There’s been a lot of talk lately about Rachel Maddow’s success, and some of that talk has involved the fact that she’s an out lesbian. In lesbian circles, some of the talk has involved the fact that her lesbianism isn’t discussed more, and how that’s a good thing.
I was thinking about coming out in a high profile position, because it’s a thought I’ve had in the past. I’ve asked for advice before about disclosing my sexual orientation in relation to any possible future political role, but I’ve never felt all that serious about the question. The fact is that I am out, and I’m never not going to be out, and I’m young enough to believe honestly that my orientation will not disqualify me for any serious position in an organization like the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, or others for which I’d like to work.
I do think that there is a timing thing to how people feel about being publicly out, and my guess is that more out politicians and policymakers will show up in the near future. Some have commented on how Obama’s transition website includes a hiring policy that mentions non-discrimination based on orientation or gender identity. I agree that that’s great. I also expect more people to take advantage of it.
I was born smack dab in the middle of the 1980s. I grew up in the 1990s, a time when a lot of bad stuff was happening to gay people – legislatively as well as in schools and communities – but also a time when gay people were suddenly very visible. I know that I used to joke “he’s gay” or “she’s gay” and think gay people were gross up until 13 or 14, but I also remember seeing gay people on TV and being kind of silently curious. Not with relation to myself, but gay people seemed glamorous and interesting. The image I recall is of shirtless men in cut-off shorts with cool haircuts holding hands in California or somewhere. I have no idea whether it was the news or a TV show or what, but gay seemed at least borderline acceptable.
The beauty of my generation’s timing is that we had some inkling that gays were coming out of the woodwork, and that gay just might be a bad thing, but we were young enough not to know about those bad things that were happening. Anita Bryant and AIDS panic didn’t mean anything to me, really. By the time I found out just how bad things are for homosexuals in our country, I was an out and proud lesbian. Even through my teenage and college years, I honestly believed that though there was discrimination in my home region, this country generally was starting to really accept gays. I believed that gay rights had come a long way and that we were pretty much home free. A lot of that comes from the fact that allies in my parents’ generation, including my parents, have the impression that gay rights have come a very long way, and they have a point. My mom recognizes that we have a way to go, but she grew up in a time where there would be no way to have a job and be openly gay at the same time.
I was thinking about Harvey Milk, and the openly gay Durham councilman whose name I can’t remember, and the few scattered gay and lesbian politicians. I think that there will be more. Everytime I hear about a gay person in politics, I’m shocked. I’m used to gay actors and singers by now, but politics is a new playing field. I think we’re slowly beginning to inhabit it, because we do have non-discrimination policies, and we have people who are willing to hire us. And then there are people like me, who just don’t think anything of it anymore when we “come out.” We see ourselves as already out. A classmate the other day told me that he couldn’t believe my courage for coming out in class the other day, and I was confused. I had mentioned my own orientation as a tangent to make a point, and didn’t think anything of it. I am gay. Nothing’s going to change that, and I wouldn’t want anything to.
Still, I recognize the challenges behind us and the challenges ahead. I think of the Southern minister who did so much selfless work for his community and was unable to share his sexual orientation during his lifetime because people wouldn’t get it. I think of a mentor who couldn’t disclose his orientation as a public school teacher in North Carolina because non-discrimination policy or no, it wasn’t worth the risk. I think of the high school friend who was beaten to within an inch of his life because it never occurred to him to seek closets when there was a wide open stage and an audience waiting to witness his talent. To me, being open about who I am is no great heroic act, but I recognize that to some it is a struggle, and to others an insurmountable obstacle. I hope that the openness and tolerance of some men and women will allow me to gain a position where I can effect change one day, so that other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people are able to seek employment or public office without even giving a thought to whether disclosure is prudent.
I found it difficult to be optimistic on Wednesday morning, when I watched our rights wash away with the coming of the tide, but this is a new week, and I’m ready to put my best foot forward. Two steps forward, one step back, but eventually that amounts to progress.
I close with a snippet from a friend’s e-mail. I hope he won’t mind my sharing:
My great great grandmother was a slave, my great grandmother was a sharecropper in Louisiana, my grandmother got an eighth grade education in segregated schools and worked in the cafeteria of the “Black high school” in Lafayette, LA, my mother went to the segregated “Black high school” in Lafayette, LA and I went to the high school in the same building that was built as the segregated “Black high school” Alexandria, LA. I never imagined I’d see a day like Tuesday, 5 November 2008. And yet, it happened in my lifetime.
Yes it did. And I have hope that many more great things will happen in mine.