A few thoughts on coming out

Coming out can be as radical in 2017 as it was in 1977. 


There is always a lot of cheap, ill-considered talk around this time of year, about whether we need to abandon the idea of "coming out" altogether. This usually comes from people occupying places of significant privilege, people for whom the memory of a harrowing coming out is in the distant past or never occurred at all. People whose sexuality is unquestioningly accepted by their community and by their loved ones, people whose lives as gay adults would be easier if we "didn't talk about it".

This is not the case for every LGBTQ person in this country, and it certainly isn’t the case for LGBTQ people around the globe. Coming out can shatter relationships, it can endanger lives; it can also shine a light into depression, allow a person to reclaim their integrity, and be the first step towards truly living rather than merely existing. It is an event that can alter or set the course of a person's life.

The basic political nature of the act is confirmed by the strong emotions it raises, in all parties—if it meant nothing, if it were truly passé, would it not then pass unnoticed? The fact that we're having this discussion at all tells us it is still a discussion we need to have. The effects of coming out are going to be deeply individual, but it is always an act of courage to set oneself against the majority and tell a truth the world would rather not hear.

It is our obligation as the adults in the LGBTQ community to live as openly as we can, within the bounds of safety, to be that light in the darkness for LGBTQ youth, whether we know they're watching or not. Trust me, they are. Coming out publicly has ripple effects far beyond what we can predict, and it is intrinsically worthwhile to live your life with integrity. The closet is corrosive to the self, even if we don't necessarily see that when we're in it.

I still remember vividly what it is to be a scared 14-year-old, pleading with God to remove what I saw then as a deformity. The irony is, our limited human horizon often leads us to perceive as weaknesses the things in ourselves that are our true strengths. Being gay has been the greatest gift of my life. It has made me a better thinker, it has made me a better friend, it has made me a better human being. Being gay forced me to confront things I could have comfortably ignored for my entire life, and brought me to the most beautiful family of choice I could have asked for. People sometimes ask me if I would change myself if I could, and the answer is no. Not this part of me, anyway.

I came out in a very public fashion in 2012 [one of many coming outs—coming out is a lifelong process, not a discrete action], and I had no idea that anyone had paid close attention, until this year, when I reached out to a friend to offer a condolence and he told me that my public stance back then gave him the courage to start living his life openly. You cannot know what effects your words and deeds will have on others, what lifeline you may have unknowingly offered. 

Every LGBTQ person is familiar with the charge that we are "flaunting" our sexuality if we exist in public. Yes, exist. We don't have to talk about it, merely holding hands with someone of the same gender or even looking a little too "that way" is enough. Many years ago, someone close to me asked why I had to be quite so public. Couldn't I just not discuss it? Why must I make a public stand everywhere, what with my stickers and my LGBTQ research and my political activism? My answer was the same then as now: because I can afford to, and others can't. I live my life openly to honor the memory of the teenager I was, who died a little every day when he heard a casual bit of homophobia and lived a little every time he saw a gay person on the street. 

If I can affect one life for the better by being publicly LGBTQ, every single instance of opposition I have faced is worth it, because there is no point in having privilege if we cannot leverage it to create a world where we won't need to. 

A new intersectional politics

One of the drawbacks of social science is the tendency to let terms of art fall into jargon. "Intersectionality" has become exactly that in the popular mind, but it shouldn't be. It's a beautiful intellectual framework that lets us analyze situations and challenges us to look outside ourselves. Let's explore what "intersectional politics" might look like in the 21st century.

Intersectionality is a deceptively simple concept that touches on the most sensitive aspects of our culture. In its essence, intersectionality points out that social roles like race, class, and gender, are mutually constructive and multiplicative in their effects.  What this means practically is that every individual is in a system of privilege relationships, with individual positions shifting depending on the role in question. 

Think of society like a series of Jenga games. Each block is holding up other blocks, and is held up in turn by other blocks. The only blocks that aren't trapped in this tension are the blocks at the very top, just resting on the stack. Each individual social role is its own Jenga stack, and the blocks are arranged differently each time, so any given person is likely to be at the bottom of one stack, the middle of another, the top of another, and so on. This analysis could be applied to any social situation, but the law of diminishing returns applies the smaller the sample becomes. 

The people that find this the hardest to grasp are, not coincidentally, those who usually top the Jenga stack. We know from psychology that the human brain tends to magnify threats and hold on to advantages without regard for truth or justice, and also from psychology we know that perception is part of reality, as our mental states affect our physical well-being. Thus the external reality of privilege does not erase the internal perception of suffering, which has external effects.

This is the Gordian knot at the heart of identity politics, and it fuels the politics of white grievance that gave us Trump, because disaffected whites don’t see privilege in their lives. We cannot be angry at these people because they don't have our perspective.  But we must be concerned at the direction that disaffection takes. 

Skilled provocateurs on the right have manipulated this population for years, knowing that people love a persecution narrative and crave moral sanction. They also know that most people don't sit around all day interrogating the philosophical underpinnings of their lives. Thus these disaffected whites are vulnerable to this partisan manipulation This was the strategy of Nixon and came to full flower in the Reagan era.

But these decades of racial hatred and organized bigotry haven't helped these people, and they know they haven't been helped, though they don't really know why. This lack of knowledge leads to a doubling-down of the very political and social strategies that led to their initial diminution.

We must offer a counternarrative, a politics of unity that addresses the cultural and spiritual malaise of the country and actually works for the economic good of the people, rather than spouting bromides as rentier capitalists and the politics they've created take the bread and water from children's mouths. We have to work with every community and move into the 21st century as a united front.

The challenges we face are greater than national boundaries, and they're greater than racial and ethnic divides. Growing these coalitions and tackling the big issues requires a strong foundation. Building the house on sand doesn't get us anywhere, and that's what the progressive movement has been doing these past forty years. It must stop now, with a clear moral argument for true intersectional politics.

What this looks like is going to differ from locality to locality, but its essence must be the same. We must gather community stakeholders together to accurately assess what we need to do, and what our capacities are to do it. We cannot focus solely on politics; we have to address the needs of the people in our communities right now. This may entail government action, it may entail private philanthropy, or most likely a combination of both. We must develop the capacity to route this aid to those that need it the most.

To me the first and most obvious goal is to increase our representation in local government, followed by the states. Once we take back state legislatures, we can work to undo the institutionalized bigotry the Right has been pushing through since 2010. The simplest way to ensure success is for us to take our progressive movement to the statehouses and the county commissions and every other level of government. If we cede control of the government, with its outsize power and influence, we will hamstring ourselves as we try to stanch the bleeding rather than proactively work to create a more equitable country. The unfortunate truth is all of our efforts can be undone by a hostile minority government, as we are seeing happen right now.

Our organization is proud to be a part of creating this new politics, as we strive to put the old divisions behind us and look for common ground with every person in our communities. We cannot afford to dilute our efforts in the face of renewed vigor by those on the Right who would roll back everything we have gained and make it exponentially harder to fix their damage when they inevitably lose power. Make no mistake, they are playing a long game. Well, so are we.

Bearing witness

Every scholar who deals with living people eventually faces a conundrum when it comes to source material. Sometimes materials are painful or present a misleading picture, and we must balance the realities of the "public record" against the humanity of the research subject.

In the instant case I have the question of how to handle materials that are public but politically sensitive. In the grand scheme, these are marginal actors, the foot soldiers in a movement that does not support free expression and thought, and anti-LGBT politics are only one facet of it. Public shaming is not my purpose; it is not a legitimate endeavor for an historian to undertake. But the erasure of past actions leads to ignorance of their continued effects. Silence, going underground and pretending that one never advocated for politics that now prove embarrassing or inhumane, does a disservice to our civic culture.

I wrestle with how best to serve the historian's ideal public mission of enriching the collective memory, giving voice to the voiceless and keeping a record of how the past really was. Without a thorough grounding in history, people are easily taken by the same lies in the present. It is for that reason that, though we must weigh source material for its potential harm, we must also remain aware that the central duty of historians is to the People, not in aiding individuals to conceal the less than savory aspects of their particular past.

Humans are a complex animal and human society is a complex system. Reality is nuanced, it cannot be reduced to black and white. That temptation is the way of the ideologue and the totalitarian, and it must be resisted. All facts will be interpreted through a political lens once they're in the public eye, it's inevitable. But what I want is understanding, and to perform a witnessing function. Too many people find it easy to deny reports from the LGBT community about bias or harassment, and the existence of deep-seated bigotry. This is the main value of the letters I am publishing, that they are so quotidian. These are ordinary people, just like you and I. Think deeply about what ordinary people are capable of, and remember that your words, thoughts, and deeds all matter.

But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak, remembering: We were never meant to survive.

Words matter.  Words can hurt.  And sometimes, tragically, words can lead to deaths and violence.  When people like Pam Bondi, Rick Scott, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Pat McCrory, and all the others like them try weasel their way out of their responsibility for creating the culture that nurtures this violence, we must recognize this for the lie it is.

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