In February of this year, Attitude magazine published an op-ed by a young man who argued that today’s queer youth should not be obliged to learn about our community’s history, nor feel pressure to be grateful for the rights they have that should be due any human being. Shame and homophobia are relics of the past, the writer claimed; young LGBTQ+ people today are thriving and they have more important things to do, like party and take selfies (yes, really).
Our initial reaction was one of astonishment and outrage that someone would look at the world today and somehow think we have reached utopia at a time when politicians around the globe are working to roll back our rights, courts are siding with anti-LGBTQ+ businesses, and trans people are being murdered just for being who they are. What disturbed us most was the idea that the freedoms and rights we now have just dropped out of the sky, a rank dismissal of the countless men and women who marched and campaigned and revolted, who died in the AIDS epidemic in a time when our president would not say the word, and perhaps most of all those who simply lived their everyday lives when homosexuality was considered a mental illness punishable by law.
It wasn’t so long ago that we lived in fear and in secret (plenty of us still do). Many LGBTQ+ men and women today who enjoy marriage equality, the right to adopt, and so many other basic rights are old enough to remember when we had no equality, no role models, no advocates, no political power — no voice. Yet when we thought more about the op-ed writer’s perspective, we realized that there is little documentary history available to us. There is no genetic family lore to pass down through generations. Our stories are not taught in schools, or are reduced to a footnote or a paragraph about Stonewall or Harvey Milk. How are young LGBTQ+ people today supposed to learn about where they came from?
As George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Stay Proud Project was born out of our own curiosity and an innate sense of responsibility. We realized that it is incumbent on us to share our history in ways that make queer youth want to know more, want to be grateful, want to honor those who made the bounty of their lives possible — the many before us who planted the seeds of trees they would never sit under. We wanted to capture the real people who were there, who have lived, who have loved, who have lost, and who have triumphed. We wanted to hear the stories of today’s youth, many of whom are struggling even in this more progressive environment. We wanted to see, firsthand, the faces of who we are — beyond the bigger-than-life heroes whose stories have been previously documented.
With the support of people we know, friends of friends, and organizations like the Los Angeles LGBT Center, GLAAD, and Lambda Legal, we interviewed nearly 80 members of our community in Los Angeles and New York, from ages 10 to 93, across the spectrum of sexuality and gender. We asked questions and listened to stories that brought us joy and broke our hearts, that made us angry, hopeful, and, well, proud. We worked with editor Corey Ziemniak to pare down hours of interviews into short videos on topics such as Pride, Coming Out, Activism and History, Intersectionality, Hope, Faith, and Marriage Equality and Beyond.
We have been sharing these videos on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, and the response has been overwhelming. We have received emotional feedback from all over the United States and beyond, even as far away as Mongolia. Young people have written about seeing people who look and talk like them and feeling less alone. Older people have thanked us for not forgetting those who never got to see the results of their dedication. It’s good to feel that what we’re doing resonates, but we know this is only the beginning. We want to expand this project to cities and states across the country, and eventually around the world. There are so many untold stories that we cannot afford to lose.
Some history should be repeated. Certainly this is true of the tireless efforts of our leaders who came before: Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Harvey Milk, Harry Hay, Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, Edith Windsor, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and so many others. But it applies perhaps most of all to the stories of those who have lived their truth against all odds, who have marched and sacrificed, who have found self-love and dared to love others while swimming in an ocean of hate. The idea that we cannot both celebrate our lives and acknowledge how we got here is ludicrous and dangerous. We have come so far, but our struggle is not over, and further progress can only be accomplished if we know and honor where we’ve been. It’s one thing to become proud, it’s another to Stay Proud.
ANDREW PUTSCHOEGL is a director and a co-creator of The Stay Proud Project. SAM HARRIS, an actor and writer, is also a co-creator of The Stay Proud Project.