What pride month means to me

By Don Guardian

In 1977, I dated someone for the first time. It was not my Boy Scout colleagues that I would have been immediately fired. It was not during confession that my very existence was out of step with the doctrine of the Church. It was certainly not my parents I was afraid to disappoint.

But two years after graduating from college – where I never met anyone on campus who was gay – I slowly gained the confidence to live honestly as myself in the world. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was more likely to have learned that the horrors of communism somehow came from an infamous gay conspiracy than to know someone in sports or politics speaking out loud.

While in high school, the Stonewall Riots sparked a generation of gay rights activism, but it is only with hindsight that I understand the significance of that moment that inspired icons of the American history in action.

At 68 years old, my life has seen a dramatic change in the acceptance of the LGBTQ community by society. In my twenties, I was memorizing three-digit codes to enter gay friendly bars and businesses. In my thirties, I had Bob Damron’s address book to help me navigate safely in unfamiliar areas. But understanding slowly grew and visibility steadily increased until the LGBTQ family suffered its biggest setback with the onset of the AIDS crisis. Far too many of us have lost friends and loved ones who were one day healthy, young and vibrant and the next month they were gone.

At that time, I started with the South Jersey AIDS Alliance. From our collective loss, we have forged new networks of organization and support which (along with life-saving drugs) have enabled us to live openly outside the shadows. After 11 years together, Louis and I finally got a civil union in 2005. We were so excited that we never thought marriage was even possible. But the improbable became possible in 2014 when I was sworn in as both mayor and we took our wedding vows.

Six years since the right to marry has been extended to all Americans, it is reassuring to see so many rainbow flags fluttering alongside our stars and stripes, as one of the symbols of the promise of America’s freedom and inclusion complements each other. I am proud to live in a country that protects its citizens with equal treatment under the law and extends this guarantee to anyone who wishes to strengthen the country.

So much progress has been made, but so much work remains to be done. New challenges face the transgender community, same-sex parents, HIV-positive people, and LGBTQ youth struggling with thoughts of suicide. As a senior member of the LGBTQ family, I have seen progress progress, but every bit of determination and activism pushes us all forward. To quote one of my personal heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it leans toward justice.”

Pride Month gives our country the opportunity to better realize that perfect union that our founding fathers decided to create 245 years ago. It highlights the unique contributions of the LGBTQ family to American society. He reminds everyone that wherever we go within the boundaries of this nation, our rights as free Americans will be honored and respected.

Thirty years ago, I searched for Atlantic City as a welcoming place that has brought together people of all cultures, beliefs and orientations since World War II. It has been and will be my goal for my time in the public service to reflect these shared values.

As Pride Month draws to a close, let’s continue to fight for the rights of all Americans who haven’t been given the equality they deserve.

We are proud. We are here. We are part of the multi-colored mosaic that defines this nation.

Don Guardian is the former mayor of Atlantic City and candidate for Assembly in New Jersey’s Second Legislative District. Guardian, which was backed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, is said to be the only openly LGBTQ member of the New Jersey assembly.

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