It’s National Coming Out Day today. And for a long time it’s been a nothing-much-to-do day. Over at DailyKos, Rsevern is asking for coming out stories. I honestly don’t know which one I’d tell if I jumped in. There’s the usual story. It was a process going back as far as I can remember, all the way back to kindergarden when I first knew I was different, up through puberty when I really knew I was different because I was pretty sure none of the other guys I knew where feeling emotionally or physically. That was when I learned there was a name for how I was different, or at least one name, taught to me by my peers.
Or I could tell the story of coming out during my freshman year of college, in front of a whole audience of people. A traveling evangelist and his wife made a stop at my school, and held forth at the free speech platform for a couple of days. I happened to be among the students gathered when I heard him advocate the death penalty for homosexuality. Next thing I knew I was on the free speech platform, in his face and being rather loud. Next thing I knew after that, I was out. Word got back to my dorm before I did.
Or I could tell the story of coming out to my brother and sister, in letters to each of them while I was in college. Or there’s coming out to my parents, again in a letter.
The point is that coming out isn’t just opening the closet door. It’s every step you take after that point as well. In some ways, I do it every time we go out as a family. (Nothing and nobody can out you quite as effectively as a three year old happy chattering away to Daddy and Papa in public.) And looking back at the starting point I can honestly say that, no matter how difficult it was, the life I had now says the journey was worth it. Besides, we’ve seen over the last week just what staying in the closet can do.
Mark Foley had a couple of chances to come out;. once in 1996, when an Advocate reporter contacted him about his vote for DOMA. and again when the Victory Fund offered to help him come out “gradually and gracefully” and get re-elected. Foley took neither opportunity, and it’s more than a little tempting to think where he might be today if he had. And in the wake of Foley’s flamout, of the 50 gay Republicans who met to cower in a Virginia home as the news ricocheted around the country, not one of them would go on the record. Out of fear.
Many choose not to publicly disclose their sexual orientation because they’re afraid that they would face retaliation from their employers. Others believe that their employers might face retaliation from their constituents. Still others try to strike a balance, confiding in a select group but maintaining a safer, though ambiguous, public identity.
Contacted by National Journal, many declined to comment, and those who did speak asked that their names not be used. A few expressed the fear that any article about powerful gay Republicans could trigger a witch hunt. Indeed, in the wake of Foley’s resignation, an e-mail purporting to identify gay Republican staff members circulated on Capitol Hill. Some presumably heterosexual Republicans whispered to reporters that a “gay subculture” had penetrated the highest ranks of the party and had protected Foley at the expense of their majority.
Because living in the closet means living in fear. It means that nobody knows who you are, and when you’re attacked you won’t have anyone to stand for you (because they don’t know who you are) nor will you be able to speak for yourself, at least not without outing yourself. Though it’s a choice often made for the sake of “safety” or in the interest of “protecting” a job, political power, or personal privacy, being in the closet ultimately leaves you vulnerable.
Foley’s weakness was manifested not only in his bad behavior and poor judgment, but also in his unwillingness to admit and accept his sexuality and deal with it publicly and honestly. Remaining closeted made him vulnerable, but at least once he was outed, he could have been a man — a proud gay man — and had the balls to stand fast and not choose the coward’s way out to the detriment of his party. It might have been a rough ride, but he owed that much to the voters, his party, and the rest of his gay brethren.
Other gay Republicans should take what happened to Foley as a sign and publicly admit their sexuality before unscrupulous elements on the left or homophobes in the religious right decide to target them for destruction. After November 7th, there will be some breathing space before the presidential campaign really gets rolling. What better time for gay Republicans in elected or appointive office to come out and deal with this issue openly, honestly, and in the safety provided by doing it as a group? It would protect their careers, improve their lives, and benefit the party enormously.
Honestly, in this matter I don’t have a problem with out gay Republicans who are at least trying to make a different in their party. As far as I’m concerned, Mark Foley doesn’t represent them, mainly because they at least had the courage to come out even if it meant facing hostility within their party and without.
It is not easy to be a gay Republican. You are attacked by the Religious Right and by other gays. Try having a booth at Gay Pride. Every year for several years, our local chapter has had a booth at Twin Cities Pride. Many times you will recieve dirty looks and even sometimes slurs from people. We are constantly characterized as the equivalent to “Jews for Hitler.” While I do agree that gay Republicans should be out, because that helps the cause of gay rights, I can understand why some chose to keep a low profile; no one wants to face the verbal assault from fellow gays.
Mark Foley is a sad individual. For years, he denied being gay. He finally did only when he was caught red handed. Foley might be a gay Republican, but he sure as hell doesn’t represent the many gay Republicans that I know who are out and proud and are NOT trolling the internet to have virtual sex with people who weren’t around during the Reagan Administration. He should not be viewed as the template for all gay Republicans. He chose to live in the closet and it is now the closet that has destroyed him.
Much of that I can agree with and respect, except that I’m less understanding of the decision to remain in the closet. And let’s face it, as the National Journal article quoted above makes plain, these guys weren’t cowering primarily in fear of hostility from liberal gays,
… they’re afraid that they would face retaliation from their employers. Others believe that their employers might face retaliation from their constituents.
They’re afraid of the response they might get from their bosses and their bosses base, not little ol’ liberals gays like me. (Honestly, who would be afraid of me?) Which ought to bring up another question.
It’s been interesting watching conservative gay bloggers write about this, acknowledging the obvious conflict with their party’s base and leadership, but at the same time excusing an awful lot in terms of the closet. And not just that, but in terms of who their “friends” support.
Make no mistake, the religious right would very much enjoy a good purging of the Republican party, even if the politicians and staffers in Washington are personally tolerant and accepting of the gay people in their lives. Of course Republicans aren’t bad, it’s that nasty “Velvet Mafia” who’s responsible for protecting sexual predators on Capitol Hill. That’s a fabulous story for people who fuel their cause with unabashed bigotry.
They’re “personally tolerant and accepting of the gay people in their lives”? Well, hoo-ray. Now, what happens when it’s time for them to vote? What consequences does it have gay people and their families beyond the safety of Capitol Hill’s oak-panneled closets? What effect does it have beyond the closets of Capitol Hill when they push the right-wing’s anti-gay propaganda? And how are the rest of us supposed to respond to it?
Honestly, it matters very little to me if they are “personally tolerant and accepting” of the closeted gays among them (read, the gays who “know their place”). I’m sure Phil Santorum really likes Robert Traynham (who, by the way, now has his own website bearing the promise of “This is just the beginning.”). He may even ben “personally tolerant and accepting” of Traynham. But Traynham is Santorum’s communications director, the man who helps craft the messages of Senator “Man-on-dog”, who thinks the state ought to be able to arrest gay people for having consensual sex in the privacy of their own homes.
Jesse Helms probably liked Arthur Finkelstein a lot too. He may have been “personally tolerant and accepting” of Finklestein, if Fink had the balls to be out to Helms which he probably didn’t at the time. But that didn’t stop Helms from taking every chance he could to speak against and vote against equality for gay people, including the one who helped in get re-elected, thus making sure he’d be there for the next anti-gay speech or vote. It’s probably not politically correct to call that “self loathing” these days, so call it what you will.
I can’t help but see a parallel here as a black gay man, one that I’m surprised more people don’t. There was a time in the south when the most rabid segregationists in would say all manner of things about “niggers” and the problems they call, but would immediately turn around and say to their black acquaintances, employees, etc., “Of course I don’t mean you. You’re not a nigger. You’re not one of them.” And most times those relationships didn’t change their views or the socio-poltiical consequences of those view unless their black acquaintances forgot “their place” for a moment, and spoke up. The difference, if any, was made by those who spoke up.
Being silent, or remembering “your place” means accepting the worst of what they say about all of us. It means not making a difference.
So, to closeted gay Republicans, do you want to make a difference? Do you want to stop being afraid?
News is that 70% of Americans know someone who’s gay or lesbian. And the trend is that those who do know someone gay or lesbian are more likely to support equality. So, how about boosting those numbers? Now there’s even a handy homo guide for heterosexuals that you could help hand out.
If it works, the day when people don’t have to be closeted out of fear might be even closer. That would be a huge difference. And you can help make that happen, if you want to.
Of course, you’d have to come out first.