Follow The Discreet Traveler by e-mail!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Coming out: The X factor

"Given that America, like most places, has viewed homosexuality as wicked since more or less the beginning of time, approval by a wide majority represents a watershed not just in contemporary politics but also in cultural history."

This Economist article is an excellent analysis of how much change has happened in the United States, specifically around same-sex marriage. What struck me most, however, was the second illustration, a very simple graph.

Two lines, in an X shape. A Gallup poll of how Americans answered “Yes” or “No” to this question: “Do you have any friends, relatives or co-workers who have told you, personally, that they are gay or lesbian?” In 1985, fewer than 25% said Yes and 75% said No. The two lines meet in the middle around 2001, the time that the first country in the world legalized same-sex marriage (the Netherlands). By 2013, their positions are reversed.

This X graph is the story of my life—my lesbian life. At the early end of this 28-year period, I was starting to come out to myself; I did not come out to another person until I was 18 and living in a free state. At the point of the X—where the Yes and No answers are about 50-50—I had left the country where I was born and raised, and emigrated to a more tolerant one. My post-American life follows the upside of the graph.

The story of gay rights in the U.S. is the story we hoped and promised ourselves it would be: that if we came out—if we made ourselves unapologetically visible to our families, straight friends and colleagues—they would “get used to it.” Remember that slogan? Early on, we would chant “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” People didn’t like that. They didn’t want it in their faces, and they especially didn’t like our owning the word queer (or dyke, or the other terms that were thrown at us as abuse and that we claimed for ourselves).

But they did get used to it. We came out to them, and it was hard, if not frightening. Not just for us. For them as well. It could be almost as big a step for a straight person to accept me coming out to her/him as it was for me. After all, the entire society, maybe even God, was on the side of rejection.

I was blessed, personally, to receive far more affirmations than rejections. Many people were not as fortunate. It was common for someone to tell me that I was the first person to ever come out to her/him. I was their point person between No and Yes. (It was also not unknown for people to come out to me, after I’d validated them first.)

We told each other, and ourselves, that coming out was important. The society hated us. At the very least, we were assumed to be straight (well, not all of us; I never tried or had any success). Make ourselves visible, we said, and it will not be so easy to ignore us, not to question the system of laws and attitudes that keep us second-class citizens. Harvey Milk had told us that in the 1970s.

We had no way, really, of knowing it would work. We just did it. Then—later, tentatively—famous people started doing it too. Which added to visibility. Until now, at least in some countries like the U.S., there is an avalanche of normal. Queer people are not so queer anymore; they are soldiers wrapped in the flag; they are getting married; they are raising kids. They are just like everyone else!

And yet—not. The larger conclusion is that there is no “normal.” Single people and childless people are as much a part of the family as husbands, wives, and parents. The pro-military and the antiwar are both part of the family (sometimes, both part of the same person). The family has to be bigger than one country, and we don’t hate our countries, even when our countries hate us.

This has not been particularly comfortable for anybody. I am still that Dyke to Watch Out For who distrusts the larger community and wants my own. I still support the right to marry (of course!) while being ambivalent about the institution of marriage itself. But even that’s changed. Because—just as the antigay forces feared—marriage has been redefined. Thanks to same-sex couples, marriage in general is even more about love between two people, and less about patriarchal ties, than it was before.

We still have a long way to go. Not just because the woman who marries another woman in, say, Virginia on Saturday can still be fired on Monday morning for being queer. But because there is still so much inequality. In lesbian feminist terms, the patriarchy has hardly been smashed. This is still a society awash with violence and racism and ever-growing economic injustice. If anyone, after the wedding, is at a loose end about what to work on, just pick a battle.

Come out. Come out with your sexuality and your faith and your language and your rainbow hue of nationalities. Come out with all the glorious energy you can possibly muster. We need you in this fight.


Bob Haisman said...

JE another fascinating post .....I learn so much from every one of your posts....UB

J. E. Knowles said...

Thank you, faithful follower!