A few days before Christmas, my best friend — a gay man I have known since before junior high — sent me a text telling me that his 15-year-old great-niece had just come out to him. He said he had called to ask her what she wanted for Christmas this year, and she told him she wanted a Pride flag. He was surprised that she was so matter of fact about it, but instead of making a big deal he just asked if she would like some more Pride stuff. She was, he told me, so excited that he asked, and he was already having so much fun shopping for Pride stuff for her.

Great-niece is totally “out and proud” at school, Guncle told me, and her mom (my friend’s niece) is totally supportive. And yet, Guncle and I both have some concerns.

See, Great-Niece still lives in Hometown, where Guncle and I grew up. It is a small, rural, very conservative southeast Texas town — not the most friendly place for an LGBTQ teenager. At least, it wasn’t when Guncle and I were growing up there. Times are changing, as Guncle said, but Hometown is still Hometown. And teenagers — and grown people, too — can be absolutely vicious to anyone who is “different.”

But we have hope, too. Because Great-Niece has a mom who supports her, and knowing Guncle’s family as well as I do, I have no doubts that she is the most fierce Mama Bear you could find. Nobody is gonna come for her little rainbow cub without paying a very high price.

And Great-Niece also has another HUGE advantage that Guncle and I never had when we were scared teens doing our best to hide our rainbow selves in the gray “normality” of Hometown, Texas: Great-Niece has Guncle.

Sure, there are laws protecting LGBTQ people these days that Guncle and I never dreamed of when we were young. Marriage equality? Workplace non-discrimination protections? We never thought we would live to see the day. And there are more and more openly LGBTQ celebrities and public figures and more and more allies, all of whom saying, “Be yourself.”

But Great-Niece has more. She has a man she has known and loved all her life who is out, proud and successful. He has advanced college degrees, a great job, a happy and successful marriage, a beautiful home and even a great vacation home.

She has Guncle. And, she doesn’t know it yet, but she has me, and she has a whole, beautiful, diverse rainbow community standing behind her, standing beside her.

That’s why we do what we do. That’s why Guncle and I chose not to try to stay in the closet, not when it comes to our own daily lives and not when it comes to our more conservative families back in conservative Hometown, Texas. It’s why we stand up. It’s why we speak up. It’s why we keep on fighting.

It’s also why I have the job I have.

Working for Dallas Voice is my job. Sometimes it can be exhausting. Sometimes it can be exasperating. And sometimes it can be heart-breaking. In my years at Dallas Voice I have seen our community lose practically an entire generation of beautiful, fabulous men to HIV and AIDS. I have seen the violence born of hate that has taken the lives of LGBTQ people (more than 40 transgender people died violent deaths in 2020 alone). I have seen the despair and the brokenness and the fear, born of that same hate, that have driven far too many of our LGBTQ youth to suicide.

I have watched our community mourn. But I have also watched our community rejoice.

I have seen our victories — when sodomy laws were declared unconstitutional, when marriage equality was made the law of the land, when anti-LGBTQ employment discrimination was banned, and more. I have seen our celebrations — the parades and the festivals, even just a Saturday night at our favorite bar when the music was loud and the dance floor was crowded with people just thrilled to be alive and surrounded by others like them.

It’s no secret that 2020 has been, well, a difficult year, to say the least, for the whole world. And our LGBTQ communities have not escaped the hard times. Our bars and other businesses have spent a great deal of the year closed or operating way under capacity. Our organizations have had to cut back on activities and programs. Our events have been canceled or forced to go virtual.

For LGBTQ people who already often felt isolated, either from being closeted or from being surrounded by a homophobic world, the 2020 quarantine times have been even more oppressive. But we are still here.

There are thousands more out there like Great-Niece — LGBTQ people, young and older — who need us to be role models. So we have to keep fighting. We have to keep shining, being out, proud and real rainbow-colored beacons of hope and promise.

Tammye Nash is managing editor of Dallas Voice and a product of small-town Texas. The opinions expressed here are her own.