In life, we all encounter moments that completely transform our lives and redirect the course of our path ahead. Arriving in San Francisco for the first time ten years ago was one of those moments for me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I stepped into the Castro District. I felt both immense pride and crippling anxiety as I walked past the iconic rainbow flags and LGBTQ bars on Market Street – Pride because I had finally arrived at a place that would allow me to be my authentic self for the first time in my life; anxiety because I knew very well that being yourself never comes easy and requires some sacrifices along the way.
Before I came to San Francisco, the idea of living my true self seemed out of reach. I was born and raised in Traun, a small town in Austria of about 25,000 people. When it was time to apply for college, I played it safe and went to the University of Salzburg – while the 1,5 hours train ride seemed like a big deal at first, it was in Salzburg that I first realized that there was a world of opportunities outside of Traun. My time in Salzburg would also prepare me for a much bigger leap. During the last year of my undergraduate studies, I was presented with the opportunity to spend an exchange year abroad in yet another small town – Bowling Green, Ohio. BG was everything I imagined an American college town to be like, including a main street, Waffle House and big box supermarkets. While there was no LGBTQ community to speak of, being away from my small hometown for the first time in my life helped me take a step I’d been running from for 23 years. I finally came out. I’d never considered myself a brave person, but in that moment I found a strength I never knew I had. But this was 2008 in a small town in the Midwest, so just like in my hometown, I felt like there was no one else like me. I wasn’t sure where to turn to in order to find people like me. While I struggled with my coming out, I also enjoyed significant privileges that so many young LGBTQ people don’t have – the unwavering support of family and friends, and the resources to travel to a distant place that would help me come to terms with my identity.
Only months after returning from my exchange year in Ohio, I had the opportunity to spend several months in San Francisco for research. Of course, I was aware that San Francisco was home to those who didn’t seem to fit in anywhere else, so the prospect of finding a space where I could fully be myself suddenly seemed within reach. My first days in San Francisco were a culture shock to say the least. This was the first time I ever saw people living out and proud. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a same-sex couple walking hand in hand in Dolores Park. For the first time in my life, I felt truly alive.
When I first came to San Francisco, I was mostly excited about meeting queer people and visiting the bars I heard so much about. What I didn’t know when I first left for California was that I’d find something just as important – a sense of purpose and a community that made me realize I didn’t have to do this by myself. It was not only the feeling of belonging that I learned to admire about the community, but also something else – it was here that I first met activists fighting relentlessly for equal rights. I came to understand the importance of grassroots activism and that we all have a role to play in bringing about change.
As I spent more time in San Francisco and later moved to the East Coast for graduate school, I had the privilege of witnessing significant moments for LGBTQ history. I met activists in California fighting an uphill battle against Proposition 8, witnessed the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and celebrated in the streets of Baltimore as the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. However, with each victory, it also became painfully clear that some of the greatest challenges were yet to be faced. Some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community – in particular the B and T and queer people of color – remain invisible. From the loss of critical protections for transgender people to rampant news about yet another Black transgender woman losing her life to violence, it seems like these victories were truly only the beginning in the fight for equality.
As we continue to fight on so many fronts, it is sometimes hard to know where to begin. One thing I’ve learned in almost a decade as a member of the LGBTQ community is that we have the power to bring about significant change if we stand together. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of joining LGBTQ leaders in D.C. to witness the House of Representatives take a historic step by passing the Equality Act, which would expand the Civil Rights Act and other non-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected characteristics, providing critical non-discrimination protections for queer people in all fifty states. While the Equality Act is unlikely to pass in the Senate anytime soon, it was a historic moment for LGBTQ rights. It was also a reminder of the battles ahead. Ten years after first arriving in San Francisco, I am no longer scared and proud to fight alongside my community for a future free of hate and violence.