GEORGE WAS the first openly gay man I knew.
But over the years, I often wondered if the George I knew as a kid was the same man others did, the ones at the other end of a morning cab ride he'd take from my aunt's neighborhood in the Bronx to his job - in banking, I think - somewhere in Manhattan.
I'd watch him as he got into the cab, always in a suit, serious and reserved as he folded his huge frame into the back seat and told the driver where to go.
At the end of the workday, another cab would drop him off and I'd watch again as he'd disappear into his apartment only to emerge shortly after in the outfit he favored in the summer: jean shorts, a colorful tank top, and chancletas - sandals that punctuated every step as he made his way to my aunt's apartment.
George was my aunt's friend, a tall, good-humored and good-looking black man full of gossip and dirty jokes and laughter you'd hear several flights below my aunt's walk-up apartment.
I adored the way George seemed to live out loud. Only later, when I thought back to the man who got into the cab and the man who got out of it, did I wonder if he truly did. I hope so, because he was awesome.
I thought of George again the other day when I sat with a group of young people at GALAEI, a queer Latino social-justice organization on Chestnut Street, and they talked openly and honestly about the difficulties of living their truth.
Full disclosure: I was asked to be on the host committee for GALAEI's sixth annual DARLA awards on April 24, which recognizes leaders of the LGBT community in honor of GALAEI's founder, David Acosta. (You can get tickets at www.DARLA2015.eventbrite.com.) Of course I agreed; it would give me a reason to meet some of the young people they work with.
We should all be half as brave as the teens I met.
For about an hour, the group and I talked about the confusion, fear and pain of living freely when some of the people they love the most don't want to accept or respect their choices, and identity. And how in GALAEI, the nonprofit organization that will soon be moving from Center City to North Philly, they found a safe place - sometimes the only safe place - to explore and ultimately, embrace themselves.
Emmanuel Coreano, 18, came from a very religious family who struggled to accept that he was bisexual when he came out in 2012.
"My mom didn't speak to me for like three days and that really hurt me," he said.
He finally confronted her.
"If you can't accept me then I'm just going to leave and I'm never going to come back. I was like, either you accept me now - because I'm not going to stay in a household where no one accepts me - or I'd rather live on the streets. My mom thought about it and said it wasn't worth losing a son over it."
Not everyone is so lucky. Studies have found that an estimated 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBT. A study done by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law last year found that 45 percent of transgender youth between the ages of 18 and 24 had attempted suicide at least once.
Keara Williams' friend, Riley Moscatel, a Bucks County transgender teen, killed himself in August by stepping in front of an Amtrak train shortly after coming out to his family.
"My mirror reflects Jessica, my heart and mind say Riley," he posted in an Instagram picture. "I'm sorry I'm not the daughter you wanted."
"So many young people don't have a space where they're able to talk comfortably about their sexual orientation and their gender presentation," said Francisco Zavala Cortes, youth coordinator at GALAEI. "I think that you can say that things are better now than they were 20 years ago, but at the same time there is still room for improvement."
In a video about youths helped by GALAEI, Bella Rosario, a transgender teen, choked up when describing the torment she experienced when she came out and the overwhelming feeling of relief she felt when she found GALAEI. In the video, she was asked what the title of the chapter of her life before GALAEI would be called. She said: "chaos."
When we talked later, I asked her what she'd call the newest chapter in her life, five months into starting hormones to begin her physical transition.
After a short pause, she said: "Smooth sailing."
As it should be for anyone courageous enough to live their truth.
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