By Don Guardian
In 1977, I came out to someone for the first time. It wasn’t to my coworkers at the Boy Scouts where I would have been immediately fired. It wasn’t during confession where my very existence was out of step with church doctrine. It certainly wasn’t to my parents who I feared I would only disappoint.
But two years after graduating college—where I never met anyone on campus who was gay—I slowly built up the confidence to live truthfully as myself in the world. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was more likely to have been taught that the horrors of communism somehow came from a nefarious gay plot than to know anyone in sports or politics who was vocally out.
While I was in high school, the Stonewall Riots sparked a generation of gay rights activism but only in retrospect do I understand the significance of that moment which inspired icons of American history to action.
At 68, my lifetime has seen a seismic shift in society’s acceptance of the LGBTQ community. 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 safely navigate unknown areas. But understanding was slowly growing and visibility steadily increased until the LGBTQ family suffered our greatest setback with the arrival of the AIDS crisis. Far too many of us lost friends and loved ones who were one day healthy, youthful, and vibrant and the next month they were gone.
Around this time, I got started with the South Jersey AIDS Alliance. Out of our collective loss, we forged new networks for organizing and support that (along with lifesaving drugs) allowed us to live openly outside of the shadow. After 11 years together Louis and I were finally granted a civil union in 2005. We were so excited we never thought marriage was even possible. But the improbable became possible in 2014 when I was both sworn in as mayor and we took our wedding vows.
Six years since the right to marry was extended to every American, it’s reassuring to see so many rainbow flags flying alongside our stars and stripes as one symbol of America’s promise of freedom and inclusion complements the other. I am proud to live in a country that protects its citizens with equal treatment under the law and extends that guarantee to anyone willing 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+ people, and LGBTQ youth grappling with suicidal thoughts. As an elder member of the LGBTQ family, I’ve seen progress inch along 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 bends toward justice”.
Pride Month gives our country the opportunity to more fully realize that perfect union our Founding Fathers set out to create 245 years ago. It highlights the unique contributions the LGBTQ family has made to American society. It reminds everyone that wherever we go within the bounds of this nation our rights as free Americans will be honored and respected.
Thirty years ago, I sought out Atlantic City as a welcoming place which has brought together people of every culture, creed, and orientation since WWII. It has been and will be my goal that my time in public service reflects these shared values.
With Pride Month now coming to a close, let’s keep up the fight for the rights of all Americans who have not achieved the equality they deserve.
We’re proud. We’re here. We’re a part of the multicolored mosaic that defines this nation.
Don Guardian is the former mayor of Atlantic City and a candidate for Assembly in New Jersey’s Second Legislative District. Guardian, who has been endorsed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, would be the only openly LGBTQ member of the New Jersey Assembly.