news, NEM, Prop 8, same-sex marriage, time magazine

What Time is calling the "decade from hell," was nothing short a time of growth, self-discovery, exploration and transformation for me. This decade seems as though it has flown by, but entirely contained within that time was my journey from childhood to adulthood.

On New Year's Eve 1999, I was just a scared and confused, albeit no less headstrong, 13-year-old boy on the precipice of a life-changing moment. Only months after the turn of the millennium I came out to my family, my friends and, eventually, the world.

So, any list of top LGBT moments in this decade is more than mere history for me. It isn't just facts and figures. It certainly isn't boring and staid. It is personal. This history contains important moments in time that served as defining and formative moments of my life, in my growth into adulthood as an American and in my development as an LGBT activist.

Campaigns and actions for which older LGBTs worked or volunteered were news stories or TV specials I witnessed as an openly gay teen starving for community and for a place to fit in. These leaders' and my mentors' victories or losses helped to shape and mold me or are connected to some other formative or important time of my youth.

They say all politics is local. I say all history is personal. Many of the "top LGBT moments of the decade" also serve as the top defining moments of my life. Some are of national importance. Others are, perhaps, events of local interest or not as well-known, yet they are no less significant to my personal history and the journey that's taken me from closeted teen to openly gay adult.

Here are just some of those events...

A Union in Wait

I was only 12 or 13 when what I thought about the place of LGBT people in my sleepy hometown of Winston-Salem and native North Carolina were affirmed in the media and public discourse.

During an evening at home, dinner was being prepared as the local news reported on the growing, statewide controversy over a same-sex union ceremony in Wake Forest University's Wait Chapel. The campus church, Wake Forest Baptist, was itself very open and welcoming of LGBT members. But the church's and university's association with the North Carolina Baptist Convention created unique challenges and a publicly-fought battle for acceptance and love.

The lesbian couple eventually got their union ceremony. Wake Forest Baptist Church became even more welcoming of LGBT people. And, the local political and religious struggle, playing out for me on TV screens and in newsprint, served as a spark of hope and inspiration.

When I got older, after I'd come out and left my conservative, fundamentalist Baptist church, I'd finally meet that lesbian couple. I'd join Wake Forest Baptist. One of those women would eventually become the spiritual mentor of my youth. From lonely preteen to high school graduate, Wake Forest Baptist's journey toward LGBT inclusion informed my own personal, spiritual journey.

Millennium March on Washington

In the month I came out to family and friends, the nation's LGBT community gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Millennium March on Washington. Only 14 years old and near the end of eighth grade, I happened upon CSPAN's televised coverage of the event while flipping through the channels. I saw two young people, not much older than me, talking about a gay-straight student club they'd started at their school in Utah. Their voices and story inspired me.

I thought to myself, "How cool would it be to start something like that next year when I go to high school?"

I don't remember the names of those young people. In fact, I don't remember much else about the coverage of the March. What I do know, is that the March and those teens inspired me. The next year I'd take my first step into the world of LGBT activism. With the inspiration from those youth and with help from local advocates, I'd start my school's first gay-straight alliance.

My peers and I were pioneers then. In 2000, only nine gay-straight alliances existed statewide. I look back on my time in high school and compare it to teens' experiences in high school now. I can't help but feel old and irrelevant: a decade later, the number of gay-straight alliances here has grown ten-fold.

BSA v. Dale

My friends Ted and Zach first introduced me to Scouting in fourth grade. I joined their Cub Scout pack and moved up with them and other friends into Boy Scouts. When I did come out, I knew nothing of the Scouts' policy against openly gay members or leaders. That would change in the summer between middle and high school.

The U.S. Supreme Court's June 2000 decision in favor of the Boy Scouts of America's right to set its own membership and leadership standards was a turning point in my life. I didn't quite know what would happen as fall set in and I headed into my first year of high school.

I went ahead with my plans for a gay-straight alliance. Only two weeks prior, another school in my system had finally won the right to start their own club. My hometown paper and other news-media covered the incident and were more than willing to follow-up on my school's decision to allow a similar group.

After I came out to the world in a 200-word news brief buried in the "B section" pages of The Winston-Salem Journal, my Scout leader sat me down. "How could you do this," he asked. "What do you think you're doing to your parents, your brothers?"

He said "they" would be voting on my membership. I didn't return to another troop meeting until my mother convinced me I should at least ask about my membership. I went back in December. The troop's leaders were gathered for a meeting, and I asked my Scoutmaster what they had decided.

"If you choose to live that lifestyle, then you are choosing not to be a Boy Scout," he said.

As the words made it into my ears and through my mind, all I heard was, "You're not welcome here."

The combined experience of gay-straight organizing at my school, and my troop's rejection of me, created Winston-Salem's "little queer engine that could." Through the end of high school, I'd become more and more outspoken about bullying and discrimination against youth. In those years, I'd find a purpose and meaning for my life.

Massachusetts legalizes same-sex marriage

I was such a geek when I was in school. Hell, I'm still a geek now. I knew of no other teen my age who ritually read the morning newspaper everyday or watched national news with such passion -- I still remember the news coverage of Massachusetts' 2003 decision to legalize marriage for same-sex couples.

The next day, I walked into my chorus class singing, "We're going to the chapel and we're going to get married. Gee I really love you and we're going to get married. Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, we can get married now," or something like that.

I don't quite know how my teachers kept me from getting my ass beaten every day, but they did.

Anti-gay marriage amendments

As winter turned to spring in 2004, I celebrated my 18th birthday with joy. That weekend, I headed out to my hometown's only gay club. My first time there was an experience like nothing else. There was energy. There was life. Although no stranger to the LGBT community or to activism by this time, it felt good to be in a place where I knew everyone (or almost everyone) was just like me.

That was the night I met Andy. He was a student at the state arts college in my city. It wasn't my "first time," by any means, but this time was different. I went home with him and for the next few weeks a "spring fling," of sorts, ensued.

Lying with Andy on his bed one afternoon after school, we we're watching TV when a presidential press conference interrupted whatever had been entertaining us. President Bush announced his support for a federal constitutional amendment on marriage, and for the dozens of anti-gay state constitutional amendments on marriage making their way to the ballot that year.

Proposition 8

By the time the 2008 election rolled around, I'd worked my way through almost three years of college and a few months stint of non-profit work and found myself hired as the editor of the Carolinas' LGBT newspaper.

When California legalized marriage for same-sex couples, I was certain the journey toward full marriage equality nationwide would keep moving forward. It wasn't meant to be. Election day came and went and I, along with the rest of the LGBT nation, felt grief, anger and frustration.

I'm not old enough to have witnessed or participated in the Stonewall Riots, or the early days of on-the-ground LGBT activism. I never witnessed or participated in the grassroots activist work of groups like ACT-UP. But what I saw in the days after Prop. 8's passage was both inspiring and something I think I'll remember the rest of my life.

On "NBC Nightly News," just days after Prop. 8's victory, I watched as Brian Williams quickly ran through the top stories in the show's opening sequence. To see thousands of people, marching in protest in cities across the nation made me speechless, brought tears to my eyes and seemed, at the time, the deliverance of the more active, on-the-ground LGBT civil rights movement I've been wishing to see and still hope might come.

'My decade'

Like the events in the early years of this decade, those closing this time mark important milestones not only in the time line of our movement but also in that of my life. The 2000s were the foremost, defining years of my life thus far. The history contained therein has made me the person I am today. The people, places and things of this time coalesced to inform my worldview.

Time is wrong. The 2000s weren't the "decade from hell." The 2000s ... it was my decade.

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Margaretpoa Margaretpoa | January 1, 2010 9:26 AM

Jesus you make me feel old. On December 31, 1999, I was 39 and had in the decade prior finished my second and final bout with serious drug addiction, survived my second and final, (I hope), suicide attempt, concluded my military service, been fag bashed for the second time, lost my fourth years long job due to my transgender status, lost some of the toes on my left foot in an industrial accident, watched my father die of cancer and moved from my hometown to another city. Those are the highlights, (or in some cases, lowlights)of the 1990s.
As for the 2000s: I transitioned from male to female for the third, (and final), time, (the one really good thing that happened for me in the 2000s), lost my fifth years long job due to my transgender status, lost my best friend in the world, put my old German Shepherd to sleep, watched my mom die of emphysema, moved to yet ANOTHER city, changed careers, watched the president and his (mis)administration destroy the reputation and solvency of this nation, voted straight party ticket for the first time ever, gained 75 pounds, lost 90 pounds, lost my health care coverage, got laid off from the best job I've ever had, watched the public discourse turn into venom vs "don't hurt me", learned to wish that I could recant my military service, gave up all vestiges of superstition due to fundies of different stripes trying to impose their various philosophies upon me, watched flying become an ordeal despite the fact that the odds being a victim of airline violence are less than 16,000,000 to 1, (being struck by lightning is 500,000 to 1), while at the same time maintenance and air traffic control are being systematically union busted, (I used to be an airframe mechanic, can you tell?), and lost some friends and one relative in two, unpaid for, incompetently administered, pointless wars that the country was lied or bullied into supporting.
NOT to belittle your fascinating experience or your no doubt profound awakening but the 2000s were your defining decade because at the time, they were your first decade as an adult, though that seems to have happened toward the middle. I've seen three decades as an adult and a part of another and they were all defining in many ways to me. You're 23 and obviously very bright with what looks like a really good future ahead of you.
Time had it exactly right. The 2000s were bad for me personally and for the nation and for the world. They might not have seemed so bad to you because you don't have anything to compare them to. I grew up during the big moon push and in fact, within a couple of miles of Ellington AFB and NASA near Houston. I've seen the country proud and united. I've seen the government function without the venom and derision and the reactionary obstruction. I remember a very recent time when no sane person would seriously debate whether we should torture people. It wasn't long ago that religion was a component of society but it wasn't a devouring force. I remember when "pre-emptive war" was an appalling concept and what other nations did. I remember when somebody saying "keep your government hands off my medicare" would have been laughed at hysterically, rather than reported on seriously.
I didn't read the Time piece but if they said it was the decade from hell, they have it exactly right. If the nineties were the "me first" decade, then the 2000s were the "fuck you and fuck the world" decade.

Thanks, Matt. It was fun to see these moments from your perspective.

Absolutely fabulous, thank you for sharing and for continuing to be a pioneer. We have some long battles ahead of us.

David Castillo David Castillo | January 1, 2010 4:18 PM

So many of your defining moments were defining moments for me, too, Matt. The 2000s were my second decade as an adult and they were far different from the previous decade in which I went from a pre-teen to a sophomore in college. Still, 2000-2009 was far better for me, personally, than the 90s.

From a political standpoint, though, I'd like to forget them.

Let's hope this new decade is the equality decade.

While the decade was hellish in terms of longterm American politics, it was also the decade that LGBT organizing, well, got sorta organized. And for community, that's a feat worthy of celebration.

Matt, I thoroughly enjoyed your story. I came out a long time ago after college while living in Greensboro, then wound up living in Gray Court Apartments in Winston-Salem for some very good years.

I wish you the very best.

Thanks! I know exactly where Gray Court is. I love that part of town, and grew up there almost. My uncle's company was just down the street on 6th. Wiley Middle and RJR are, of course, just on the other side of West End from downtown and so many of my friends lived there.

Thanks for sharing your awakening, Matt, and thank you for the active role your taking!

The only unsolicited advice I would offer you is to be suspicious of LGBT "memes" and as questioning of the "received wisdom" of your LGBT elders as your nongay ones. We are a community repeatedly derailed or, worse, set back by the squeakiest, self-serving wheels publicly still working, whatever their age, through their own dysfunction with a machete. Disagree with them in the slightest and they'll do their best to decapitate you.

Among the most bloodthirsty of this tribe are those who insist upon emphasizing our differences rather than that which we share with the "mainstream." Showing all the stability of graduates of an electric potty chair, being an "outcast" is porn to them, and they insist on imposing their emotional scars on everyone else.

Cultural wars are only won by enlisting allies from ALL groups not just fellow minorities. Just as the black civil rights movement only advanced with, SHOCK, the participation of whites, the LGBT movement has only advanced with the participation of nonLGBTs. The black author of the classic "The Invisible Man" once said it best"

"If you can show me how to cling to that which is real to me while showing me a way into the larger world...I will sing your praises and help make the desert grow fruit."

As exciting as the younger generation of activists awakened by the passage of Prop H8TE is, out of ignorance of our history [and the history of civil rights activism generally], some are making the same mistakes, reinventing now-broken wheels.

Thus, I urge you to do what too few are: read about our history by authors who write from research not from the kind of willfully ill-informed subjectivity that one sees all over the LGBT blogosphere. I suggest "Out for Good" by Adam Nagourney+, "Out of the Past" by Neil Miller [it has some minor factual errors but the balance makes up for it], "Stonewall" by David Carter, and any of the writings of Rictor Norton that burst with documentation the undocumented gaseous bubble of Constuctionism.

Remember what black gay civil rights icon Bayard Rustin said [I paraphrase]: Our job is not to get nongays to love us, but to prevent them from expressing their hatred in ways that diminish our civil rights.

Learn what too few did from the first months of our last "Messiah for the Gays": promises alone are meaningless.

I wish you love. The best is yet to come.

New Years Eve, 1999
I was married, convinced that I could live as straight, working for my current employer but about to leave to go back to banking law, and stood on a rooftop to watch fireworks marking the beginning of the millenium with my children.

I considered myself settled in my path. I had never even met my wife.

I was a good Catholic wife and a cantor at Mass on Sunday...

To say that this decade was full of change and upheaval for me would be a grand understatement.

Similiarly with America, and with the world.
By 2010, one could tell the most amazing, hatred driven lies on television and develop a following.

For most of this decade, we had a President who wanted to outlaw same sex marriage and was indifferent at best and hostile at worst to most LGBT rights issues.

Is it better now?
Yes and no. The nation is far more polarised after eight years of Cheney-Rove rule, and Americans seem to like to have their hates and bigotries not only legitimised but increased in volume, and made very public.

The Democrats cannot call the Reactionaries out on their vile lies, they've no collective spine.

And Sarah Palin, of death camps and exorcisms and dinosaurs cavorting with Adam and Eve is the second most popular woman in America.

I'm afraid of what this decade will bring.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 3, 2010 2:27 AM

Matt, your posting was very impressive and outlines a selection of discrimination you overcame to become the leader you are. Adversity and tough choices build character, always have.

What is remarkable to me (and don't throw away your youth quite yet please because it is a wonderful time) is that the pace of change in spite of the past ten years has been faster than the decade before and the decade before that one. While still a full 40% of the electorate would vote against a GLBT political candidate out of hand, regardless of qualifications, the wheel continues to turn and pick up speed.

When you think of it in this way and remember that civil rights for GLBT persons has made progress, while civil liberties have contracted for the country as a whole, this accomplishment is even greater. Thank you for your contribution.

Thanks for an optimistic view of the decade we just finished. For us old fogies who tend to get cynical about Prop. 8, the Maine vote and the intentions of the Obama administration, it's good to know that some young people are moving into gay life with support from their families, high schools and churches. (Screw the Boy Scouts). And it's especially heartening to hear of 20-somethings willing to break out of the bar-scene cocoon and get political. I hope the new decade leads to your running for office.

Hi Matt,
Thanks for writing this. We're pretty close in age (18 in Spring 2004), and came out at the same age. To hear someone else's experiences is heartening. Hopefully in ten years, we'll be reading the reflections of those a decade younger than ourselves and be even more encouraged by the way their lives were different.