I'm at 27,000 feet, flying high to Kansas City, the city where I was born, for the grand opening of a brand new center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people called the LikeMe Lighthouse. Although it was a small group of us who had the initial idea for the Lighthouse, it didn't take long for others' enthusiasm to be ignited. After more than a year of very focused and dedicated planning by our LikeMe National Board, the Kansas City volunteer force heard the rally cry, and under the guidance of our Director of Operations, Charlene Daniels, the efforts of the local LGBT community and straight allies have been enormous. Kansas City has a robust LGBT community, and it is our mission that the LikeMe Lighthouse will serve the entire Kansas City area. In addition to having a beautiful library, reading room, and computer lab, the Lighthouse will offer information referral to LGBT resources in the area, connect and support other local organizations, provide workshops and meeting spaces, and, most importantly, promote a renewed sense of community.
I want to talk about what that word means to me in this context and why, in my opinion, it's so important that Kansas City and other towns like it have a brick-and-mortar LGBT center.
It wasn't until I came out, in May 2010, that I found my community. I moved from Kansas to Tennessee in 1989 to chase my country music dreams and went on to live in Nashville for nearly 20 years prior to my move to New York City in 2008. I put a lot of thought into relocating my life, locking the doors of my beautiful home in Tennessee and driving with a U-Haul trailer behind my SUV with just enough furniture for a small apartment in Manhattan. My reasons for taking such a drastic step were many: I needed to finish writing my memoir; I wanted to further steel myself for my impending, very public coming out process; and most of all, I was in search of my community. Almost immediately following my coming out to the world, I began to understand what importance community could hold in a person's life. I was still relatively new to NYC, but I was making friends -- real friends -- with whom I could be honest, and I was easily appreciating that there were other people in the world "LikeMe." I was becoming closer to people at a much quicker pace than during my time in Tennessee. I'm not saying that my friends in Nashville were the cause of my stunted relationships with people -- they weren't -- and I'm not suggesting that I only want to be friends with people who are just like me -- no, that's not it at all. My point is that I was not truly connecting with my friends and flourishing in Nashville because I was deep in the closet; I was closed-off and isolated.
It was like magic for me to suddenly be out and to know that there was a place to go. The Center, as New York City's LGBT center is called, is one of the finest and most historic LGBT centers in the nation, boasting decades of service. The executive director of the Center, Glennda Testone (who, by the way, has been a mentor to the LikeMe Board in our strategic planning for the Lighthouse), can rattle off scores of programs and events going on at the Center on any given day, but she'll also pause to look you in the eye to tell you that one of the most important things about the Center is that it is there. "People know we're here," she says. "They know where to find us. They know they're not alone."
Human beings are not designed to be alone. None of God's creatures are. I could cite some interesting statistic about the lifespan and physical and emotional health of lab rats that are isolated, and the data would be dismal. Well, I guess that all depends on how you feel about rats and their entitlement to happiness, but you get the point. It's unnatural to be separated from the pack.
Think about it. When a kid in school has misbehaved and is sent out into the hallway, it's not because the hallway is such a horrible place. The purpose is to create distance between the child and the other students. That's the punishment.
Another way to illustrate how powerful the tool of isolation can be is to put it in these terms: what do our prison systems do to effectively administer the worst possible punishment to an inmate who's negatively acted out? That's right: solitary confinement. Isolation is the punishment.
Community is the cure.
It is my deepest hope that the LikeMe Lighthouse will stand tall, illuminating hope in every direction for all who have a need, whether it's one of the many great, local LGBT advocacy groups already in existence wanting to hold its monthly meeting there, or the not-quite-out 19-year-old from a small town like the one I grew up in, Wellsville, Kan., or maybe, hopefully, the parents of the 14-year-old who sat his folks down the night before and nervously said, "Mom, Dad... I think I might be gay. There's this place called the LikeMe Lighthouse on Main Street, and they've got a library with books for parents of gay kids."
I'm so lucky and honored to be a part of Kansas City's LikeMe Lighthouse. It really is a dream come true.