“We would accept you even if
you were an axe murderer.
I love you, but
you’re going to hell.
You might as well be a pedophile.”
Those 26 words of confusing comparison hung over our heads as we sat beside cloudy cappuccinos in a packed, low-lit coffee shop one brisk January morning. Subversive and damaging words were regularly thrown at Melissa Moore, executive director of We Are Family, when she was a teenager coming out of the closet. Hurtful words such as these are not necessarily rare, as millions can similarly relate to the malice that misunderstanding often brings.
“When I came out about being attracted to other girls, I couldn’t understand why I was being compared to violent criminals. It really hurt to hear that from the people I was close to.”
Ask around the burgeoning progressive social bubbles of Charleston, and you will find that Melissa Moore has become a beacon of positive social change for those shaking to turn closet doorknobs, holding secrets to their chest for fear that people who give goodnight kisses will purse lips and no longer love them.
Moore is no stranger to the Holy City, having spent most of her adolescence in pristine Mount Pleasant.
“When I was young, I struggled with gender identity. From the age I knew what gender was, I wanted to be a boy, I saw myself as a boy and got picked on hardcore by the adults who were supposed to protect me. It was difficult, they were totally not equipped to deal with that. I dressed like a boy, wanted to run with the boys. I was really just trying to be myself.”
Moore again picks up the heavy conversation with bright eyes and reminisces about the good times.
“My mom, she worked in this hair salon filled with gay male hairdressers. They were great! I like to think I was raised, in part, by drag queens.”
She attended Wando High School. It was around the time period where the warm serendipity of youth can reveal things like sexual orientation. She was in France on a school trip lying near a girl she had only platonic blushes for, that is, until the moment this bedside buddy breathed fluttering butterflies into Melissa's stomach.
“Nothing came of it, nothing happened, but it was that moment that cemented the fact that I am attracted to women.”
Moore went on to study sociology at the College of Charleston, and having become emboldened by her affecting trip to Paris, decided to delve deeper into that part of her that has the capacity to be intimate and love other humans.
“I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance, and I'll admit, it was because I wanted to meet other women!”
She laughed sheepishly before rearranging her words.
“I wanted to help, I mean, hardly anyone was part of the club at that time, but I also wanted to meet someone.”
She stayed a part of the LGBT Club but spent an enormity of her time in the Feminism Club, a place that finally provided the human connection she had long been longing for. It was this contact with like-minded humans that fostered and emboldened a rallying cry, once whispered, that can now be seen in the roaring eyes of loved young humans across Charleston. We Are Family has much to do with this.
While We Are Family has been around since 1995, Melissa has spearheaded a shake-up of their longest tenured program, SafeSpace. SafeSpace is facilitated by adult volunteers, but is an almost entirely youth-led, youth-occupied practicum to mentor the struggling youth, but, more importantly, to give them the tools, education, and support it takes for them to carry their own torch.
“We wanted to empower them; they are a people who consistently have had that power taken away. My goals are to give the community support I never had, to be there when they have problems or questions. Kids often come to us when they’re confused, don’t know any other people like them in their schools, don't find acceptance from their families, or schools, or if they are without a home. We try to help them find the resources they need within themselves and the community.”
We Are Family understands that institutions have among the largest hands in shaping our experiences in life, and because of that, they rush to the source, providing training and education for local school faculty.
“We provide all kinds of training. We talk to gay-straight alliance groups, we help those who are trying to start their own campus groups. We go in and educate teachers and faculty. We work with helping professionals and healthcare providers. It's amazing how much of a knowledge gap there can be in our education and healthcare systems. We’re here to help fill in those gaps.”
Moore became affiliated with We Are Family after a harrowing political defeat. She was part of The Alliance For Full Acceptance and the South Carolina Equality Coalition, and worked tirelessly with many others to stop anti-LGBT legislation from passing in state legislature. They failed in the year 2007, when a constitutional amendment was enacted that explicitly defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
“It was incredibly difficult, yet ultimately the best thing that could have happened to LGBT people in our state. I don't think we would have gay marriage if we didn't have the bigoted vitriol we went through. It ripped our community apart, we felt so hurt and fractured by what was happening. After the initial pain, people began to have the conversation, it became a personal conversation. It emboldened people to answer the hate by telling their stories.”
Since that dreary day of defeat, legislation has been overturned and much progress has been made in Charleston. We Are Family is the only non-profit organization in all of South Carolina whose mission is completely dedicated to helping youth.
“We are a bare-bones operation. We depend on the money we get from the community. We go only as far as the dollars can fund us. We fortunately have very little overhead, so even the smallest donation goes directly to the programs.”
Regardless of the complications that arise when thinking of the juxtaposition between religion and LGBT support, many local churches have helped We Are Family immensely.
The Unitarian Church in Charleston, the Circular Congregational Church, among others, have supported us financially and in many other ways. We are so grateful for them. We're kind of a liberally religious city, a very strange animal.”
When one strips away ideologies that tell us who we have to be or who we have to love, what remains is a uniquely human love and understanding that gushes from the mouth and is felt by exploding hearts. This creed is not lost on those fighting for equality. For Melissa Moore and all of the hardworking and selfless individuals who perpetually fight for those young people confused and battered by ignorance and misunderstanding, the mission is love.