National Coming Out Day began twenty years ago, on the anniversary of the second Gay & Lesbian March on Washington. The 1987 march was flanked by police in rubber gloves, as if they were going to catch AIDS just by touching someone. The march was completely ignored by Time and Newsweek, except in Newsweek's quotes-of-the-week section, which reported a chant that marchers directed at the police:
"YOUR GLOVES DON'T MATCH YOUR SHOES!"
Most people were under the impression that they didn't know any GLBT people. This matters.
It surprises me that I'm somehow old enough to talk about what a different time that was. The Supreme Court had upheld sodomy laws a few years earlier in "Bowers v. Hardwick," and about half the states still had laws on the books telling people how they could or couldn't have sex. Those laws were rarely enforced, and some included straight people as well, but they were used selectively to harass GLBT people and deny them rights. ("We can't hire gay people because they're criminals" was an argument actually used to justify job discrimination.)
Laws protecting GLBT people from job & housing discrimination were a new idea in some liberal cities. When the Cracker Barrel restaurant (a major Southern chain) issued orders to fire anyone suspected of being gay, they had no problem putting that in writing - it was perfectly legal to do so. Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts, succumbed to pressure to take children away from GLBT foster parents.
A proposed domestic partnership law that offered a few rights was voted down - in San Francisco. (A symbolic name registry was later approved.) Lindsay Van Gelder wrote an article arguing for same-sex marriage (I think it was in Ms. Magazine.) Her logic was impeccable, but the idea was still unthinkable.
This was before the Internet, years before "Ellen," and a decade before "Will & Grace." The only GLBT characters visible in the media were on "Soap" and "Dynasty." Writers for both shows acknowledged that the characters had to be shown suffering for their orientation, and both characters eventually wound up with heterosexual partners.
My local GLBT paper alerted me any time there was a gay character in a guest role on a TV episode, and I always watched even if I was unfamiliar with the show. It was actually possible to do this, even without Tivo. A couple of years later, MTV would refuse to air Madonna's "Justify My Love" video, which showed her kissing another woman, because it violated their "standards." (Yes, standards. On MTV.)
In 1988, some activists came up with a simple but powerful idea: National Coming Out Day. Take the next step, whether it's coming out to your friends, your family, your co-workers, your house of worship. Let them know that GLBT people aren't some mysterious aliens confined to San Francisco - we're right next door to you in Peoria. It's much easier to condemn a caricature than a real person.
My own coming out stories don't usually take place on National Coming Out Day, but follow the spirit that visibility matters. In 1989, I was a missionary volunteer for a homeless shelter in California. In talking with one of the other volunteers (an older woman), it came up that I was bisexual. She asked if it was "safe" for me to be around the little girls at the shelter. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked if it was "safe" for her to be around little boys. Surprisingly, she saw my point. We worked together for a year after that. I'm not saying she became a true believer in all GLBT rights, but she was able to see me as a real person and not the demonizing sterotype she'd had before, when she thought she didn't know any GLBT people.
In the early 90's, I lived in Connecticut, which became the 5th state to pass a law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Part of the reason was a supportive Governor (Lowell Weicker, Republican-turned-Independent, who appointed some of the judges in yesterday's marriage equality ruling). But a large piece of credit goes to Joe Grabarz, a state Assemblyman who came out of the closet shortly before the civil rights bill was debated. He managed to change a few of the shaky "no" votes to "yes" with the speech of his life: "It's not every day a man goes to work and has his co-workers decide about his civil rights."
A lot has changed, and I try to ground myself with that knowledge as we fight the battle over California's Proposition 8. There are GLBT people all over the TV and Internet, and I think we underestimate the normalizing effect that this has. There are GLBT entertainers, politicians as high up as Congress (and closeted Republican Senators), a few athletes. But more importantly, there are doctors, waitresses, accountants and veterenarians who can be out of the closet. My kid had an openly gay teacher in middle school. This matters.
There are exceptions, of course: people who rail against Those Evil Gays even when it's their own family member. The law that previously kept GLBT people from marrying was the Knight Initiative, named for Assemblyman Pete Knight, whose anti-gay activism seems to have been his way of rationalizing his rejection of his gay son. But I think that most of the people who pulled the "yes" lever did so in ignorance, not malice, because the issue and the people weren't real to them.
My wife (lovingly known around here as Packrat) observes that some of her co-workers undoubtedly voted for the Knight Initiative in 2000. But now they know her, a real live married lesbian, and the issue looks very different when it's about snatching the marriage license away from a real person in your life.
In case no one's said it yet today: if you're in Califonia, help us keep the progress we've made. Make time to volunteer against Prop 8, donate at www.noonprop8.com . And never underestimate the value of a well-written letter to the editor.
Most importantly, come out, come out, wherever you are. Make your neighbors - even the homophobic ones - deal with you as a real live human being. This is how change happens. I hope to look back in 2028 and marvel about what a different era this