30 Days Of Pride: Remembering Dante

When celebrating Pride Month, it’s important to commemorate the greatness of those whose efforts to uplift and advance the LGBTQ+ community, though they may no longer be among us. This is the legacy of one pioneering young man from Philadelphia, whose gifts of dedication and service have changed the landscape for us in the City of Brotherly Love. His name was Dante Austin, an Army veteran, advocate, and the first openly gay deputy in the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office. Dante later became the sheriff’s citywide LGBTQ liaison, encouraging other “family” to enlist, and building bridges between law enforcement and the community. In so doing, he also raised awareness among his fellow deputies about LGBTQ issues, and made real the promise of the Stonewall Rebellion — that a gay Black man could not only advance, but thrive in such a heteronormative profession as policing.

Dante Austin addresses a rally at Philadelphia City Hall/Nathan James photo

That was just one part of Dante’s persona. As an outspoken advocate for his fellow veterans and active-duty soldiers with the Modern Military Association of America (then OutServe), he was a champion of LGBTQ soldiers and sailors, especially transgender troops, whom President Trump had ousted from the military for their gender identity. Passionately arguing for the right to wear our country’s uniform freely and openly, Dante didn’t just limit his work to making speeches and media appearances. Joining with My Brothers House, a Philly nonprofit that provides safe, supportive housing and counseling to homeless veterans, Dante assisted the charity in securing new residences, and was honored by founder Dr. Remolia Simpson at a special LGBTQ Veterans Day gala in the Gayborhood.

Well-known and respected in LGBTQ+ circles, one could find Dante taking part in the LGBT State Of The Union, or working with the Gay Officers Action League (Dante was the Vice-President of the Philadelphia chapter). When Dante proposed to his boyfriend, city solicitor Tito Valdez, on the stage at Philadelphia Pride, the crowd went wild. Here was a young, beautiful gay power couple on their way up, and it seemed there were no limits for the new generation. In that one shining moment, it was easy to think theirs would be a fabulous life together and ignore the storm clouds gathering on the distant horizon.

In the year that followed Dante’s proposal, he continued his ongoing efforts to improve the lot of the city’s rainbow people. His hard work did not go unrecognized; a promotion to sergeant was just around the corner. But as so often happens in our community, his engagement was broken off, and the heartbreak of that loss began to wear on the rising young star. As Pride Month approached again, Dante tried to put a brave face on it: he was ebullient and upbeat at the LGBT SOTU. I was with him that night, and he was smiling, excited about his future, and gave no hint of the despair that assailed him from within. Four days later, one year ago today, Dante reported to work, took his seat in the LGBTQ Liaison office he headed, unholstered his service weapon, and put himself to death. Dante was just 27 years old.

In the aggrieved week that followed, a moment of silence was held in Dante’s honor during the Philadelphia Pride Parade, even as his friends and family members attended his funeral. His stunned co-workers at the Sheriff’s Department led an outpouring of sympathy and love for the man who changed the shape of LGBTQ relations in Philadelphia. For all that his benighted passing told us about the perils we still face as gay, lesbian, or transgender individuals, Dante’s life and his innumerable accomplishments continue to give us hope, and remind us of the fantastic wonders of possibility his life illustrated for us.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can offer help and resources in dealing with such crises. Help brings healing and light.

Nathan James is an LGBTQ, journalist, playwright, and radio personality. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/nathanjamesFB, or on Twitter as @RealNathanJames

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