Fifty years ago this June, a riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City and the subsequent standoff between LGBTQ patrons and law enforcement brought national attention to the Gay Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Fifty years is a long time — a generation ago — and while the landscape looks much different for LGBTQ youth today, progress is not guaranteed.

It’s difficult to look at any news source or social media lately through an LGBTQ lens and not get total whiplash. Taiwan has embraced same-sex marriage, Brazil has made homophobia and transphobia a crime, Colorado will let non-binary people get a neutral gender marker on their drivers’ license, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ people in housing and employment. We rejoice, thinking progress is finally happening. And then in the next news cycle we read that the federal government is seeking to restrict transgender access to healthcare and has reinstated a ban on transgender military service, and that district courts are upholding the “rights” of private business owners to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Even in our own state legislature this year, despite strong bipartisan support, housing and employment protections for LGBTQ Virginians failed to pass because one politician, the Speaker of the House, refused to let the bill come to the floor.

It’s easy to wring our hands in despair, to get caught up in the whirlwind of news cycles and wonder where it’s all going and whether dignity and respect for our LGBTQ neighbors can win the day. What is sometimes easy to forget as we are pelted by these conflicting headlines is that we as individuals and as local communities can create change despite efforts to legalize these discriminations. Instead of asking the rhetorical, “What are we going to do?” we can ask, “What can I do to make changes and create safety and protection for LGBTQ people who live in my neighborhood, my city, my county?”

Each person’s response will be different, because each person’s sphere of influence is different. Perhaps you own rental property and can make it known that you support the LGBTQ community and will offer them safe housing. Perhaps you help with hiring or human resources at your job and can proactively work to hire qualified LGBTQ individuals and commit to providing them equal benefits to the best of your ability. Perhaps you are a devoted member of your faith community, and can welcome and include LGBTQ individuals as equals in your congregation.

Perhaps you work in the service industry, and you have LGBTQ customers who shop or dine or need your help at your place of employment. Treating them with dignity and standing up for them when you witness discrimination can offer a ray of hope for someone facing fear of rejection on a daily basis.

Consider yourself in the shoes of an LGBTQ individual in the Valley. How comfortable would you be with your neighbors or your employer knowing your LGBTQ identity? Would your landlord be supportive or would you risk eviction? Would your doctor be able to counsel you effectively on your health care? If you were a student, how comfortable would you be with your classmates and teachers knowing? If you came out to your parents, would you still be able to live at home or be financially supported?

And as much as we would all like to say, “Well of course I support my LGBTQ neighbors,” have we really been deliberate and vocal about that? At a community listening session during the launch of the new Shenandoah LGBTQ Center last August, it was clear that the Valley still has a long way to go to help LGBTQ residents feel safe and supported. From training educators to create safe and inclusive classrooms, to addressing trans-friendly health care or the lack of shelters and emergency housing that are LGBTQ affirming, community members had many suggestions for how we can improve the lives of our LGBTQ neighbors.

Over the past nine months, the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center has worked to begin to address these concerns. The Center now offers support groups twice a month facilitated by mental health professionals. There are computers and internet available for people to come in and search for jobs or resources. There are resource lists for trans-affirming medical care, and connection with a number of therapists in the area who are trained and skilled in providing mental health care to LGBTQ individuals and their families.

Our work is just beginning. The more we engage with the LGBTQ community in the Valley, the more we learn about what supports are needed to provide individuals with the resources they require to survive and thrive. But all of that work is dependent upon the support of the community — through volunteering, financial contributions, and voting. Yes, voting, because all politics are local, and the policies adopted at the local, state, and federal level impact our clients’ lives and the availability of government funding to address community needs.

Ask the tough questions of candidates for office at every level of government. Ask them if they support housing and employment protections for LGBTQ individuals. Ask them if they are committed to policies that safeguard health care benefits for LGBTQ people and their spouses and families. Ask them their stance on persecuting hate crimes and whether they support so-called “gay panic” defenses. And then vote for candidates who will protect and advocate for all their constituents, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

It takes all of us to build a healthy and strong community where everyone can flourish. The Shenandoah LGBTQ Center is committed to making this vision a reality. If you would like to get involved with Center or learn more about how you can help, please visit , visit us in downtown Staunton, or find us on Facebook.

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Emily Sproul is Executive Director of the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center serving Staunton, Lexington, Harrisonburg, and the counties of Augusta, Rockingham, Rockbridge, and Highland. A native of Staunton, she is a mother of four, including two queer-identified teens.

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