Editor's note: This column is part of a series featuring Lakeshore residents sharing their stories.
Equality. What does that mean? Equal rights are so often disregarded by a person who has never faced oppression — until that person becomes oppressed or has their rights revoked. When rights are stolen away, a person will most often fight for them to be returned. What about never having had them in the first place?
A cis-gendered, heterosexual person most likely has never had to grapple with such issues. To fully comprehend my feelings and emotions about the Supreme Court’s ruling to protect gay and transgender people in the workplace, I have to tell my story.
My name is Justin Raha (he/him) and I am an out and proud gay male. I was born and raised in a Catholic home, taught it was a sin to be gay and that the gays go to hell. As a teenager, I was discovering who I was and it took a heavy toll on me. I had feelings and attractions towards guys, but was taught it was wrong.
When my family had an inclining I was gay, I had to do therapy to “pray the gay away." In therapy, I tried to erase the thoughts and attractions, I even tried to date women. It led me into a downward spiral of depression where I felt worthless, alone, scared, angry, and hopeless.
Hard work, hard times
As a way of coping with these emotions and avoiding my family, I worked hard as a kid. My first job was at 14, my second at 15, and by the time I was 16 I had three jobs. By 18 I was working four jobs, finishing high school, and starting college. After I finished culinary and pastry school, I started my bakery Grand Finale Desserts and Pastries in 2007.
Grand Finale Desserts and Pastries is located in downtown Grand Haven.
I was 22 and I was still in the closet until I was outed to my family and kicked out about a year later. I needed to get out anyway, but it wasn’t until I was on my own and left the Catholic faith that I began to slowly accept myself. I was homeless for weeks. I felt battered and bruised, unsure of what was next.
However, I had some amazing people who helped me to my feet. I started to finally live my life. Slowly, I realized God actually did love me and he truly made me in his image. I began to be who I was meant to be.
Living in West Michigan, A Midwest “Bible Belt,” I shared my sexuality to a few carefully chosen others. I started to pay more attention to the community and the very Christian forward/anti-LGBTQ+ thinking. I was still very afraid to be gay. West Michigan was not an accepting community.
I was a gay business owner so I stayed closeted for years, in fear of losing business. I was trying to build a brand for myself and my business and did not want to jeopardize that. To add to my anxiety, I also started teaching college culinary classes. I was afraid to be out to students.
Threat of firing
Part of that fear came from the fact that In many parts of Michigan and across the country, myself or any LGBTQ+ person could be fired for their sexuality.
We could be fired for being gay.
Let that sink in.
Additionally, gays in particular, were often looked at or perceived as sexual predators. Simply the fear of something arising from that consistently kept me on edge. The college I teach for and the people I work with are quite amazing and extremely open and accepting of all people. It significantly helped me but it still took me years to grow thicker skin and be less afraid. Gradually, I publicly came out of the closet. I could no longer hide in fear.
I am forever grateful for the LGBTQ+ people who paved the way, specifically those in the Black Queer and Transgender community. It was a Black trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson who is touted to have thrown the first brick, 51 years ago in New York. She was one of the people that started the riots at Stonewall and thus began the fight for our freedoms and rights.
Protection for LGBTQ+ workers
I am elated and relieved the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act includes protections for gay and transgender workers from job discrimination. I and others in the LGBTQ+ community no longer have to live in fear of losing our jobs for being who we are.
Grand Finale Desserts and Pastries sells these gay pride sweets.
While I am ecstatic, I am sad it has taken 51 years to get here. It was only five years ago when we were finally allowed to be legally married. Society is seeing that no person should be oppressed or treated unequally.
We have come a long way but have so much further to go. I wanted to tell my story to help convey the pain, suffering, oppression, and fear that is the foundation of my emotional reaction to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.
Still, being a white gay male, the oppression I have faced does not compare to the oppression faced by the Black community, even more so, the Black Trans and Queer community.
The very community we have to thank for legal protections to be Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer in the workplace and not be discriminated against without legal consequences.
Justin Raha is a longtime Grand Haven resident who owns the downtown bakery, Grand Finale Desserts and Pastries.