TAMPA, Fla. — Studies show that more Americans than ever before support civil rights for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
According to the latest Gallup poll, 70% of Americans said they approve of same-sex marriage. Back in 2009, that number was just 40%.
Experts believe the rate increase is due to more representation and visibility of people who identify as LGBTQ.
"There was no visibility that I can remember. Growing up in my neighborhood, in our family, in our culture and whatever we were doing. I don't ever remember seeing anybody that projected themselves like I felt," said Joy Winheim, who was born in Queens, New York, in 1973.
For many years of her life, Winheim kept her sexual orientation a secret. Like many people who had a different sexual orientation or gender identity, she feared being ostracized by her community and society.
"It was like, 'OK, well, I can't tell anybody, I can't tell anybody,'" said Winheim.
"I identify as a gay man. I remember feeling very, very alone, not having clubs or support. Not at school, not at home," said Eric Vaughn.
Vaughn works with an organization called Community Tampa Bay. The organization's mission is to eliminate discrimination of all kinds, especially for children in the LGBTQ community. They do this by mentoring young leaders from diverse backgrounds to engage in cross-cultural conversations.
"So, we work with a lot of youth who identify as a part of the LGBTQ community, and we really try to get them to understand what issues they're facing in schools and their home communities. And we give them some tools to help them empower themselves so they can be advocates for themselves," said Vaughn.
According to a new Gallup poll, 7.1% of American adults identify as being something other than heterosexual. That's double the percentage recorded back in 2012 when only 3.5% of American adults identified as being LGBTQ. Gallup attributes this increase to Generation Z being more open about their identity.
One place many people in the LGBTQ community have not felt comfortable being open is the church.
Andy Oliver is the pastor of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg. He said everyone is welcome at his church.
"As a Christian, I believe that we're all made in God's image and, so; therefore, we also need all different types of people to see and understand what God looks like. And, so, if you're at a church that doesn't have any LGBTQ people, you're missing out on an aspect of who God looks like," said Pastor Oliver.
Pastor Oliver is one of many pastors in the United Methodist Church to go against the denomination's ban on carrying out same-sex marriages.
"We voted unanimously to do so, and, so, four years ago on St. Patrick's Day, Erin and Betsy were married here," said Pastor Oliver.
Despite overall progress for the LGBTQ community, at least 57 transgender people were murdered in 2021 and 44 in 2020 in the United States, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
For Lucas Wehle, it's personal because his friend, Jenny, a transgender woman, was violently murdered last year.
"When I got the news, I was extremely heartbroken," said Wehle.
Jenny's body was found in Sulphur Springs. Recently, a man named Damien Marshall was charged with first-degree murder in connection to her death. Wehle has vowed to continue to fight for transgender lives.
As for Winheim, even though she grew up closeted, that's not her reality anymore. She's a fierce advocate for those in the LGBTQ community. She is also happily married and has a son. She said she wants the trend of acceptance and normalization to continue, especially for children.
"It's already so much more normal in those generations than it is in my generation, and above that, it's going to be easy for those kids," said Winheim. "I'm so excited for that for them — that they won't have the struggles and the feelings that we had when we had to come out."
Winheim will be this year's grand marshal in Tampa's Pride parade.
ABC Action News is a sponsor of Tampa Pride and will be live streaming the parade on ABC Action News Plus. Live coverage starts on Saturday at 4 p.m.