Long drives down country roads, green fields that seem like they could go on forever, and the most beautiful sunsets that could make even your worst day just a little bit brighter. Those are some of the first few things that come to mind when I think about Mansfield, Ohio. Mansfield was the small town I called home for the first 18 years of my life. Being a young gay man in my hometown, you do your best to conform to what is "normal." Making sure you're not acting feminine or dressing too crazy in order to not draw attention to yourself. Which is exactly what I did, until the day I came home for Mansfield's second annual Pride Festival.
My family and I spent the morning of the festival helping my mum set up a booth for the non-profit she created. It's called Love On a Mission, and it aims to create a safe place for LGBTQ+ youth in the area where I grew up. After we finished setting up, we (along with a few other friends) lined the small street, which was already filling up with other members of the community to watch the parade. I remember, as it started, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. I couldn't believe that I was actually home, surrounded by so many people I love. I couldn't believe I was watching a parade that celebrated the part of me I had always felt so ashamed of growing up. After the parade, everyone congregated in the park for the festival. You could feel the love radiating from that park. Smiles on every face, and rainbow flags displayed proudly. There was a sense of freedom among everyone: we all could fully express ourselves.
You could feel the love radiating from that park. Smiles on every face, and rainbow flags displayed proudly.
When I think about my proudest moment, that day in the park is the first thing that comes to my mind for so many reasons. I got to spend the day with my mum, working with a non-profit that she created for kids who were just like me when I was growing up. I got to witness so many people I've known my entire life celebrating and supporting our community. If you would've told me at 18 that I'd be at a Pride festival in my hometown, surrounded by so many people I love, I would've called you crazy. The fact that I was able to walk around being exactly who I am and feel completely comfortable doing so in a small town in rural Ohio gives me so much hope for the future. We still have a long way to go, but visibility is key for progression. No matter how big or small.
And if you're a young person reading this and feeling what I felt a few years ago, please know that it does get better. Your life is going to change in so many beautiful ways. It's easy to feel like where you are right now is forever, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Love yourself and be hopeful, because you have so much ahead of you.