June marked the fifth Pride Month since I came out in 2013 — and the first one to go unacknowledged by the president of the United States.
The slight has hit hard, and not because lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) needed a reminder that our rights remain a political fixation. Rather, by withdrawing recognition from a group that has gained ground precisely by being recognized — as friends and neighbors, sons and daughters — the White House appears to be sending a painful message that we ought to return to the closet, that we don’t deserve the progress we’ve made, and that it’s still not OK to be who we are.
When May turned to June this year, the White House issued a flurry of proclamations recognizing June’s many identities: everything from National Homeownership Month to African-American Music Appreciation Month to Great Outdoors Month. For the first time since President Obama took office, Pride Month did not make the cut. Having grown accustomed to Obama’s increasingly elaborate proclamations and celebrations, the LGBT community had come to expect the annual acknowledgement and held out hope that it might arrive. But those expectations were extinguished.
That is no small thing, especially to young people struggling with their identities and looking to their society’s leaders for reassurance. I know, because I used to be one of them.
I was a relatively advanced 28-year-old when I first declared myself a gay man, delayed in no small part by the hostile political atmosphere surrounding gay rights in the early part of this century. Neither Republicans nor Democrats dared support same-sex marriage during my formative years, making it hard to imagine a future for myself.
I didn’t want to be controversial. I didn’t want to make waves. And I didn’t want to invite harassment over something I couldn’t control. So I bided my time.
A game-changer arrived in 2012, when Obama sat down with ABC News' Robin Roberts and said, very simply, “Same-sex couples should be able to get married.” That statement changed the country’s baseline notions of what is acceptable and good in our culture, what is worthy of our respect and tolerance. That’s the power of official recognition. I heard it loud and clear, and I started planning to come out, which I did almost exactly one year later.
I wrote to Obama in January as part of a “staff thank-you” effort. I told him that when he said those words, “Coming out seemed much less risky than it had before. After all, how could people denigrate me when the president of the United States is on my side?”
That safety net is what Trump yanked out from under the LGBT community by refusing to dignify this year’s Pride Month celebration. He’s calling into question our worth and equality and influencing millions who, consciously or not, take cues from their political leaders.
The message he sent to LGBT people is both regressive and demoralizing: You are controversial again, and there is legitimacy to the prejudice against you. That message makes the burden of queerness that much heavier and the promise of universal acceptance that much more remote. Coming out is never easy, but it got a little bit harder this spring.
When people ask why it took me so long to come out, I ponder what kind of intervention might have worked sooner. As someone who aspired to bland respectability — I’m a career government lawyer, after all — I longed to hear a high-ranking government official say unequivocally that being gay was OK, and that people like me had done nothing wrong.
It would have sounded a lot like then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s speech about transgender rights on May 9, 2016 (which, as her speechwriter, I worked on). At the end of the speech, Lynch spoke directly to the transgender community on behalf of the Obama administration and said the words all marginalized and vulnerable people crave: “We see you.” In doing so, she extended the dignity of the office of the attorney general of the United States to a community still fighting for its due. I have no doubt her words made it possible for many people to finally declare who they are and to live their lives fully.
We need more of that, more regularly, from our public leaders. Their attention can shape the course of marginalized lives. So please, President Trump, in 2018, for the sake of every confused kid who feels like he or she might never belong, accord the LGBT community the recognition and respect we deserve. All it takes is a piece of paper and your signature. It’s the least you can do.
Adam D. Chandler is a lawyer at the Justice Department. The views expressed here are his own.