I have been involved in the reef aquarium hobby since 2006 and I’ve been a part of the LGBTQ community for most of my life. For my work in breeding marine ornamentals, as well as my successes building numerous reefing communities, I was recently awarded the 2020 Aquarist of the Year award by the Marine Aquarium Society of North America. I say this not to brag, but to point out that I am a long term, recognized member of the reefkeeping community.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s I experienced various degrees of discrimination. In middle school I was called a “gay”, “fag”, you name it, before I even knew what it meant, other than the dictionary definition. By the time I got to high school I had a pretty good idea that I was gay. I dated a girl during my sophomore year but I knew I was living a lie.
By the time I started my junior year, I had broken up with my “girlfriend” and started my journey toward living an authentic life. I was still a bit of an outcast but I wasn’t alone. I was artsy and found solace in “New Wave” music.
Eventually, I found my way to the gay bars in Detroit where I discovered a whole new world where being gay was celebrated rather than made fun of. I was no longer alone!
I’m writing this to give you a little insight into what it’s like growing up as a gay person. By “little” I mean there is much more to it that is depressing and not fun to discuss. Each person who is part of the LGBTQ community has a different story about how their journey through life has affected them. Some good, some not so good.
What most people who aren’t members of the LGBTQ community don’t know, or understand, is that our sense of “family” and “community” is often tainted by how our biological families reacted to finding out about our sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Many individuals are shunned by family members, even disowned. It’s not surprising that the suicide rate for LGBTQ youth is much higher than heterosexual people in the same age groups.
When a gay person meets other gay people, they are often able to see that they aren’t alone and that they aren’t inherently bad, as they have been led to believe. Friendships are formed and some of those friendships become as strong, if not stronger, than biological family.
By now you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the reefkeeping community. Personally, I’ve found the vast majority of people I’ve met in the hobby to be wonderful and accepting people. I’ve become close with some of my reefing friends to the point I consider them part of my family.
Unfortunately, I’ve recently witnessed multiple instances of discrimination and bigotry within the reefkeeping community. I’ve seen threads deleted simply because they were made by an LGBTQ person who was reaching out to other reefkeepers who might also be gay.
I’ve seen “Terms of Service” agreements changed to prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity from being the topic of any discussion. The rationalization for these deletions and prohibitions has primarily been from a religious perspective. A perspective that in this context communicates that anyone who is a part of the LGBTQ community is bad, a deviant, a danger to children. This perspective is often born from a fear of the unknown or radical religious beliefs.
This perspective is not only uninformed, it’s dangerous. On one hand, this type of discrimination not only serves to reinforce outdated stereotypes to adults, it teaches younger people that being LGBTQ is a bad thing. Younger people who may be questioning their own sexuality hear and see these types of discriminatory statements and actions, often from family members, take them to heart.
On the other hand, people in the LGBTQ community are made to feel persecuted. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard from many fellow hobbyists that are worried or afraid to be themselves. They have been told to “tone it down” if they want to fit in. I’ve heard from people who have told me about their experiences or feelings but are afraid to have their names used out of fear of it affecting their job or standing in the community.
This type of discrimination is not something that makes the reefkeeping community feel like the welcoming place it claims to be. Considering the vast diversity we all see in the marine environment, and the natural world, it makes me sad to see people being treated as anything less than equal. I want my LGBTQ friends and community members to feel welcome, safe, and unafraid to participate in the marine aquarium hobby. It’s past time we put an end to discrimination in our hobby and elsewhere.