Guest Opinion: Family Equality CEO took many turns on their journey

  • by Jaymes Black
  • Wednesday March 20, 2024
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Family Equality President and CEO Jaymes Black. Photo: Courtesy Family Equality
Family Equality President and CEO Jaymes Black. Photo: Courtesy Family Equality

I'm no stranger to taking the road less traveled. While today, I'm a proud parent, spouse, and leader of a major national LGBTQ+ organization, you might say I took the long way to get here.

As a young LGBTQ+ person growing up in South Texas, I was pulled out of the closet. In response to the intense bullying and mistreatment I experienced, I dropped out of high school, sleeping on friends' couches and apartment floors to survive. Self-taught and stubborn, I fought my way from a GED to an MBA. I climbed the corporate ladder until a moment of COVID clarity pushed me to leave behind the hard-earned safety and comfort of the business sector to proudly lead Family Equality, the leading national nonprofit working for LGBTQ+ families, as its first president and CEO of color.

I've been on the road less traveled for a while now, so I know all too well that this path means facing potholes, pitfalls, and panic. I've grown familiar with the uncertainty and become friends with the fear. And yet, last year, I hit a fork in the road.

For the longest time, I've known who I am, but I hesitated to say it out loud. I felt fearful and guilty. What would my parents and family say if I "came out again"? How do I explain it to my wife and kids? I feared yet another difficult coming-out process. But in late 2023, I realized I had a choice: Continue down the street I'm on — one filled with the suffocating barricades of expectations, binaries, "shoulds," and safety — or take another turn and forge a new path as the most authentic, free, self-aware, and queer me. As a genderqueer person, I craved a name that truly represented all of me, not who my parents wanted me to be or who society dictated. While I honor the sojourn I traveled as Stacey Stevenson, I decided to flick on my proverbial turn signal and drive toward my future: Jaymes Black (all pronouns), proud parent, partner, and president and CEO of Family Equality.

As a primary player in the LGBTQ+ movement, I'm proud to be accompanied on this road by more young people than ever. According to The Trevor Project, Gen Z is the most LGBTQ+ generation yet, and 26% of LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13-24 identify as nonbinary. Just like me, these young people face a fork in the road. The clean, paved route leads to a life of secrecy, shame, and fear. The unpaved one leads to freedom — but is filled with potentially dangerous roadblocks and hazards.

In 2023, 175 of the 400+ anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed nationwide were anti-transgender, and many sought to restrict young people's access to life-saving health care, bathrooms, and sports. Since Florida's infamous "Don't Say Gay and Trans" legislation, several dozen copycat bills have appeared in states across the country, actively seeking to foster the toxic learning environment that drove me to drop out of high school all those years ago. These state-sanctioned potholes have serious consequences, as LGBTQ+ young people are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers — with at least one attempt occurring every 45 seconds.

At this point, you might be asking yourself why young people would take this route if it's filled with so many obstacles. Certainly, many youth before this generation have faced the same intersection and forged forward in secret. As it is, it's taken me decades to make a turn I've wanted to make for years. The answer is simple: Because we know we're no longer driving alone.

While this legislation, rhetoric, and discrimination are overwhelming, they come from only a few powerful, wealthy extremists. In the United States, there's broad support for LGBTQ+ protections and equality, with 8 in 10 Americans supporting non-discrimination laws and 7 in 10 voters strongly opposing book bans. As it stands, 87% of the anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in 2023 failed to become law. We might be facing unprecedented roadblocks, but now more than ever, passionate parents, empowered educators, fearless advocates, and brave youth are helping us navigate the course ahead.

This year is a presidential election year, the perfect time to recognize the role that we all can play in ensuring the road less traveled is paved, lit, and protected. Now is the time to make ourselves heard, to rally, to vote, and to send clear messages to our legislators to protect our freedoms. Check your voter registration. Support equality champions at the ballot box. Share your story. Speak up at the statehouse and the school board. Together, we can guarantee that all Americans reach their destination — authenticity, freedom, and equality — safely and without fear.

To all those who are on this odyssey of authenticity alongside me, know this: The road might be long and winding, but the destination is well worth the journey — so crank up those tunes and enjoy the view.

Jaymes Black, a genderqueer person, is president and CEO of Family Equality, which is based in New York City.

If you are having a crisis, the national mental health hotline number is 988. LGBTQ youth can also contact The Trevor Project.

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