'You Changed This Town.' Coming Out in Appalachia | Opinion

I never meant to be an activist. I was just a boy with a crush on another boy. Yet when I told the girl I soon learned was nicknamed "the Mouth of the South" that I thought a star on our basketball team was cute, I soon found myself outed to my entire Appalachian high school. I was 15. It was 2001.

The world has changed a lot in the 20 years since I came out. As Pride Month comes to a close, I think it is important that we reflect on just how far we've come. Things may not be perfect now, but for LGBT Americans, they're a hell of a lot better than they have ever been.

When I came out in 2001, only 54 percent of Americans believed same-sex relations should be legal. Not marriage. Relations. Now, one in six Gen Z adults identify as LGBT, a number that would startle and excite my teenage self. Same-sex marriage, a pipe dream for even seasoned gay rights activists in 2001, is now legal in all 50 states and enjoys broad, popular support. LGBT people have protections from employment discrimination across this country. This year alone saw our first openly gay cabinet secretary, openly gay country star, and openly gay NFL player.

It is fashionable, especially on the left, to wring our hands about how bad things have gotten. That things are worse now than they've ever been. But from where I am standing, that is demonstrably untrue. Yes, a lot of things are horrible right now: Income inequality is sky high, we're understanding more about police abuses, we've just had the worst pandemic in a century. But on the whole, I'd rather be alive and in America in 2021 than at any time or any place in human history. Especially as a gay man.

High school was a daily crucible of homophobia. Every time I walked down the hallway, slurs like "fag" were hurled at me. Just today, my grandfather brought up the time I was driving him through town and a group of boys about my age screamed "queer" at my car. It hurt him, I think, more than it hurt me. I was by that time numb to the word, which was mild compared to the other insults I'd received.

And the insults were nothing compared to the threats of violence I faced. I made many of my best friends—cheerleaders, as it turned out—when they conspired to protect me from a beating a couple other male students intended to give me. When the principal found out, he called us both into his office. The other boy was allowed to leave (no violence had occurred, and there was nothing more than a rumor to go on), while I was given a lecture about keeping my business to myself. That I had only told one person—the aforementioned Mouth of the South— mattered not. Somehow, my bullying was my fault.

About a year later, a boy suspected of being gay was attacked with a combination lock. "They bashed that queer!" someone shouted down the hall. My friends and teachers were afraid it was me. The hug the head cheerleader gave me when I walked into my classroom is the tightest I've ever been hugged.

the author as a teen
the author as a teenager

Even my friends weren't always supportive or understanding, though. On our senior trip, I was forced to room alone because, to quote the principal, "people might talk" if I slept in the room with other boys or with other girls. That actually turned out to be a perk, as I was the only person in my senior class to have my own room. But the othering was supported by most of the students, who thought it perfectly reasonable that I be excluded on the basis of my sexual orientation.

Later that year, when I talked about bringing my boyfriend (who lived elsewhere in the state) to prom, I was accused of making a political statement. But I wasn't trying to be political. I was trying to be a teenager. My boyfriend was too afraid to go, anyway. I went alone.

To my knowledge, I was the first openly gay student in my high school's history. Rumors swirled about another kid, a decade or so before, but from what I've gathered he was closeted and merely suspected of being gay. Before Joshua Bassett casually mentioned his crush on Harry Styles, before Lil Nas X danced with the devil, before even Katy Perry kissed a girl, there was chubby, pimply me with a blue Abercrombie sweater and platinum blonde hair, wondering why any of this was a big deal.

At 35, I hesitate to call myself a veteran of anything. But some years ago, I was chatting with an old teacher on Facebook. "You changed this town," she told me, saying I had made it easier for lesbian and gay students who came after me. I don't know if there is any way to quantitatively determine that, but it is a nice thought, one I certainly hope is true.

Progress flag
A Progress Pride flag and rainbow flags are seen at the Stonewall National Monument, the first US national monument dedicated to LGBTQ history and rights, marking the birthplace of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer civil rights movement, on June 1, 2020 in New York City. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

I rejoice that things have improved for LGBT teens. Still, I do want today's young activists to appreciate what those who came before us went through. I want them to celebrate the progress we have made even as we fight on for a better future. I want them to know that they stand on the shoulders of giants—not my shoulders, but the shoulders of the men and women who came before me.

They blazed a trail from Stonewall through the AIDS crisis to the prairies of Wyoming fighting for justice for Matthew Shepherd. They made it possible for me to come out.

I hope I in turn, in my own small part, made it possible for today's LGBT youth to live lives free of the bullying, the ostracizing, the hate that I experienced in the early '00s.

Skylar Baker-Jordan writes about the intersection of identity, politics, and public policy based. He lives in Tennessee.

The views in this article are the writer's own.