Today, across America, thousands of people exacted a courageous personal and political act that may do more to move the bar for equal rights than any speech by any politician, or any ballot cast in a voting booth.
Today was National Coming Out Day. Thousands of women, men and other previously-silent members of the LGBTQ community faced down hundreds of years of social and political intimidation to declare to their loved ones and the people in their lives who they are, what that means, and why it matters.
Coming out was not the hardest thing I have ever done; living in the closet was. And living in the closet made coming out feel like it would be the hardest thing I would ever do.
I was 10 years old when I first knew I felt same-sex attraction, and it panicked me. Kids are savvy to the social milieu of their times, and as an especially sensitive kid being raised in an under-educated, high poverty, low tolerance city in northeast Ohio, frankly, I became terrified.
“I can’t be gay. I can’t be gay. I can’t be gay,” I remember anxiously repeating to myself in my head in my fifth grade classroom. This was over 20 years ago, in the 1990s, when tolerance for same-sex attraction was so far behind the progress we’ve made since it may be difficult for many young people today to fathom.
I could not, I would not allow anyone else in my life to know that I had these feelings. I began to stack bricks in my emotional wall. Whatever vicissitudes in my mental life may come of this, I determined I would weather them alone.
I could not expose this vulnerability. I did not yet have the maturity to know that same-sex attraction did not mean – as society seemed to insist – that I was weak. I was the kid who was friends with everyone, but I wasn’t weak; I was strong. I stood up to those who bullied others. How could I allow these same bullies – these same idiots – the ammunition of this perceived “weakness”? I wouldn’t.
To combat the inevitable loneliness of my situation, I turned to the power of knowledge. By the time I was 14 I had familiarized myself with the work of Alfred Kinsey at my local library. I learned through Kinsey’s work that sexuality exists on a spectrum, and that human beings, as Gore Vidal said, are a mixture of impulses if not practices.
Through my high school years, I learned slowly, combating painful guilt, much confusion and unrelenting anxiety, to accept my impulses, while keeping them secret, and limiting my practices to the point of non-existence.
When I came to college, my practices changed but my life in the closet continued. By my sophomore year, in 2004, Ohio voted along with 10 other states to codify marriage exclusively as a heterosexual institution. I felt more alone than ever.
The stigma persisted and the ignorance seemed boundless. Political operatives had callously, successfully wedged the electorate with an effort tantamount to national homosexual panic.
I had read Kinsey by the age of 14 and he had conducted his studies in the 1950s. How could ignorance and injustice continue to reign at this scale in 2004? What compelled its seemingly unstoppable persistence?
I had learned some by then, but in retrospect, I hadn’t learned enough. So I took to my habit of emotional masonry and built my wall higher. I hunkered down and bunkered in.
My disposition is such that I don’t evince the stereotypical qualities American society tends to associate with homosexuality, namely, in men, a more effeminate nature. Of course, having educated myself as I had, I’d identified this particular canard as preposterous.
As I had learned in college through personal experience, impulses toward same-sex attraction are present in all “types” of people, and relative femininity or masculinity acts as no reliable gauge.
But it does present a particular problem in American culture. For instance, often a male who exhibits more feminine-associated traits will be pushed out of the closet earlier. Kids in school will latch onto those feminine-associated traits and they will cajole and bully and victimize until the person reaches a breaking point where he may say, fine, yes, I’m gay, and so what? And by dint of that admission may conquer the bullying, or at least gain social ownership of himself.
A guy with same-sex attraction who does not exhibit those feminine-associated traits will witness the victimization of another who does and determine ever-more resolutely to continue to close off for fear of the social repercussions.
This, I came to realize, is what leads to society’s distorted picture of human sexuality – the closet itself. Those of us with same-sex attraction know well our comrades exist in all walks of life and all “types” of person. We are everywhere. We are neighbors, family, friends, doctors, teachers, lawyers, police men and women, politicians, construction workers, and yes, journalists. There is no difference between us and all of our fellow humans navigating the waters of tumultuous existence.
This may seem painfully obvious to many of us, to the point of truism, but I assure it is not obvious to everyone. And the single most powerful thing that opens the mind of someone to whom it is not obvious is when their son or daughter, sister or brother, aunt or uncle, neighbor or friend comes out of the closet.
That’s why when I realized this, at long last, I came out at the age of 25. That’s why National Coming Out Day is so important. That’s why the thousands of Americans who took that brave step today deserve applause.
For every one person who opened that closet door today, countless minds were also opened.
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive’s RouteFifty.com, the National Journal’s The Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.