Rome didn’t come out in a day, you know

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Today has been National Coming Out Day.

I was in college when I first heard about National Coming Out Day. After Twenty Seconds of Research it turns out that was because I was in college when Robert Eichberg and Jean O’Leary came up with the idea. I must have heard about it in 1990, my senior year, although it’s possible that Swarthmore was sufficiently cutting edge to have acknowledged it in 1989 or even 1988. I remember, or think I remember, the first display of the AIDS quilt in DC on October 11, 1987—that is, I remember reading news articles about it and perhaps hearing about it from people who were there.

It’s worth remembering some of that history, or at least, I’m remembering it anyway, whether it’s worth it or not. I’m pretty sure that on October 11, 1987 I didn’t know any openly gay people. There was no such thing as a Gay/Straight Alliance at that time. A fellow came out to me in May 1988, a few months later. It was the end of our first year at Swarthmore and he was still mostly closeted at that point. Another half-dozen people came out to me over the next year or two, including my Best Reader. By our senior year, there was a Coming Out Day that had some significant national media support and a slick logo by famous popular painter Keith Haring.

By our senior year, Keith Haring was dead.

It must have been a terrifying time to be gay. I say must have been; it was. I just mean I didn’t experience that terror myself. In high school, a few years earlier, my classmates were seriously talking about the need for concentration camps for gay men. I am not making that up. It’s no great wonder no-one came out of the closet to me. It wasn’t safe. I don’t mean it wasn’t emotionally safe, or that a teenager risked getting kicked out of his home and his school, although that was true enough and had dangerous consequences. I mean that people could beat up a gay man without risking prosecution. Probably murder would be prosecuted, but conviction wasn’t all that likely. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me, in high school in 1985 or 1986. I may be exaggerating my memories, that’s how memories work, but that’s how it seems to me to have been, and from what I’ve read that’s how it seems to have been from writers who lived through it as well.

The point of having a Coming Out Day, as I remember, was that if a whole bunch of people came out all at once, maybe there would be safety in numbers. Well, and also that if a bunch of us straight folk wore a pin with a Keith Haring logo on it, we could indicate that it was safe to come out to us—even that we would help them stay closeted to their parents or teachers or bosses, if that was necessary. Coming Out was widely viewed as politically and sociologically necessary to combat homophobia, but at the same time dangerous because of that same homophobia that needed combating. Coming Out Day existed because gay or lesbian or bisexual people (or people of any other marginalized gender, orientation or sex) were in the closet for very good reasons and this was a clever way to lower the individual risks somewhat while increasing the communal benefit.

I don’t mean to say that coming out carries no risks these days. There are still people beaten up for being gay; people fired for being lesbian; people killed for being trans, people marginalized and demeaned in a variety of ways including physical violence. All of that still happens, and celebrating that it isn’t normal to beat up gay people anymore shouldn’t entirely eclipse the fact that it still happens. Still: my Perfect Non-Reader distributed posters for the day as an officer of her school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, with the school’s support and quite likely an explicit statement that anyone caught defacing those posters would be punished. When a teenager I love dearly came out as trans this summer, his school principal insisted on meeting with the parents to go over the support structures already in place. The sufficiency of those structures aside, that in itself would have been unimaginable in 1986. The world is a different world—not a safe world, still, not as good a world as we would have it be, but different. And so Coming Out Day means something different to my daughter and her friends, and something different to me.

There’s a generational difference that is both wonderful and deeply alienating. I am seeing it today in the tweets and posts that scroll by in their hundreds. People my age or older seem to be tweeting about acceptance and safety; Young Persons more about pride and power and ridiculing homophobes. Neither is wrong. In fact, if our Young Persons were still experiencing Coming Out Day the way we did in 1990, it would be tragic. We old geezers have the problem of trying to keep up while trying to keep the history from fading completely. At least us geezers who are, you know, still alive.

So. From a middle-aged straight guy to anyone of any age that wants to come out or come out further: whoever you are and whatever your orientation and identity, I support you. And from this new millennium of ours, yaas, kween. And I’ll shut up now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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