'Everyday Homophobia': The New Leading Edge of the LGBT Rights Movement

At the outset of the modern lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights movement in the 1970s, many early activists endorsed the powerful feminist slogan that "the personal is political."

With sweeping society-wide reforms seeming unlikely, the first generation of activists was often focused on the day-to-day experience of prejudice and discrimination in the daily lives of LGBT people. These early activists zeroed in on the destructive influence of "everyday homophobia" -- the countless smaller, commonplace experiences of bigotry and discrimination that cumulatively can have such a corrosive effect on gay and lesbian people across their lifespans.

Over the ensuing three decades, much of the energy of the LGBT movement -- and most of the attention of the media and the public at large -- came to be dominated by societal struggles on a bigger scale. In the 1980s, the emphasis was, of necessity, on the horrors of AIDS in the days before treatments had been developed. By the 1990s, attention had turned to opening up some of the most tradition-minded institutions in American society: the military, the Boy Scouts, the clergy. By the 2000s, the target shifted to eliminating the vestiges of institutionalized bias in areas such as anti-sodomy laws, discrimination in employment, and unequal access to the benefits of marriage.

Over the past decade, there has unquestionably been progress on the "macro-level" of public policy on most of these issues. Still, many LGBT people must regularly contend with intensely personal challenges at the "micro-level" during encounters within their families, neighborhoods, schools, communities, religious bodies, and other institutions of daily life.

Fortunately, there are important signs of a shift in energy and attention within the LGBT community towards combating "everyday homophobia." Consider these five rapidly emerging issues:

The aging of the LGBT population. Throughout American society, the next two decades will be shaped by the aging of the baby boomer generation. Long overlooked is that this age cohort also includes the first large groups of openly LGBT people to move into old age.

Since earlier generations were forced to lead mostly closeted lives, no one can predict what issues will be raised by an LGBT population that is increasingly "out, loud,... and old." Already, however, there are reports of older LGBT people who are forced back into the closet while living in long-term care facilities. What do you get when you mix lavender with gray? We're about to find out.

The pioneering of new family forms. The centrality of family to LGBT people was first made evident in the late 80s and early 90s along two parallel tracks. Most visibly, this emerged as an issue among men caring for sick and dying same-sex partners partners to whom they were legally unrelated. Family issues were also center stage among women who were part of the so-called "lesbian baby boom" made possible by advances in assisted reproduction and by incremental reforms in family law.

Advances in the recognition of same-sex relationships and increasing acceptance of adoption by LGBT people are creating new family structures that face unique stressors and unprecedented challenges. Families of origin, families of choice, blended families, families with surrogates and co-parents, families impacted by same-sex divorce: all of these are playing more central roles in LGBT life than ever before.

LGBT health beyond HIV and breast cancer. Over just the past two years, we have seen a new ferment in government, academia, and the health professions around the full spectrum of LGBT health issues. These range from substance use and mental health, to obesity and heart disease, and on to distinctive needs among the transgender population with regard to the use of hormones, sex confirmation surgery, and safe injection practices. Several newly designed programs, such as the LGBT Health Initiative with which I am affiliated at Columbia University, have been developed in recent years to take a broad and holistic view of LGBT health.

This is certainly not to downplay the reality that HIV infection -- especially among young gay and bisexual men of color -- remains at near-crisis levels. Nor does it diminish the importance of timely diagnosis and quality treatment among lesbians for breast and other cancers. But these two issues no longer define the parameters of LGBT health in the way they once did.

Kids coming out at ever-earlier ages. The old three-stage paradigm of "realization-closetedness-coming out" is becoming a relic of the past. With more access to information than ever before, LGBT youths today are able to "put a name" on their difference at a much younger age and, in some cases, are coming out far earlier than prior age cohorts.

The closeted stage that once might last for decades is now sometimes collapsed into mere months, making this a pressing issue for parents, educators, and youths themselves. At the same time, advances in the use of puberty-delaying hormones for gender-variant children are also becoming "game changers" in how families and doctors address the development of transgender identity.

The impact of bullying. School districts, state legislators, city councils, and the mass media are finally focusing on the demeaning and demoralizing ways in which kids torment other kids. LGB youths are particularly likely to be bullied, although this can be the fate of anyone who seems different or vulnerable.

Related abusive practices, such as attempts to change a youth's sexual orientation, are also increasingly being barred by law for being harmful and humiliating to LGBT young people. And disproportionate violence against LGBT people remains a threat across the lifespan.

Taken together, these examples signal a new direction in LGBT awareness and a greater focus on the ways in which "everyday homophobia" continues to cast a shadow over LGBT lives. Can we be healthy and age well? Can we be our honest selves from earlier ages? Can we be embraced rather than tormented because of our differences?

Unlike many of the great LGBT rights issues of the last few decades, these are not the kinds of questions that can be resolved by a Supreme Court ruling or by an act of Congress or a law passed by a state legislature. Certainly, such institutions can help in many ways. But these issues mostly must play out in the decentralized contexts in which LGBT people lead their day-to-day lives.

At the same time, advances led by LGBT people can play important roles in promoting the human rights and personal freedoms of everyone in society. This can already be seen as part of the effort to prevent bullying among all children and in the work of expanding outdated and limiting definitions of the family.

Combating the smaller-scale manifestations of homophobia has always formed an important current within the LGBT movement, particularly within the many underfunded yet highly effective social service institutions created by and for the community. Still, "everyday homophobia" has not usually been the dominant priority of the movement. That seems like it's about to change. More and more, we are returning to that key insight of the 1970s that "the personal is political."