There was a quaint little bookstore nestled on the edge of downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan, that I used to frequent when I was in college. I couldn't tell you if it was the selection of books or the conversations with the owner that I enjoyed most.
One day I walked in searching for a new book to read.
The owner asked if I was interested in fiction. I said, "Sure."
That's the moment everything changed.
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"Just As I Am" by E. Lynn Harris was the first time I saw my full self. The protagonist, Raymond, was Black, queer and trying to figure out what life would look like if he stopped trying to be what he was supposed to be and instead embraced who he was. Before reading the book in 1994, whenever I stared in the mirror, it felt as if tiny fragments would be staring back at me.
On occasion, I could hold myself together long enough to see a silhouette, but inevitably the pull from shame would be too great for self worth to hold on.
Shortly after reading Harris' book, I went back to that bookstore to purchase his earlier title, "Invisible Life." I wish I could tell you the literary breadcrumbs were all I needed to make my way out, but I remained in the closet until graduate school. I needed a different compass and more breadcrumbs, although that's not really the point of the story.
The point of the story is, I found my way out.
Today is the first day of Pride, which means someone out there just started planning a straight Pride event to placate their homophobia. While that oddity always caught my attention, it is the closet that remains the greatest threat to full equality. Thus, coming out -- Pride -- is our most powerful weapon.
As I alluded to earlier in sharing part of my coming out story, everyone has their own journey and I respect that. I hope for the person who was like me in college, this column serves to be a breadcrumb. I hope my new LGBTQ-focused podcast, "Life Out Loud with LZ Granderson," does as well. When I got the chance to thank Harris for his books, he instructed me to pay it forward. I've been trying ever since.
The phrase "we are everywhere" -- seen on signage and heard in chants during the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights -- would not have any bite if not for those willing to make their presence known.
There are studies showing a direct correlation between LGBTQ acquaintanceship and support. There are LGBTQ employee resource groups making their work environments more inclusive because first there were LGBTQ employees willing to make their presence known.
It is understandable to be agitated with how Pride parades have become a showcase for corporate America. But it is because of that commercialization and marriage equality secured and Lil Nas X gyrating on "Saturday Night Live," that the LGBTQ community needs Pride more than ever.
Yes, we can get married, but many don't know there are still 28 states where we could be fired if the wrong employer found out, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
That there are 29 states where we could lose our housing if our landlord disapproved. Sure, a same-sex couple could marry in secret, but if they wanted to start a family, they may have to move as some states still allow agencies to discriminate against us.
This year alone, more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced across 40 states. Many of these bills target trans kids under the guise of protecting women's sports. Of course, this desire to protect women's sports was not very evident when the former president attacked the U.S. women's soccer team as they were competing in the 2019 World Cup.
But then again, we know this has always been about attacking our right to exist.
Currently there are bills that would forbid the discussion of LGBTQ people in the classroom, a redux of the wave of insidious "no promo homo" laws that began popping up in the 1990s. There are bills that allow parents to opt out of any LGBTQ lesson assignments for their children. One state senator in Arizona recently introduced a bill that would remove the word "homosexuality" in sex education classes. She has since backed away from the effort, but that's just a snapshot of the depth some anti-LGBTQ elected officials are willing to go to in order to make us disappear.
I was aware of my same-sex attraction long before I read "Just As I Am." What I did not know growing up was that there were other people like me -- that there have always been people like me and there always will be. Believe it or not, there are young people today who do not know this -- who live in parts of the country where Pride flags do not fly in public this time of year.
National organizations are targeting them and politicians are willing to help them do it. This is partly why I returned to Kalamazoo to marry my now-husband not far from where that quaint bookstore once stood. I wanted to pay homage to the journey, perhaps drop a breadcrumb or two for someone trying to find their own way out, like me years ago. Maybe even provide a reason for pride instead of shame... if only for a moment.
Sometimes a moment is all it takes.
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Granderson is an award-winning journalist, ESPN Radio host and op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He was selected as journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association in 2011 and his TED Talk, "Myth of the Gay Agenda," has 1.7 million views. Granderson has received recognition for his work from each major LGBTQ+ organization in the nation, including the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD. The Advocate, the nation's most prominent and oldest LGBTQ+ magazine, frequently includes him as one of the 50 most influential LGBTQ voices in media.