Equal Rights and Mashed Potatoes

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On the night of the presidential election, Compass’ LGBTQ Youth Program held an election party. One by one, each of us went around the room and shared what our hopes were for the next four years. One girl — a sixteen-year-old lesbian and longtime participant — said, “Politics don’t really pertain to me.”

If I were a cartoon character, my eyes would have bulged out of my head and steam would have shot from my ears. My reaction was to start rattling off a list of issues that directly concern her and so many young women just like her: Reproductive rights, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Defense of Marriage Act vs. Marriage Equality, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, adoption laws for LGBT couples, etc. I received a blank stare in return, and we were soon listening to the kid sitting next to her talk about his hopes for a stronger economy and more jobs, issues that his father believed were the most important of this election.

Later that night, I watched in awe as Maine and Maryland made history as the first U.S. states to pass marriage equality on the ballot, and Representative Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person elected to the United States Senate. I listened to President Obama address the nation after landing a second term, and I thought of that sixteen-year-old girl. I realized that it doesn’t matter how many history courses she had taken or how many youth discussions my colleagues and I had facilitated about LGBT issues and gay politics. We’ve been going about it all wrong.

Sixteen-year-olds have little concept of a world without the Internet, cell phones, social networking sites, and 800+ television channels. It is easy for a sixteen-year-old girl to feel that politics don’t pertain to her as she sits with her LGBTQ youth group in the grand hall of the state-of-the-art, gay and lesbian community center. It is easy for us to take for granted that which we’ve always had. Instead of asking that room full of teenagers what more they wanted from this presidential administration, I should have first asked them what they’re thankful for.

As Thanksgiving approaches every year, I start to prepare that canned response for the moment when it’s my turn to share what I’m thankful for at the dinner table. This year, it’s not going to be the mashed potatoes. I’m thankful for my freedom, my right to vote, my reproductive rights, my student loans, and to be a woman in the 21stcentury. I’m thankful that women are represented in the U.S. Senate more than ever before, openly gay politicians are being elected and reelected across the nation, and marriage equality is quickly gaining widespread approval.

We have come so far, but still have a ways to go. I have never been more confident that by the time the next election rolls around, the LGBT community will have even more to be thankful for.

Ryanmarie Rice is the Coordinator of the Youth and Peer Navigation programs at Compass Gay & Lesbian Community Center in Lake Worth, FL. For more information, contact her at Ryanmarie@compassglcc.com