Though it is not quite the end of the year yet, I have been in a reflective mood. Maybe part of it is Ryan Burris’ passing. I was nowhere near as close to Ryan as I would liked to have been. We saw each other periodically at events and supported many of the same causes. Where Ryan was a gifted organizer and incredible spokesperson, I am neither. But the hole Ryan’s loss has left in this town is visible. Given the strange world of midterm elections, it seems an odd time for Ryan to leave us. Because if ever we needed his voice, his organization, Cape Fear Equality, and his lovey, calm, reasoned approach to bringing people together, it is now and in the next two years as we try to survive the next presidential election.
At moments like these, it’s hard not to think about the life one has lived and take stock. Ryan will be remembered for his work as an activist. He will be remembered for the efforts he expended to speak for those without voices, to work the rights of those without rights and to expand protections for those who are vulnerable. There are few of us that really leave the world better than we found it. Though, right now, things look pretty dark for LGBTQIA people in the land of Trump and Pence. Compared to the forecast for the community when Ryan came into the world, there have been some pretty major gains. We were contemporaries. Looking back at our lifetimes, the visibility and acceptance of LGBTQIA Americans has transformed. Don’t mistake what I am saying: Things are not perfect. There is still work to do and huge battles still to be fought.
Just for a moment, think about what he and I have seen in our lifetimes:
1. The first openly gay mayor of a U.S. city was elected in 1982 in Laguna Beach, CA. That might not sound significant, but Harvey Milk, the openly gay city supervisor in San Francisco, had just been assassinated four years earlier.
2. We have had openly gay Congress people serve, including Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin.
3. Though in later years, the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy came to be viewed as outdated. At the time it was passed, it was a step forward that military personnel could no longer be questioned about their sexual orientation. It wasn’t perfect, even at the time no one pretended it was. However, it was “something.” More importantly, it brought into national dialogue the reality how living openly as a gay man or woman would be a career-ending choice for many of our bravest and finest. Indeed, do you remember Corporal Klinger on “M*A*S*H”? He was trying to get out of the military, and one of his attempts was to convince everyone he was gay and liked to wear women’s clothing. It is really very difficult to explain when Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was enacted; it was received by many as the end of the world for the military. The subsequent abolishment of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell allowed openly gay men and women to serve in the armed forces in 2011 from the Obama administration.
4. In 1994 the American Medical Association stopped listing homosexuality as an illness. To many people today, it may seem obvious, but at the time it was a tremendous step forward in recognizing the validity of the human experience.
I remember the cover story in Newsweek questioning whether homosexuality was a result of genetics or upbringing—born or bred? It was a major national news magazine running the question as a cover story. In today’s climate, it would considered so absurd and offensive, it wouldn’t even be considered. Back then it was considered timely and edgy.
5. We have openly gay and transgender judges in 2018. It is a branch of government we don’t pay attention to as much as the legislative or executive, but it is very important. Witness the incredible unfolding battle for the recognition of same-sex marriage in the United States.
The Supreme Court decision in 2015 ruling same-sex marriage is constitutionally protected—the cap on a battle to recognize same-sex marriage, a fight that had been ongoing for as long as I had been politically conscious. I can’t even count how many protests at courthouses I went to throughout two decades.
Numerous states attempted to address the issue on their own, but it had to be settled federally to address the citizens of America. I still have an oversized paperback book that served as a legal guide for gay couples in the ‘90s to help them try and navigate health-care decisions as a couple, estate planning, and legal protections for each other and their relationship, prior to the Supreme Court ruling.
6. Gay couples can adopt children. When thinking back to the 1970s and Anita Bryant’s campaign against gay people even being permitted to teach in schools, for them to ably adopt children today is a huge gain. During Bryant’s crusade against gay men and women, Florida outlawed adoption for gay people in 1977. It remained the case until 2008 and wasn’t until a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court that gay parents were legally allowed to adopt in all 50 states.
7. For readers who have grown up with Ellen DeGeneres, the gains made in visibility that she and both Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper as hosts of major talk shows or respected cable news programs cannot be overstated. Seriously, when Ellen came out, it was national news. Do we even bat an eyelash now to learn an admired celebrity identifies as LGBTQIA? In the mid-‘90s it was a whole other world.
8. Matthew Shepard—for whom part of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is named—was laid to rest in the Washington National Cathedral alongside Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. Shepard was the victim of a hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1999. The story took over news stations nationwide, and in his wake, his parents founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation an education and advocacy group working for LGBTQIA issues.
9. Danica Roem, a transgender woman, was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017. She ran against an old guard bigot, who put forth a vicious attack campaign focusing on her gender identity. She responded with grace and class, and asked voters what they wanted to do about the traffic problems in their district. I found her campaign enthralling. I just adored it and hope she continues to work and rise in the political sphere.
10. In other news, The Guardian ran a story in January 2018 that made me grin. Apparently, Palm Springs, CA, elected an entirely LGBTQIA City Council (a transgender woman, a bisexual woman and three gay men), and no one noticed. Or as The Guardian story noted so beautifully:
“‘There is no gender associated with potholes,’ said Lisa Middleton, 65, the newly elected transgender council member, who was still unpacking belongings in her office.”
All points are but a drop in the bucket in how far LGBTQIA rights and visibility have come in less than 40 years. These gains have happened because of dedicated people who have worked to get legislation passed, court precedents set, and to build support across social boundaries. Though many of us reap the benefits of the dedicated work of activists, it takes a very special and committed person to make headway upstream.
It is not lost on me that I wrote this on November 20, Transgender Day of Remembrance, founded in the wake of the murder of Rita Hester in 1998. It is a somber event to remember trans people who have lost their lives, to ensure their memories are not forgotten. I hope in 40 years there will be no need for a Transgender Day of Remembrance or Transgender Visibility Day.
Sure, I wrote this in North Carolina where HB2, the now infamous “bathroom bill,” was passed.
Though I disagree heartily with the bill (all of it), I do wonder how many people had a single thought about the daily lives of trans people enter their heads—the struggles, the questions, the actual mechanics of getting through life (finding a doctor, shopping for clothes, finding a bathroom, applying for insurance)—until HB2 was thrust into the news?
Perhaps that, if anything, is the legacy from Ryan: compassion and empathy for people facing struggles others haven’t imagined. More importantly, taking empathy and applying it toward change to benefit everyone. No exceptions—everyone.
WORDS FROM THE COMMUNITY
Ryan Burris was a shining light on the horizon. A beacon in the darkness.
A voice for so many, and sometimes the loudest voice of them all.
For some, he was their only voice.
I’m so humbled to have known Ryan. I recently read a memorial Facebook post honoring Ryan, after a friend found out he had passed on. The post said Ryan had become a safe haven for this person before coming out to family; the person felt like Ryan provided an escape for others to be their true selves—because Ryan helped to create that environment. This wasn’t the first time I had heard this about Ryan. It reminded me of just how important the man was for so many in our community.
Ryan Burris was an advocate, an activist, a scholar of democracy, a citizen, an inspiration, a philanthropist, a great conversationalist, and above all else, he was our friend.
I once heard a man give a eulogy where he correlated death and the human spirit as a ship eternally set at sea. Today, in Wilmington, a huge ship set sail and will never return to our port.
— Ellie Craig
Ryan Burris was my hero. He was the kind of guy I always wished I could be. I love him. Everybody did. Wilmington is lesser without him. I’m gonna miss him very much.
— Jake Thomason
As I sit here and write this I cannot believe Ryan is gone. How do you sum up how important someone is? Ryan supported me when I wanted to come out as bisexual in the Wilmington community. He cheered me on as a person and was always loving and kind to my husband and daughter, and countless others—through either his work in the community, his friendship, or both.
There is no way to measure all he did for the Wilmington LGBTQIA community, but also for the community as a whole. I will never forget him and all he has done, but most importantly his friendship and kindness. This is a massive loss for everyone, may he rest in power.
—All our love,
Steph, Chris and Cora Hart
9th Annual Holiday Benefit In
Remembrance Of Ryan Burris
December 9, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.
The Calico Room
107 S Front St.
Bring a toy donation or donate to