Tag Archives: coming out

Come Out to Come In

Here’s my sermon for your Sunday.

Back in the early days of the women’s movement, an oft-repeated mantra was “the personal is the political.” The point was that unless an issue was personal, you were unlikely to bother engaging it politically.

There’s research confirming the insight. Academics who study civic engagement talk about the connection between “salience” and action—the personal importance of any particular issue is one predictor of that individual’s political involvement.

This accords with common sense: unless something matters to you, you are unlikely to participate in political advocacy around that issue.

“Coming out” is the perfect political expression of that insight. People who may have favored equal rights for GLBT folks in the abstract found the issue much more salient when they realized that their own friend or family member was one of those subject to marginalization and discrimination. Suddenly, being an ally meant something more affirmative than refraining from opposition, or expressing an inclusive sentiment at a cocktail party.

It seems so obvious to us now, but in the early days of the gay rights movement, coming out was a real gamble—a gamble that might not have worked, and that took a great deal of courage. Until there was a critical mass of “out” gay folks, out was a lonely and sometimes dangerous place to be. Being “out and proud” didn’t simply risk social disapproval—jobs were lost, families estranged, friendships shattered.

Today, after a generation of activism, we can say with some assurance that the gay community is in “mop up” mode. There’s still a good deal of bigotry, but thanks to coming out, the handwriting on the civic wall reads “Come on in.” Out gays hold elective office, enjoy marriage equality in more and more states, and participate in Pride celebrations that are more celebratory and less defiant than in the old days.

If we needed any more evidence of the success of the gay rights movement, it can be found in the fact that other despised minorities are looking to the GLBT community for strategic guidance.

In a blog earlier this week, I referenced a meeting of the Secular Coalition for America. The Coalition includes a variety of organizations concerned with the marginalization of non-believers, the war on women and science, religiously-based homophobia, and especially with efforts by “bible-believing” conservatives to move America toward “godliness”—aka theocratic laws.

Coalition members want non-theists to emulate the central strategy of the gay civil rights movement, and come out.

According to recent Pew data, nonbelievers—defined as those who answer “none” when asked about their religious affiliations—number around 20% of the American population. In 2000, some 14% of the public self-identified as part of the Religious Right. And yet, the Religious Right exercises immensely more political power than the religiously disengaged. They haven’t just been drivers of the culture wars and efforts to recast discrimination as “religious liberty,” they have been the most effective foot soldiers in the war on science.

Lawmakers—and not just Republicans—fall over themselves to pander to the obsessions of that 14%, because unlike the “nones,” they’ve been so public and visible that we think there are more of them than there really are.

Think how much more rational and inclusive our politics would be if even half of the “nones” came out and worked with the many reasonable religious folks to demand equal treatment and respect for all Americans, whatever their beliefs or lack thereof.

The Personal is Political

Back in the heady early days of the women’s movement, activists fashioned a slogan: the personal is political. It was a rejoinder to those men and women who denied the political nature of social attitudes that kept women “in our place,” social attitudes that dictated “proper” and decidedly unequal feminine behaviors and occupations.

That slogan is equally applicable to the struggle for gay rights.

When basketball player Jason Collins became the first major league athlete to come out, the news was met with a predictable chorus from the anti-gay right: Who cares? Why do these gays insist upon flaunting their personal sexual “preferences”? We don’t announce our heterosexuality—why do they insist on telling us about their homosexuality?

We know who cares–quite obviously, they do. And why is it important that GLBT people everywhere “announce” who they are? Because only by doing so—only by coming out—have gays been able to make progress toward civil equality.

Indeed, coming out has been one of the most successful political tactics in the history of civil rights struggles.

When most people didn’t know that they knew gay people, the popular images of gays were of what a friend of mine calls “the feather-boa crowd”–cross-dressers in gay bars, or limp-wristed, lisping stereotypes. (To the best of my recollection, there weren’t any stereotypes of lesbians. They were invisible.) Whatever the image, those unknown gays were “other.” Easy to demonize.

The coming out movement has changed that reality forever. When people realized that they had gay friends and relatives and co-workers, it became much harder to stereotype. Coming out was an incredibly powerful political tactic—and it worked. (It worked so well, in fact, that some atheist organizations are considering adopting it, atheists having largely replaced GLBT folks in most surveys as most distrusted and “un-American.”) Jason Collins’ coming out is part of that larger political movement.

There is another reason to applaud Collins’ revelation, however. It is impossible to separate homophobia from sexism; men (and it is almost always men) who sneer at or denigrate gay males generally do so by investing them with feminine characteristics. The terminology is telling: pansy, sissy, girly-boy. In my experience, most homophobes are also sexists who equate women with weakness and manliness with macho behavior. When a 7 foot tall, aggressive, muscular sports star comes out, it makes it difficult to cling to the theory that gay means girly.

A number of columnists and sports writers are predicting that the Collins announcement—and the generally positive reaction to it from other sports figures—will open the last remaining closet door, the door that has hidden gays playing major-league sports.

There has been amazing progress toward equality for the GLBT community over the past couple of decades. I am absolutely convinced that the primary impetus for that progress was the courage of those thousands of individual gay men and lesbians who made the personal political by insisting on living authentic lives, by coming out.

It’s easy to forget, when you are getting your news from Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper,or  watching a lesbian couple house-hunt on HGTV–or when you read that ENDA is being re-introduced in Congress and the Supreme Court is on the verge of striking down DOMA–how incredibly hard it was for those who went before, and how much today’s gay community owes to those who went first, who risked everything to make the personal political.

Born That Way

There is a relatively recent internet site called “Upworthy,” that culls videos from around the web that the site’s managers deem worthy of a wider audience (they’r “UpWorthy”) and promotes them. This morning, I saw one of them–a clip from comedian Wanda Sykes in which she explains why it is more difficult to be gay than to be black (she’s both). After all, she didn’t have to “come out” as black. I encourage you to click through and watch this 2 minute performance; Sykes is a gifted comic, and it is pretty funny.

The bit reminded me of an epiphany of sorts. When I was Director of the Indiana ACLU, I hosted a small fundraising dinner at my home for our Project for Equal Rights. We used that euphemism for Gay Rights, because it was the mid-1990s, and this is Indiana. At any rate, the guest of honor was the then-head of the ACLU’s national gay rights project, Bill Rubenstein. Something he said during that dinner  has remained with me ever since.

Gay kids have no role models.

Virtually every minority group teaches its children how to “be” what they are; Jewish parents model “Jewishness,” Hispanic parents are a bridge to the cultures from which they came, etc. But gay children are born to heterosexual parents–and most often, to parents who have no experience with gays or gay life. Each child who grows to realize that he or she is “different” has to figure out how to understand that difference, and how to live a rewarding and authentic life–without the help of a parental role model, and often despite parental rejection of that difference.

That’s a heavy burden. The least we can do as a society is not add to it.

Coming Out

Coming Out Day is today, October 11th.

These days—four states are preparing to vote on same-sex marriage, with victory likely in at least one, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell headed for the dustbin of history, and progress being made on a wide variety of civil rights issues affecting lesbians and gay men—the incredible importance of coming out to the struggle for gay civil rights sometimes escapes notice.

I thought about this last weekend, when I spoke at a conference sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Center for Inquiry. The Center for Inquiry is a national secularist organization, promoting (gasp!) science and reason over supernaturalism. There were four speakers at the all-day conference, and we all took different topics. Not surprisingly, my own presentation focused upon the lack of understanding of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, and the ways in which Americans’ abysmal lack of civic literacy fostered misconceptions, and enabled revisionists determined to rewrite the country’s history.

The last speaker of the day was a lawyer from Los Angeles named Edward Tabash, and it was his talk that made me sit up and take notice.

Tabash’s talk was titled “Taking Atheism to the General Public,” and his message was simple: “We need to emulate the gay community. We need to Come Out.” As he noted, atheists and gays are two communities targeted primarily by religion. Not all religions, certainly—to suggest otherwise would be to engage in the same sort of stereotyping that we decry—but a fundamentalist, literalist “brand” of belief. Tabash urged secularists to emulate the political activism tactics of GLBT folks; as he pointed out, those tactics have resulted in impressive gains, and those gains all began with the deceptively simple act of coming out.

Last Tuesday, I had the honor of emceeing (is that a word?) IUPUI’s third annual Harvey Milk dinner. The dinner draws the campus GLBT faculty and staff and allies, and it has grown steadily since the first dinner. Two hundred and twenty people attended this year’s event; they filled a sizeable space in the Campus Center. An event like that—with that sort of attendance in that sort of venue—would have been inconceivable even ten years ago. It was possible because people took deep breaths, risked families and friendships and livlihoods, and demanded social recognition. They came out.

They took those risks in order to honor their deepest natures, in order to live honestly.

It took guts.

The local CFI has lots of members, but a significant number of them are “lurkers,” on the organization’s website, but unwilling to be identified. Many of them live in small Indiana communities, and rightly fear the reaction of their employers and neighbors. Still, as Tabash noted, the prejudice against secularists won’t change until more of us come out.