On Coming Out

Get a good grip on your seats, folks, ’cause I’m about to yank the rug out from under most of you. 

There is no One True Way

By the grace of God(dess), my family moved from Greater Atlanta to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was 7 years old.  I was fortunate to grow up within 25 miles of Gay City USA.  And still, even in San Francisco in 1982 (May 27, to be precise) coming out was a very difficult decision to make. 

How quickly we forget, we fortunate few who live in the relative security of the gay meccas, how scared most of us were.  We can never forget the thrill of saying “I’m gay” or “I’m bisexual” or “I’m a lesbian” for the very first time to someone whom we fervently hoped would not promptly pronounce us persona non grata.  Even those of us who have come out fairly recently with the support of youth groups and other resources which simply were not there for my generation—even those of us have known the terrible moment when first we opened the closet door to someone of whom we were uncertain. 

Even in the City of Refuge itself, coming out is an act of courage, for according to statistics kept by Community United Against Violence, dozens of gay bashings occurred in the past year [1992] on Castro Street itself.  Many people face discrimination in housing and employment.  Coming and living out of the closet is still an audacious act. 

How dare we summarily demand of any person that they step into the front lines of the battle for human rights?  We cannot know the individual circumstances and (dis)abilities of each person.  Nor is it fair to require of anyone a degree of strength which they have yet to discover within themselves. 

The idea behind the annual October 11 celebration of National Coming Out Day is “Take Your Next Step.”  Coming out is a process which begins with oneself.  Before we came out to anyone else, we had to come out to ourselves.  In doing so, we took the bull by the horns, for to come out to yourself is to acknowledge what it is to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered in our society, and to accept that the challenges attendant to that condition are one’s very own to contend with. 

There are many steps to be taken between coming out to oneself, and being and living out to the world.  Why, then, do we condemn and accuse those who have taken fewer steps than we, rather than rejoicing that someone’s journey has begun?  Is the closeted person to seek encouragement and reassurance between catcalls? 

In her book Family Values, Phyllis Burke tells of ancient Hawai’i, where one condemned upon losing in battle or falling afoul of a powerful person, might yet have this chance:  to seek the City of Refuge, wherein outcasts were permitted to live out their lives—if they could reach it ahead of their executioners.

Many look to San Francisco as that City of Refuge.  And many people do manage to get here—not always intact.  But many others—for reasons that seem valid to them—do not.  Shall we abandon them?  Shall we denounce them as not courageous enough? 

Indeed, each person who comes out makes it that much easier for those who have come out before, and for those who follow.  And when people find that someone they know and respect and love happens to be gay, minds can be opened.  Yet if we say that our struggle is for acceptance, and for the freedom for each person to find a path which seems right to them, how can we deny to each the freedom to choose their own manner and time of coming out? 

Unless you are prepared to stand alone in a town square in Klan County, Florida carrying a Queer Nation sign and to be stoned, shot at or lynched by an angry mob.  Unless you are prepared to be fired from your job for being gay and to live on handouts from closeted friends who keep theirs while your unemployment is held up due to some mysterious bureaucratic snafu.  Unless you are prepared to be evicted from your home because the landlord’s son-in-law has suddenly decided he needs a place to live.  Unless you are prepared to do all of these things, then do not demand that someone come out because you came out in the company of 50 other queers in a place which has a civil rights ordinance protecting you, and where there happen to be openly queer persons on the City Council and you can’t get elected without the gay vote. 

When you demand that someone do the same thing you have done, be certain that it is the same. 

However.  I absolutely will “out” someone in that proverbial New York Minute if they are actively, consciously doing something harmful to me from the safety of the closet.  Like Pete Williams being the official spokesman for an organization (the Pentagon) which declares folks like me unfit to serve.  Or that Louisiana Congressman The Advocate outed a while back when he actively espoused anti-gay legislation and supported the religious right.  I cannot demand that someone be courageous.  But I can demand that they refrain from stabbing me in the back to save their own neck.  Or else. 

Finally, I refuse to be “discreet” because someone else is closeted.  I am out.  Period.  And if you fear exposure by association, then steer clear of me, because, honey, ain’t nobody gonna figure me for straight.  Not with my pink triangle pin and that “Year of the QUEER” T-shirt I got at SF Gay Pride last summer [1993].  And yes, I would wear them in Klan County, Florida.  Because I’m gonna be on the next plane west, before anyone knows what hit ’em. 

In closing, for those of you out there who are still struggling with that “next step,” let me suggest something.  Come to San Francisco.  At least for a visit.  Or New York or West Hollywood (or another large city with an established gay community) if they’re closer.  Spend time with your brothers and sisters who are out.  It will make your closet seem very small and cramped, which is all to the good. 

I will leave you with an excerpt from “The Cool, Grey City of Love” by George Sterling (1869-1926) who spoke of this City of Refuge:

...
Tho the dark be cold and blind,
Yet her sea fog’s touch is kind,
And her mightier caress
     Is joy and the pain thereof;
And great is thy tenderness,
     O cool, grey city of love!



Copyright © 1993, 2001 by Charles E. Galvin Jr.  All rights reserved.

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