Congratulations queer college graduates of 2020 on this very important and hard-won milestone. Since you are not able to partake in the usual pomp and circumstance, for my very first monthly column "In Gay We Trust," for The Advocate magazine, I wanted to share with you my commencement address.
For some of you these years at college were your extraordinary time of coming out, declaring yourself, standing and saying, “This is me,” against all odds. Some of you came to college already out, ready to spread your wings even farther. For those of you not yet out, who studied and toiled all these years from the closet, you too have achieved a herculean task.
As you enter adulthood, joining our vast, colorful, extraordinary, mischievous community, keep in mind we have no litmus test for entry. You can be out, you can be closeted, you can be prideful or self-loathing, you can declare your gender identity at 11 years old or stay in the closet till you’re middle-aged, all are welcome.
As you stand on the precipice of this next chapter of your lives, I understand how grim and hopeless it must feel. We are in unchartered times and we don’t know what comes next and if what we all thought was normal, will ever be the same. I am not an economist or futurist, so I don’t have any qualifications to speak on what may be in store for you. But I do have experience graduating college during a dark time for our community; during another plague.
I graduated NYU in 1987 at which time there were 50,378 cases of AIDS in the U.S. and 40,849 deaths. That was the year the U.S. government barred HIV-infected travelers from entering the country. While there are so many differences between AIDS and COVID-19, fear and despair are familiar to me.
So what does the future hold for you? None of us know. But that’s where your opportunity is.
All our lives, queer people have had to create ourselves, create our lives, create our families, our communities, our own safe spaces. This period, where the world can be rebuilt anew, created again, was made for us queers. This is what we do. We aren’t wedded to what was, because what was had never been intended for us. Now, you get to make a more just, more equitable world. You get to widen the margins so as to erase them. Creativity is the lifeblood of our lives and you can bring it to bear on the systemic problems that have been laid bare by this virus and deploy our greatest asset, empathy. Our world needs to heal and who better to lead that healing than us?
We queer people live and see things not as they are but as we make them.
The gift of our queerness is that your otherness helps you to see things differently. You can redefine what it means to be essential in America. But first you must make your queerness essential to your lives. Do not diminish yourselves. Do not diminish your queerness. The way to deal with your otherness is not to soften the edges, not to find the ways to fit in or to pass. It is to double down, to exploit and to expose all those parts of you that are other. Those elements of your otherness are your deep well of creativity and divinity. Your answers reside in your singularity and difference. By amplifying your otherness, you unlock your promise and potential.
Your otherness breeds empathy, emboldens ideas, and expands boundaries. Build up your resolve to expose your specialness. The way to stoke it is to revel not only in your own otherness, but in the big, wide, diverse community of otherness of which you are now a part.
I would ask you to look at your work lives and see where you can be of service — public service, medicine, science. And especially the arts. Artists, writers, poets will explain all this to us. And who among you will be the activists, the agitators? We need you now.
Part of your responsibility is to work to improve the lives of everyone in our community. Our initialism, LGBTQ, is not just stripes on our flag so everyone feels represented. It is our bond. We rise and fall, survive and thrive together. Oppression cannot be a gateway to victimhood, and mere tolerance is not adequate. Do not diminish who you are to find some acceptability. Do not connect your self-esteem with acceptance. You cannot make your queer life small so as not to cause a wave. Do not let hate seep into your profile; do not bow out or retreat because the obstacles seem so great.
As you set out to not just rebuild but rejuvenate and improve our world, be sure to build your own personal foundation as well. Be ambitious in your personal life. Prioritize your heart, especially now, during this pandemic and its uncertain aftermath. Loving someone and being loved are life-saving.
So go forth class of 2020 and trust in your queerness. It will provide.
Richie Jackson is the author of Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son and an award-winning Broadway, television, and film producer who most recently produced the Tony-nominated Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song. He was also the executive producer of Showtime's Nurse Jackie.