So many of the conversations here at Netroots Nation have revolved around what we have yet to achieve: marriage equality, ENDA, a DADT repeal... The list goes on. Clearly these are pressing, essential issues. As we move forward, however, it's also important that we look back and acknowledge the many, many gains the movement has made in a relatively short period of time.
Looking back can be a bit hard for people; not because they have developed amnesia, but because many of the younger activists, or even just younger LGBT folk, have absolutely no concept of what it was like to be gay in the pre-Stonewall era. That's unfortunate, because there's a lot to learn from that time period and the people who lived through it.
It's no secret that ageism runs rampant in gay communities: too often have I heard my peers describe 40 as old. People, 40 is not old. If it were, then we 20-somethings would be middle-aged, and that's not a concept I embrace. This pattern could quite easily be broken if younger queers were to actually talk to our lavender elders.
I've met so many amazing people here in Vegas. A man named Gene Eldridge, however, makes my top ten list. We found ourselves in a circle with mutual friends and as happens, made our introductions. It wasn't long until we broke off into our conversation, during which Eldridge told me of his experience growing up closeted in the 1950s, how he almost became a Jesuit priest to avoid getting married, and eventually came into his own in the 1960s, when he moved to San Francisco.
Though now out and proud, Eldridge also pointed out that his past experience -- that is, growing up in an environment in which homosexuality simply wasn't discussed -- has left an indelible imprint: "I'm easily closeted," he said. Eldridge isn't ashamed of being gay, certainly, but does sometimes find it a bit frightful to come out to complete strangers. Men and women who came of age in the post-Liberation world aren't as likely to have that problem.
Though Eldridge and I didn't have any deep political conversation, I walked away from our encounter with a refreshed sense of how far gay communities have come, and how much we owe to people who overcame their fears to overcome societal oppression.
We owe a lot to our elders and we can still learn a lot from them too. To dismiss or deride someone for their age isn't simply ignorant, it's irresponsible because you're depriving yourself of what may be an extremely educational interaction. And those learning experiences should not only make you grateful for our forefathers' efforts, but can help alleviate the sense of defeat that so often permeates our political discussions. A little positive thinking can go a long way.