Dyana Ross approached me, smiling, speaking playfully, with some attitude, “You’re a little young to be in here, aren’t you?”  A couple stools further down the bar, my cousin engaged in an animated discussion with two mean looking guys.

I told Dyana that I was old enough, and man enough to handle her, forgetting two things for the moment. Dyana wasn’t a “her” but a knockout drag queen look alike, and, as far as I knew, I was not “queer.”

My cousin grabbed me, saying we had to get going.  Many of the guys seemed quite angry at him for bringing an under aged kid into the bar, knowing they were facing frequent police raids.  If I got nailed there with no I.D., that was all the authorities would need to shut this important social center down. Joann’s was a little out of the way place on Payne Avenue in Cleveland. Like so many “queer” bars, they always had to be on the lookout for police. Sometimes, they could go for weeks with no trouble; sometimes they could expect police harassment almost every night.

I’ve been reminded of this story, over a half century old, as I’ve listened to the news from Chechnya the last few months, regarding the systematic torture, imprisonment, and murder happening today in their country, where men are regularly arrested for being gay. One of Russia’s republics, this government recently encouraged the abduction and detention of 100 gay and bisexual men. Up to twenty of them have been reported killed or missing; the rest, beaten and tortured. Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations are seeking worldwide action as Chechnyan families are encouraged to commit honor killings against gay men, to rid the family of the stain of gayness. There are even reports of gay prisoners being released from prison early, so their families can then kill them.  The homophobia permeates the entire society.

While there were rarely these kind of honor killings in the early 1960’s, when my “queer” cousin took me to Joann’s, America was still a dangerous place for him. When they were bored, some of the teen guys from my neighborhood all those years ago, would go downtown and hang on The Mall, where “queers” who either didn’t feel comfortable going to the few bars that existed in town, or were virtually isolated in their lives, would cruise, looking for guys to pick up.  My heterosexual friends took great pleasure in bragging about “rolling a queer,”  which meant beating up and robbing a man who was seeking a sexual partner in a society that made his basic identity and orientation illegal.  This “f-g fishing,” as it was later called, provided easy money, and a way to get their aggression out, knowing that the victim would almost never go to the police.

As we condemn the Chechnyan hate campaign and the many other countries where homophobia and discrimination are commonplace, we must face that, even in our country, the insults, threats, and assaults are not ancient history. It’s been less than twenty years since Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered, just one year since the Pulse nightclub massacre claimed fifty lives. According to The Southern Poverty Law Center, hundreds of hate crimes are committed against Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer community members every year.

There are still many states with no anti-discrimination laws for employment, housing, and public accommodations, and we are not many years removed from various state efforts to bar gay and lesbian teachers from elementary school classrooms. Gay, lesbian, and transgender children are frequent victims of bullying in the schools. Now we have a president who has declared that our transgender brothers and sisters can no longer serve our country in the armed forces.  At the same time, this president’s justice dept has declared that The Civil Rights Act does not cover sexual orientation.  In the meantime, three days before this writing, a local transgender resident, after months of harassment, was attacked with a brick, a plank, and a helmet by a group that then posted a video of the attack on snapchat.

My cousin was nineteen years old when he came out to our family in about 1960, at a time when the medical community considered homosexuality a mental illness. He and his partner died in an accident over a decade later, likely never dreaming that they could have one day legally married in Ohio.

While there has been a dramatic shift in general attitudes over the past thirty years here, and in nations around the world, if we truly want to give all children a chance to be free, we must continue to challenge the homophobia, and the sexist oppression that fuels it, wherever we find them, including in ourselves.


River Smith is a psychologist, social justice educator/activist, and author of four books, including the soon to be published, Healing Handbook.