Coming Out as Good Citizenship

Tim Wilson
GALBA Coming Out Day Event
11 October 2002

Today is National Coming Out Day. On October 11, lesbian and gay and bisexual and transsexual people, their friends and their families, celebrate and participate in National Coming Out Day all across the United States. National Coming Out Day was originally an outgrowth of the second March on Washington for gay and lesbian rights. That demonstration on behalf of civil rights for people who don't happen to be heterosexual drew a half-a-million people to the District of Columbia on October 11, 1987. Fifteen years later, National Coming Out Day has become an institution among gay people of all stripes.

The last fifteen years have seen measured progress toward the achievement of gay and lesbian rights in the United States, and much of that progress is due to the simple fact that women and men speak out and say, "I'm gay," to those nearby. At times, it's done softly and bashfully, and at other times, its done with a fierce determination, with a demand for respect that says, "I will not be treated like a second-class citizen just because I happen to love someone of the same gender." But in whatever manner it is done, the fact is that simply doing it matters.

It matters to say, out loud, to someone else, "I'm gay." It matters to say, out loud, to someone else, "I'm a lesbian." It matters to say, out loud, to someone else, "I'm bisexual." It matters to say, out loud, to someone else, "I'm not the gender you think I am." It matters to say, "I'm not straight," because the default assumption that most straight people and most gay people carry around with us is that everyone else is straight.

The progress that has been made towards equality for gay and lesbian people has largely been at the level of our friends and our families, our fellow students and our co-workers. Reliable polling data indicates that ever increasing numbers of Americans...

The numbers may not be over 50% in all of those categories, but when the entire American population is considered, the trend over the past fifteen years has been one of increasing acceptance, increasing respect, and increasing acknowledgement that the rights we say are ours, are ours rightfully.

To my thinking, there are three primary reasons for why this has happened.

First, there is the foundation that was put into place by what you might call the Old School gay liberation crowd.

Regardless of whether the groups in question lean hard left or right-of-center -- depending of course on your own perspective of where the center is -- we owe their members a debt of gratitude for being out and being loud, for sometimes being in someone else's face, and for not letting the public and the politicians forget that there were real live people out here in the world who happened to be homosexual or bisexual or transsexual. It was the people who had come through those groups that did the work organizing for the first March on Washington in 1979, the second March in 1987 of which we commemorate tonight the fifteenth anniversary, and the third March in 1993. If those women and men had not done what they did, at a time when it was, in many ways, more difficult to come out and to be out than it is today, we would likely not be here tonight.

The second reason for the increase in support for gay and lesbian rights has to do with the increasing presence of groups of gay and lesbian employees in institutions and companies of all sizes. Usually not allied with any particular political point of view, these groups exist for reasons both of promoting nondiscrimination and of offering an improved work environment. (Sometimes, an "improved work environment" just means knowing other gay employees.) The Human Rights Campaign's WorkNet database records several hundred such groups including:

These groups, as well as professional associations such as the National Gay Pilots Association, Digital Queers, and NOGLSTP (National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientific and Technical Professionals) have had an enormous, under-appreciated impact. The number of companies that have adopted anti-discrimination language, that have instituted diversity training, and that have implemented benefits for the domestic partners of their lesbian and gay employees reflects the work of those gay and lesbian employee groups.

But the third reason for improvement in attitudes towards people who don't happen to be straight-and I think this one is the one that really matters-is increased gay and lesbian visibility. First of all, it's easy to identify an increased presence of openly lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgendered individuals in the mass media, in both the news and the entertainment varieties. Barney Frank. Boy George. Rosie O'Donnell. Melissa Ethridge. Elton John. Ellen DeGeneres. RuPaul. Mary Cheney. David Geffen. Martina Navratalova. And that's not counting fictional characters in books or films or on stage or on TV. Or the cast of Fraser. Or a baseball player to be named later.

But more important than the presence of gay people in music and film and theater and radio and television and sports, the changes of attitudes among the population at large is primarily the result of the out-of-the-closet presence of gay people in other peoples' everyday life. Of you and me telling mom and dad, brother and sister, next-door neighbor, minister or priest, teacher or boss "I'm gay," in the same way we told each other "I'm gay," earlier. Even with substantial setbacks like "Don't ask, don't tell" and the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act," and even with a never-ending physical threat from the random deranged homophobe, the social and political climate has improved, largely because people come out of the closet about who they really are.

But that's not why we come out, is it? At least not that first time. By and large, the first time we come out, the last thing that's one our minds is some kind of longer-term social or political ramification. That first time we come out, that first time we say "I'm gay," it's almost always entirely personal. It's not even said out loud, and it's not even said to someone else; instead, it's said by ourselves, to ourselves, as the reality of who we are, of who we're attracted to and want to be with, of who we want to love and to be loved by, becomes clear.

Coming out to oneself is about personal integrity. It's about bringing together those parts of you that have been repressed and suppressed, about admitting those parts that have been denied and denigrated, about embracing those parts that neglected and dismissed. It's when you stop forcing yourself to fantasize about the other gender, or, in some cases, when you realize you are the other gender. It's about cutting through the layers of bull we've been piling up for ourselves for the last 65 or 55 or 45 or 35 or 25 or 15 years. It's about being honest with ourselves. Once we really come out to ourselves, then we can start to come out to others. While coming out to ourselves is almost always an act of personal integrity and personal honesty, coming out to others takes on as many different aspects as there are kinds of relationships to others.

We come out to family and friends because these are the people who we know and who we think want to know us. In coming out to them, we exhibit personal honesty and self-confidence, and we show them proper respect. Sometimes we don't come out to them for a long time, because we're afraid of losing their love or friendship. We sometimes misguidedly think that we can control whether or not they'll continue to love us or to be our friend by withholding truthful information about who we are from them. In my opinion, thinking that way is, in reality, disrespectful of their right to have their own honest feelings.

Just as we display integrity by having the feelings for someone of the same gender that we do and then saying, "I'm gay," we respect their right to have their own feelings when we tell them "I'm gay." By coming out to them, by being honest to ourselves and to them about who we are, by giving them a chance to have their own feelings instead of trying to control what they feel about us by not telling them what is, in fact, the truth, we relieve ourselves of an enormous burden. Two little words, "I'm gay," and a weight that's been carried around for years, is largely gone.

Of course, coming out to them isn't always easy. There's the lump in the throat, the tightness in the gut, the butterflies in the stomach, the sweaty palms. There's the fear that they'll hurt you emotionally, or maybe even physically. And when you're talking about parents, the fear that you'll lose their love and support is almost completely paralyzing. So coming out is an act of courage.

You come out to yourself and construct personal integrity, and then you come out to family and friends and construct respect and exhibit courage. But after family and friends, the coming-out process reaches a weird kind of middle ground, as the context for coming out moves into the acquaintance and co-worker and fellow-student categories: People that you might socialize with, but who you aren't necessarily close to. It's here that there's as many varieties of "how to come out" or "whether to come out" as there are people who aren't heterosexual.

But I know this: Even if you don't go around introducing yourself at the job with "Hi, I'm Joe Homo," eventually the conversation will turn to "Are you dating anyone?" or, "Are you married?" And, to my mind, at that point coming out becomes a necessity, for the same reasons we've already discussed: your personal integrity and your respect for other people's feelings. And, as many times as you do it, it's still accompanied by nervousness and worry. It still requires courage.

So, to summarize my own, possibly twisted, bottom line on the coming out process: Coming out is about personal integrity, about honesty, about respect, about courage. It's about not living with your own lies; it's about overcoming your own fears and doing what you know is right; it's about empowering other people to have their own feelings, in the same way that you have the right to your own feelings and to honestly say what they are.

Before I close, I want to tell you about my own coming out.

In my own case, even though I had had sexual experiences-those were homosexual experiences, not all of my own choosing-at an early age, and even though I was sexually active-that's homosexually active-as a teenager and as a young adult, I somehow maintained the fiction to myself that it was all some kind of phase that would end someday. The phase that ended, though, wasn't being homosexual: it was denying that I was homosexual. I was thirty-something years old before I applied the term "gay" to myself.

It didn't take long, though, maybe a year and a half, between really deeply coming out to myself and coming out to others. I had confided in a few close friends over the years, but the actual watch-out-I'm-coming-out-moment occurred for me in May of 1990. I was in graduate school in Boston, and a student who worked in the same research group I did made some disparaging comment about Barney Frank. Something on the lines of, "We shouldn't allow his type to serve in Congress." And that was the point at which I said, "What type? The gay type? Well, I just happen to be the gay type, so I don't have any problem with Barney Frank being the gay type." Before the end of the week, I was out to my research advisor, the other graduate students in the office, and several other folk around campus. Within a month, I was out to my immediate family. Within a year, I had had an honest, if somewhat confused, intimate relationship with another man.

I mention that because it brings me to one final point I want to make about coming out. I've described coming out in terms of integrity and honesty and respect and courage, terms that are foreign to many of those who put us down because we aren't straight. Well, there's one more term that goes with coming out that those people wouldn't think of, either, and that's "responsibility."

I think we have a responsibility to build support structures for people who come out at younger ages. Young people who happen not to be straight and who come out when they're young-I'm talking high-school age, here-should have the same kinds of opportunities to date and to get dated, to dump and to get dumped, as young people who happen to be straight.

Often, being lesbian or gay means a delay in when you get to start knowing other people intimately-and mean emotionally more than I necessarily mean sexually-compared to when our straight peers do. If there's one thing you college-age men and women in GALBA can do outside the E-RAU campus, it's to help create and maintain those facilities and activities that support coming out and being out and having emotionally honest lives by young men and women of high-school age. I think you, we, have a responsibility to do so. It's not that I think we can do something to make that first coming out easy or to make being a gay teenager easy: that's no more possible than making being a teenager easy in the first place. But I think we can do things, make resources available, that would make things just a tad easier and would have a positive influence in their lives.

In my own case, I later met the man I love, Mack McKinley. After fits and starts, and some real dating-some courting, actually-he agreed to live with me, in spite of his having learned a little about me. We have had what I think is a real relationship with lots of ups and downs and "should we do this?" and "why did you do that?" for going on eight years now. That may not be the fifty years that his parents have been married, but if we could be as in love after half as long a time as they have been, we will have achieved something very precious. We have bought a house together that we both loved dearly, and we have sold that same house to move here to help take care of my mom when she was in her final days. We have joint credit cards and a joint bank account. When one of us is sick, the other one takes care of him. We not only are family, we are a family, and we value our families, as screwed up as they can be sometimes.

But our love for each other and for our families doesn't matter, because if our landlord decided he didn't like homos living in his property, we could be evicted. One of us could be compelled to testify against the other in a court of law, because we don't enjoy a spousal privilege, even though we have the same kind of emotionally supportive relationship that different-sex couples have. When Mack quit his job to go back to school, I couldn't get benefits for him, because ERAU doesn't have domestic partner benefits.

So, I've written a proposal for domestic-partner benefits at Embry-Riddle, and I hope to see it through all the necessary hoops and over all the necessary hurdles, so that even if our relationships don't receive the recognition they should from federal and state governments, at least we won't go broke if one of us gets sick. And Embry-Riddle will be a better place to work for gay people. An LBG employees group would be something else that would improve the local environment.

Integrity, honesty, respect, courage, and responsibility. When we come out to ourselves and to our families and friends and co-workers and acquaintances, we exhibit these traits that are among the hallmarks of good citizens everywhere.

Don't listen to what the haters say when they try to portray us in hurtful ways by saying that by loving who we love and living how we live we lack integrity, honest, respect, courage, and responsibility. Some of them are ignorant and some of them are hypocrites and some of them are just downright malicious. But their lies and confusion cannot take away from you what you have built for yourself, which is self-respect, respect for others, and a commitment to be honest about yourself with yourself and with others.

Eventually, our rights will be recognized, hopefully in your lifetime, if not in mine. But that won't happen unless we're honest with other people about who we are. Unless we say to them and share with each other the one and only thing we have in common as people who aren't heterosexual. That's saying to ourselves and to the world, "I'm gay."

Copyright (c) 2002, Timothy A. Wilson. All rights reserved.