When I first kicked off HLP in 2018 it was because there was a void in New Jersey for activities such as ours, and there was a lot of interest from people who didn't want to travel into New York City or Philadelphia. For our community, we really were a bunch of "Lost Pups" looking for a home within our own state, rather than fighting our way into nearby neighboring big cities.
I had, and still have, a lot of ideas for our community. I'm an ambitious overachiever with every endeavor I take on; sometimes I'm even blinded by my ambition without realizing that it's unattainable. With HLP, I knew I'd be laughed at if I had made my goals public back in the beginning. But I also felt my core values would be shared by others and become the cornerstone of HLP upon which we could build, and eventually reach high enough to achieve my ambitious goals.
Above all else, I wanted to create an organization where members could be themselves. I've used a few expressions like "Be Who You Want to Be" or "Come as You Wish You Were" to illustrate this sentiment of mine which grew out of my own fears of being in the closet for the first 30 years of my life.
Over the last 20 years since coming out of the closet I have learned a lot about the LGBTQ+ community, well, I've lived through a lot too. I remember what it was like growing up during the AIDS crisis; I remember the pain of living through the applied stigmatization of gay men; I remember what it was like to be fearful that being gay was a crime; I remember fighting my own mannerisms so as not to appear gay; I remember the mental pain I went through leading up to my own coming out of the closet; I remember what it felt like the day when being gay was suddenly legalized across the country; I remember the day when same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts and then the day when Civil Unions were legalized in New Jersey; and I remember the day when same-sex marriage was suddenly legalized across the country. Each memory stirs of feelings of fear, regret, and happiness, but each memory is also associated with what was happening in society at the time.
It might not be a big revelation to you, but I'd like to point out that the culture we are raised in, and the society we belong to, shapes who we will be as adults. We learn to act like, speak like, and think like the people with whom we spend the first 18 years of our lives. It's during those years when we learn to be prejudice, we learn to discriminate, and we learn that some people are so bad that they are never to be spoken about because the mire mention of them carries a stigma that is too shocking to talk about. In my simplified view, it's in those early years when we learn how to make jokes about someone's race, ethnicity, class, or politics without the awareness that the adults around us are perpetuating the bad qualities of society.
My generation might have been the last generation in the United States to really be fearful of coming out of the closet. My family is a perfect example of how prejudice and discrimination is passed from generation to generation, and some of that became my own learned behavior which then took many years to correct. When I began to question myself that I might be gay, I also quietly questioned if my family's views of other people were correct. By the time I was a teenager, I feared being disowned if I came out of the closet. I had hoped there would come a day when I could support myself and disassociate with all of them.
Right around the time I came out of the closet I began to meet people from the Millennial generation who came out of the closet back when they were in high school. A few years later I met people who had come out as early as 10 years old. Kids who are able to come out of the closet at such young ages may never recognize how or why they are privileged to do so without losing their families.
In college I had a professor that changed my life. His name was Bill Gile, and he was a retired Broadway director who was teaching musical theatre at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I had him for several semesters and we became very good friends. He was in his early 60s when I first met him, and obviously gayer than gay, and unabashedly so. His method of teaching was to convey morals and lessons by telling life stories that would string together across the span of the entire semester. One of his continuous stories was about sex. Not specifically the act of gay sex, but he knew how to make us laugh and study how sex had been portrayed through musical theatre over hundreds of years. His story began with him saying "Every generation believes they are the first to discover sex." From there he showed us how society and cultures had slowly matured from age to age and the veiled contexts through which sex could be spoken about. With every generation it was a little easier to talk about sex without being labeled a whore or losing your status as a gentleman. As more and more of those veiled contexts got peeled away, each generation felt more freedom to talk about their sexual desires.
Through all of those classes with Bill, I learned that it wasn't just sex talk that was suppressed through the years, but also how society has suppressed countless generations of all walks of people who hide who they really are. I also learned that every generation of suppressed people owes their current levels of acceptance to the generation before them, but few people recognize the shoulders of previous generations on which they stand, without whom, they would not be accepted.
Some of my last conversations I had with Bill Gile before his passing were that of how the Millennials I was meeting were able to come out of the closet at such early ages. We talked about the AIDS crisis and how many of his friends lost their lives before AZT was available. As horrible as it was, the AIDS crisis brought a much higher level of public awareness of gay men and gay culture.
I came out of the closet at the very end of the AIDS crisis. Some people accepted me, others didn't. I lost some friends, and I was strong enough to disown my family. The people who accepted me were those who became woke because of the AIDS crisis. As depressing as it might be, I owe thanks to thousands of gay men who died of AIDS, and that upsets me horribly. If you're reading this, then you probably owe them thanks as well. I get very choked up whenever there's a moment of silence at a Pride event to remember all those we've lost, and I also can't look at the AIDS quilt without being brought to tears of thanks.
I hope that there will be a day in human civilization where everyone is oblivious to race and individual identity. Sadly, social normatives don't seem to change unless they are forced to change by law. Current laws provide for job protections against discrimination, but that doesn't stop people from the person to person prejudice and hate crimes that still run rampant in the streets. Anti-discrimination laws in the workplace will take time to work their way into the private thoughts of humanity and influence cultural change. In the mean time, we, meaning the LGBTQ+ community, will continue to seek bastions of safety where we can be ourselves without worrying about what the person next to us is thinking.
Yeah, I know that there's evidence of carefree expression visible in every big city and in many places around the world. Anyone who's been on the New York City subway or traveled through Berlin will tell you that there are plenty of people who dress as they want and act how they want. But what's culturally accepted in a few meccas of enlightenment will still incite hate crimes elsewhere in the world.
For the first 30 years of my life I couldn't be who I wanted to be. I know I was about 5 years old when I had the first real thought that I might be gay. I was the shy and quiet kid from elementary school through high school. I didn't have many friends and I spent most of my time alone. As I started to break out of my protective wallflower shell in my 20s, I attributed by early shyness to my parents fighting all the time and my attempts to not be the trigger of an argument. But it wasn't until I came out of the closet that I also realized that I had also subconsciously isolated myself as a way to hide potential gay mannerisms. Somehow I knew I had gaydar detection of others, and one of the best ways to prevent me from setting of someone else's gardar was simply to hide in my bedroom every night or in the school library whenever I had free time.
A strange thing happens to all of us as we grow older. It's not just the idea of becoming older and wiser, but we begin to realize that the big concerns we had earlier in life become laughable trivial issues, we start to realize that the things our parents and grandparents used to say and do now exemplify our own lives. How did we become our parents? Well, living life did it to us. Eventually we learn to care more, or maybe we learn that we "don't give a fuck" any more. Through our own individual Long Day's Journey into Night we each experience the points of view of Edmund, Jamie, and eventually James Tyrone. Happiness and regrets are abounding along the way.
While I haven't quite hit the age of James Tyrone yet, my of self-understanding and self-analysis played a huge part in wanting to become the shoulders upon which others could stand. Realizing that I would never have children of my own with whom I might leave a legacy, I felt compelled to do something that would be a positive influence upon others. How could I help others be who they wanted to be, help them find friends to relate to, and discover what it could be like without the sting of stigmas pricking them every time they walk into a room. Hell, how could I learn to better control the prejudice I learned in my formidable years in order to help others in such a way?
There's no way that my 20 year old self would have even conceived of being the founder of an LGBTQ+ community organization. But life has a way of changing you. My life gave me the idea for this organization, but the final motivation for it didn't happen until I found the name.
I felt lost for so long in my own life, and many times I felt like a lost puppy or kitten. Discovering that others in New Jersey felt the same way was the inspiration for the name "New Jersey Home for Lost Pups" which evolved into the "Home for Lost Pets." So far, you might think it's all been fun and games, and maybe a little bit of showing off to the public, but all of that has been an experiment in creating unity across an attempted broad spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community who coalesce around different interest.
I want the Home for Lost Pets to be the community center where all of you can escape from the distresses of life, be who you want to be, be who you wish you could be comfortable being in public. I also want the Home for Lost Pets to be a new type of beacon for others in the LGBTQ+ community, or maybe a blueprint for other community organizations to follow. But also, I want to take the cliché "there is strength in numbers" and quote Richelle E Goodrich when she extended it to say "There is strength in numbers, yes, but even more so in collective good will. For those endeavors are supported by mighty forces unseen." Those of us who come together to find a home among other lost pets can collectively work to be the shoulders for the next generation.
Truthfully, I don't know where life is taking me next, nor do I know if the full vision of HLP with all of my lofty plans upon plans and layers of complicated details will ever be realized. Regardless whatever form HLP grows into, my hope is that it will continue to be, and further become, an organization that makes a difference for us today while opening doors for future generations of other lost people who might never learn how we helped pave a more accepting road into future society.
The core mission of HLP will always be to give you all a place where you can wag your tail without being laughed at by others who are trapped in their social normative thinking. The road to a better future happens as your participation in HLP also gives you added confidence to express your identity in public, which is where we can make a difference for the future.