I was in high school in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was elected. I lived in deep red, good ole boy Texas, where you simply stayed in the closet and pretended to be straight. For most of my teen years and into adulthood, I lived in fear of being found out and hid my shame by drinking heavily. The dark history of the Reagan years: anti-gay initiatives, increasing hate crimes, and lack of response to HIV/AIDS, echoes in the world we live in today. Looking back, I never would have imagined that I could proudly stand alongside members of the gay community as I do now. After the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision that finally allowed gay marriage in 2015, it looked like we had turned a corner and that the country was beginning to honestly accept the rights of all people. Fast forward to 2023, hate crimes are on the rise, and state legislatures are fanning the flames of hate by making policies that systematically shame and persecute the LGBTQ+ community. All of this feels eerily familiar to me.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, a record 70 anti-LGBTQ laws have been enacted so far this year. As expected, these new laws and the rhetoric surrounding them have galvanized hateful actors that no longer hide on the fringes of society. Hate crimes in Texas increased by 6.4 percent from 2021 to 2022, setting a new record, with over 56 percent of those hate crimes targeting LGBTQ+ and Black people (Texas Department of Public Safety). And it’s not just Texas. Hate crimes in New York City were up 76 percent in that same timeframe (NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force). In addition, the education system is under attack. PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans for the first half of the 2022-23 school year lists 1,477 instances of individual books banned, an increase of 28 percent compared to the prior six months. 56 percent of the titles banned are books about race or racism that feature characters of color or have LGBTQ+ characters or themes. As a gay man in Texas, I feel as if I’m being taken back to the closeted 1980s and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” 1990s.
Back then, I couldn’t imagine not feeling ashamed of my sexuality. I’m certain that there are young people today who feel like I did then. They hide their true selves from their friends and family. They fear that they will be rejected or worse. They live daily with the shame of not being able to be their true selves. They may even use drugs or alcohol to numb the pain and hide their true feelings. Like me in the 1980s and 1990s, LGBTQ+ people find themselves faced with an increasingly hostile social and political climate, and they need support from the broader community. If I could write a letter to young Tate Barkley knowing what I know now, here is what I would say:
Be Honest with Yourself and Accept Who You Are.
Acting straight and dating women will never make you not gay. There is no shame in being your true self. Look at yourself in the mirror, accept who you are, and love yourself.
Be Honest With Others and Accept Who They Are
Trust that there are people in your life with whom you can be honest. Those people will accept you and love you no matter what. Don’t wait to talk to your sisters or your Mom and Dad. They will be powerful allies as you make your way in the world. As for anyone who doesn’t accept you, their beliefs may limit their ability to love others, but they do not limit you. Be strong.
Be in Service to Others So Each Day Has a Purpose
Find a way to serve others rather than focusing on yourself. It will broaden your perspective and give you a purpose in life outside of your own ambition. Small things count. You don’t have to save the world in a day. Take a friend to lunch. Volunteer at a food pantry or give blood. The opportunities to serve others are endless. When you shift your focus to making someone else’s life better, your own life gets better, too.
Tate, you will survive many things in your life: poverty, business failure, turmoil in your home life, and alcoholism. But YOU WILL SURVIVE. You will develop resilience in the face of opposition, and it will make you a better son, brother, husband, attorney, teacher, and friend. Release the shame that you feel about your sexuality, and be kind to yourself. I strongly believe that resilience is a product of kindness – kindness to yourself and others. By being kind, you will do more than survive, you will prevail.
Tate Barkley is the author of Sunday Dinners, Moonshine, and Men to be released on September 25, 2023.