How the LGBTQ Community Taught America to Have More Compassion

From the depth of the AIDS crisis, a new community discovered itself and defeated victimhood.

When the AIDS pandemic hit in 1981, the LGBTQ community was turned upside down. American actress Judith Light recalls the horrifying wave of death that swept through the community—but from that devastation, she witnessed a new force emerge. Pushed to be self-reliant in the absence of outside help, the LGBTQ community banded together and "became this magnificent example to the world of how to be of service," Light says. Elizabeth Taylor appealed to Congress for funding to fight the AIDS crisis, Larry Kramer founded the direct action advocacy group ACT UP to bring about legislation and medical research, and artists told the powerful stories of themselves and the ones they loved to help people understand why compassion was warranted. "I began to see that we were, by the example of the LGBQ community, we were one human family," says Light. Since then the LGBTQ community has not stopped being a force for progress and compassion, but there is much further to go, she says. Trans people are currently on the frontline of a struggle for public compassion and acceptance, and Light—who stars in Amazon’s comedy-drama series Transparent—naturally has much to say about defeating bigotry, serving the community, and the immense courage of the trans people who come out to live authentically.

Coming Out: The Original Revolutionary LGBTQ Action

Bennett Singer explains why coming out matters—for the LGBTQ community and the straight community alike, and especially for those who are not in a safe position to do so.

Not everyone is in a position where it is wise or safe to come out as gay, lesbian, trans, or bisexual—but for those who can, it is a heroic and revolutionary act. We've known that since Harvey Milk campaigned for gay people to make themselves visible to their families and general public: the more stereotypes are met as actual people, the less we fear what is different. There has been an incredible shift in acceptance over the last 30 years and Bennett Singer, co-author of LGBTQ Stats: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer People by the Numbers, puts it down to two primary things: media visibility and data collecting. Mainstream TV has steadily increased its positive portrayals of LGBTQ people, and prominent personalities like Ellen Degeneres are given prime time spots. Progress can also be measured by statistics, which increasingly reflect those people who have the courage to come out, and their families and friends who can now answer surveys more honestly. "Back in 1985 it was 24 percent of Americans who said they knew an open gay or lesbian person," says Singer. "By last year that had shifted up to 88 percent." Conducting these surveys is only half the power of them however, the rest is in the reporting of those stats. Acceptance works through a cycle of reminders and awareness, says Singer: "Growing awareness and growing reporting of this awareness leads to greater acceptance." Bennett Singer's most recent book is co-authored with his husband, David Deschamps: LGBTQ Stats: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer People by the Numbers.