Finding the Common Unity in Community

A conversation about ageism with Brian Broome and Leaf Williams

Brian Broome and Leaf Williams.

Greetings from the afterlife!

What? Are you wondering why I would say something like that? Well, since I’m many years past the age of 30, many younger queers don’t think I matter anymore. I’m looked down upon as obsolete, irrelevant, and at times, stupid. Sometimes, when I go to gay bars, I feel like an intruder in a place where I once sought solace from the outside world simply because I’m not as young as I used to be. I get met with stares that seem to say that I’ve worn out my welcome so I should just stop embarrassing myself and go home. But that’s just ridiculous because I, and other people my age and older, blazed the trail for these younger queers to have the lives they have today. We fought for the freedoms these kids enjoy and they don’t even have the decency to appreciate the struggles we went through. Well, I’m not the stupid one. They are. And we’re supposed to trust these kids with the fight for equity and inclusiveness? Yeah, ok. We’ll see what kind of progress they’ll make without wisdom from us older people.

That was quite the intro for an article in a queer publication during Pride, right? Unfortunately, I felt the need to make up that stream of consciousness to highlight that there are still aspects of queer life that we should not be proud of. Ageism runs rampant through society as a whole, but it hits extra hard when it affects an already marginalized group such as us queers. And try as we might, none of us are impervious to these intrusive ageist thoughts. I, myself, notice phrases like “ooh, these young folks” and “the younger generation” followed by something less than kind entering my vocabulary more and more often as I get older, and you may have noticed the same. I also remember being on the other end of the spectrum when I was younger. These thoughts do nothing but cause division, and in this current world, we, as queer folk, need to be as united and strong as we can be. So what do we do to combat this?

While trying to figure this out, I looked at the word ‘Community.’ Without getting into the actual etymology of the word, it just looks like the word ‘Common’ combined with the word ‘Unity.’ Soooo…to find ‘Community’…look for something you have in ‘Common’…to find ‘Unity’! Sounds pretty simple. Well, the easiest way to learn what you may have in common with someone else is to simply have a conversation, so that is what I decided to do in order to fight ageism within the LGBTQIA+ community: facilitate a conversation between an older queer person and a younger queer person to try to find some common ground. I intentionally chose two people with some similarities, but also obvious differences, so I could potentially witness a true difference being made and share that with others. Enter Brian Broome and Leaf Williams.

Brian Broome

Brian Broome

Brian Broome is an author and professor who has found quite a bit of success in the past couple of years. His debut memoir, Punch Me Up to the Gods, is an New York Times Editor’s Pick and the winner of the 2021 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, The GLAAD Award for Gay Nonfiction, the Publishing Triangle Randy Shilts Award, and was voted an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. He is a contributing columnist at The Washington Post and his work has also appeared in The Guardian and Esquire Magazine. When I met him in 2010, he was battling addiction, and throughout the years, I witnessed him turn things around for himself. He went to rehab, started writing and returned to school to earn his MFA. Brian is smart, resourceful, creative and also quite hilarious. He was an obvious choice in my mind to be the older queer in my equation.

Leaf Williams

Leaf Williams

Leaf Williams hails from a small town in Georgia but now lives here in Pittsburgh, PA. After moving here, they began performing under the name soft boy, using drag as a vessel to explore identity and the rules of masculinity. I met Leaf through friends in the nightlife scene in Pittsburgh. I also had the opportunity to spend a few days with Leaf last year at Honcho Campout. What I learned during those few days is that Leaf is a vibrant young person who is politically-minded but also knows how to balance that with a fun and nurturing side. It did not take me long to realize that Leaf would be the perfect counterpart to Brian in this conversation.

What do these two have in common besides being friends with me? Well, not a whole lot besides both being members of the LGBTQIA+ community in Pittsburgh. Their differences definitely outnumber their similarities. Brian is a cisgender man and Leaf is non-binary. Brian is Black and Leaf is Hispanic. Before this conversation, they had never met or spoken to each other. Brian had never seen a soft boy performance and Leaf had never read any of Brian’s written work. And that was just what I wanted. When any kind of stereotypical, discriminatory thoughts enter our minds, they’re usually about people we don’t even know. I needed to know: can a conversation with an individual we don’t know potentially change our outlook on people in general?

Early in the afternoon on a Saturday, I introduced Brian and Leaf. I let them know that I had some questions for them to help guide the conversation and assured them that we were safe with each other. I encouraged them to speak as freely and openly as they felt comfortable with. What followed was a quite profound hour. Now, I’d like to share some excerpts from this conversation:

The Conversation

JASON: “What was coming out like for you?”

BRIAN: “There was no big moment. Coming out was a process for me. In college, I joined a group called The Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. I actually think about this a lot now. There was no other category. It was at the University of Akron. It was just cisgender men and women. That was my first step towards coming out. I transferred schools to University of Pittsburgh and I joined a group called BiGayLa. Now we had three categories, bisexual, lesbians and gays and no mention of anything else. At that time, their idea of diversity was to include bisexuals. It was over a number of years though that I came out. It was sort of a creaking closet door for me. There was no kicking it down.”

JASON: “Brian, did you find it difficult coming out in the late 80s and early 90s?”

BRIAN: (nodding yes) “I think that there was more overt homophobia in the past. I also believe that there was more overt racism and more overt misogyny in the past. I think it’s still as repugnant and poisonous as it’s ever been but that was a different time. I’m not saying that it’s not difficult for people today but the environment in which I came out was different. I feel that it was more hostile. The further you go back, I think the less enlightened we were as a society.”

JASON: “How about you, Leaf?”

LEAF: “I’ve come out a few times in my life. I first came out when I was a junior in high school. I come from a very small, really religious, Southern Baptist area so when I came out, it wasn’t a question of acceptance. It was ‘which conversion therapy are we taking you to?’ And so it was a hostile, tumultuous and scary time for me. Ultimately, it led to me leaving home at 17 and living on my own.”

I was a bit afraid that this conversation would be a series of monologues created solely to prove a point. Anyone who has been on social media in the last decade knows what I’m talking about. But my fears were eased quite early on. In response to Leaf’s revelation about leaving home at 17, Brian said this:

BRIAN: “What did you do?”

LEAF: “When I turned 18, I started working the streets. I did all sorts of things just to survive. Coming out in the south, I was basically taught that all I was supposed to think about was sex and that I was just a sex object. That’s all anyone in the south thought about gay people, at least in my field of view.”

BRIAN: “Isn’t it weird how straight people automatically think about sex when it comes to queer people? They’re oddly fixated on it. Even now with the opposition to drag queens. They’re calling drag shows overtly sexual. I don’t think that I’ve ever been to an overtly sexual drag show outside of a bar at midnight where there are only adults present. It’s very strange how they do that.”

LEAF: “I completely agree. It’s so bizarre. When I was in high school, I wondered why everyone was sexualizing me when I was just trying to figure out my identity.”

Common ground was being discovered. Matching opinions were being discussed. I moved on:

JASON: “What was your first Pride event like for you?”

BRIAN: “My first Pride parade was very small and very scary. It wasn’t like the Pride parades of today. It was only a few of us, maybe a hundred of us. We marched in downtown Pittsburgh and people on the sidewalk were just jeering and pointing and laughing at us. You felt very exposed and I was terrified.”

LEAF: “My first Pride experience was here in Pittsburgh when I was 18. When I came out at 16 as gay, I was also very confused internally with my gender. My journey with my gender has been an ever-evolving process and I’m only just now allowing myself to feel what I feel. But at the time of my first Pride, I felt that I had to fit a certain mold and check certain boxes. So when I went to Pride, I felt like I had to perform, in a sense. I felt so desperate to connect while also feeling so unrested internally. It was hard for me to even enjoy myself. But even then, just being around queer people didn’t feel real. But I was alone. I didn’t have many friends in Pittsburgh at the time. I had this idea in my head that Pride would be a place to connect with people but it was hard. There was a concert and people were doing their own thing. It was cool being surrounded by queer people but I still didn’t think I had my community yet.”

BRIAN: “If I’m being honest with myself, I think I went to my first Pride because I really wanted to find a boyfriend. I think that want or yearning drives a lot of people to come out. But I also think I was a bit annoyed that I had to be exposed in order to find community.”

LEAF: “It’s hard to always feel exposed. It’s hard to always feel ripped open for people to assess your life. Straight people, cis people, they don’t always have to feel that.”

BRIAN: “They just go and live their lives. Our existence is some weird bellwether for politics. People debate whether we should even exist literally every year, all year long. When you wake up with that every day, you feel that heaviness every day.”

JASON: “So what does Pride mean to you now?”

LEAF: “For me, I think a lot about my inner child. I think about what I needed when I was 5, when I was 10, when I was 13 and when I was 20. Pride to me is wearing my existence for my inner child who couldn’t. It’s a sense of freedom. Growing up very religious, I was taught that Pride is literally a sin. So now it’s celebrating yourself, celebrating your community, celebrating your existence and allowing yourself to take space, giving yourself the right to exist as freely, as large, as small as you want to be for yourself.”

BRIAN: “Audre Lorde has a quote that goes like this: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” THEY don’t want us to exist. I used to abuse myself in so many ways. I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and that was the act of me destroying myself. They love that. They love when we have horrible endings. Now, I try  take care of myself and the other people in my life who are queer so we can be respectful and keep showing up. I have a friend who has a daughter who is 16 and to her, queerness is a non-issue.It just doesn’t matter to her. I see a lot of young people like that now and I believe that is a result of queer people continuing to show up and being their authentic selves. To some people, we are still as scary as we have always been because they want to stay in that bubble where everything that is not like them is a threat. But what showing Pride has done, what being visible has done is it’s made queer people less scary to a lot of people.”

We discussed a lot in our time together. There was never more than just a few seconds of silence. We talked about our experiences in the past and present, and our hopes for the future. And what was the result? Well, many things were learned and minds were definitely changed:

JASON: “What are we taking away from today? For example, Brian, do you still think you had a more difficult time with being queer in the past?”

BRIAN: “I think I might’ve changed my mind on that because of something Leaf said earlier in the conversation: individual stories are individual stories. I can look back at my experience and see benefits that I had that Leaf didn’t. I never struggled with gender. I had an opportunity to leave my family and still be supported by them but the truth is the isolation still feels the same, regardless of access to resources. The self-hatred can still be there despite access to resources. I don’t think it was rougher back then anymore. It can still be rough.”

LEAF: “What I think I will take with me from this conversation is that while experiences may be different, the feelings we share as queer people are very similar. And that there does not need to be a separation between generations. The queer story is still being written and society does not want us to cherish each other. But we can continue to make queer history. We can honor each other. We may be different individually, but as queer people, supporting each other is what’s important.”

BRIAN: “As an older gay person, I recognize how we can dismiss younger people by saying things like “oh, they have it so easy! We did all of the heavy lifting so they can have it so easy.” We can feel a bit of resentment about that. But it’s more complex than that. I do recognize that being young isn’t easy. But I also remember being out in the bars when I was 26 and seeing an older person and wondering why they were even there and I think that is still happening. That needs to stop but older people also need to stop assuming younger people don’t know their queer history and learn to appreciate the things that they are trying to do. It’s crazy to me how much we forget when we get comfortable. There’s still someone behind you who hasn’t gotten their due, that hasn’t gotten their recognition, that hasn’t gotten their rights yet. That’s what I’ve realized from this conversation and I’m going to start challenging my friends that are ‘anti-youth’ a bit more.”

Instead of writing off a fellow queer simply because they are either older or younger than you, I encourage you to talk to them and, most importantly, be open to what they might teach you. Brian and Leaf closed this conversation with a hug, but they also opened the conversation with a hug. They were ready to discuss and hopefully, learn, and that’s exactly what happened. It was truly inspiring to watch. I am wildly grateful to both of them for being willing to participate fully.

When it comes to ageism in our own community, it’s time we take our own advice. When we are faced with hate, we encourage our haters to learn a bit more about us so they can realize that we are human just like them. Well, we need to apply the same to ourselves. This Pride season, please remember a united front is stronger than a divided one. If a simple discussion can help us in that regard, go ahead and have that talk. There’s no LGBTQIA+ community without a common unity. Happy Pride!

Jason Shavers is a born and raised Pittsburgh native. He is an actor that has worked extensively on stage and not so extensively on screen. Jason is also a self proclaimed expert on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Musical Theater and sitcoms that feature 4 women leads. Yeah, he’s gay AF. Follow him on Instagram. (He / Him / His)