In celebration of National Coming Out Day.
I came out when I was a sophomore in college at age 19. Actually, I came out somewhere in North Dakota on a Greyhound bus on my way back to college for my sophomore year, after first having agonized for several months as a freshman, & then the full summer at home in Montana, & not having anyone to talk with about the feelings I had or what they meant. It was a decision I made alone, & it was very very scary. That was 1978.
This year, 31 years later, after Mayor Sullivan vetoed the ordinance that would otherwise have granted equal protection under the law for LGBTQ residents of & visitors to Anchorage, Julia O’Malley wrote in the Anchorage Daily News about a friend of hers, a lesbian 15 years her senior, who took the veto as a message that the city did not welcome her. Julia wrote,
To me, Sullivan’s decision isn’t evidence Anchorage has any particular point of view. Instead, it says one thing: a lot of old people run this city. [Ref #1]
Julia went on to discuss her “political mullet theory”: that like someone who continues to wear the same hairstyle long after it’s gone out of fashion, the current political leadership of Anchorage continues to hang on to attitudes & prejudices that are out-of-date. But the times they are a’changing:
Statistics show we’re poised for a change. A group of young professionals will soon fill jobs vacated by boomers. They don’t have the hang-ups of the previous generation. [Ref #1]
Julia took a fair bit of flack for her opinion — not least from baby boomers who took issue with being identified with older, less tolerant attitudes that Mayor Sullivan affirmed with his veto. For example, one person wrote to her,
Please don’t forget how many “old people” were fighting for civil rights long before you were born. [Ref #2]
Julia responded the next day with a followup entitled “Boomers: this is not personal, it’s about statistics”:
Actually, there have actually been several polls and they all show the same thing: young people are more comfortable with gays than older people. Dogging all old people is really not my message. (I love old people, just ask my boomer parents!) And, experience is important in government. This column is about trend data that looks at attitudes. And baby boomers have different attitudes than those younger than them when it comes to gays. [Ref #2]
I had no issue with what Julia said in the initial article. I agreed. I was born in 1959, considered by some demographers as the tail end of the baby boom: baby boomers were (& still are) my older friends & my age peers. What Julia wrote about the attitudes of my generation holds true to what surrounded me when I came out in 1978. It was scary, it was painful, & it was a slow long job to learn who I could or could not trust with this important aspect of who I am. And as hateful as the “Truth is Not Hate” hate speech that we heard constantly spewed from the mouths of red-shirted ordinance opponents over the course of the summer, the sentiments they expressed were not so different from the conventional wisdom of the majority of my peers in the East Coast women’s liberal arts college I attended from 1977 to 1981. Yes: the same college that Hillary Rodham Clinton attended, a supposed bastion of liberalism.
Recently I was contacted on Facebook by someone who attended my college about four or five years after I graduated. To my surprise, she told me that in her day, I was “a legend.” A legend? I asked. What did I do? She told me it was because I was out. Just the simple fact that I, by the time I was a senior, was out (& well-enough known in the college community that it counted).
Here’s the thing: as frightening as it was for me to acknowledge & accept who & what I am in the face of the incredible prejudice & hatred I might encounter (& occasionally did), it was one heckuva lot easier than winding my guts in knots by pretending to be something & someone I am not. In fact, accepting myself as a lesbian was the foundational step in me ultimately being able, a few years later, to give up self-hatred altogether.
Here’s the other thing: as scary as it was to come out at age 19 in college, it was one heckuva lot easier for me than it was for those who came before me. I’m thinking not only of the gay men & women who stood up against police harassment at Stonewall, but of the butch & femme subculture of Greenwich Village & other places where women lived the best they could as who they were in spite of publicly sanctioned persecution. Their courage in living as themselves instead of kowtowing to the incredible pressure to live by arbitrary rules that would have doomed them to unhappy lives — that made it just that much easier for me to find that courage, & live as myself. I considered it my debt to them to make it that much easier for those who followed me.
So if the alum of my college was helped in coming out because I had been out in my time: I did my job. If Julia O’Malley in 2009 can write, as she did in June,
I’ve been openly gay since I was 17 and I can say that I’ve never worried about getting fired or renting an apartment. I have a huge supportive family and a wide network of friends, so maybe I’ve been insulated. But every stranger I’ve come out to, from my high school principal to the cable guy, has been totally respectful. [Ref #3]
— that’s because I & others of my generation have done our jobs. By coming out, by living openly as who we were & are, by taking the licks that the bigoted were still gonna whack us with when they could, & getting up (if we could) & dusting ourselves off & keeping on going — we became known. We are siblings, children, parents, friends, coworkers — people who are people, not just scary bugaboos hiding in the closets where Jerry Prevo & his ilk would prefer us to be kept, so that they can continue unchallenged in making up lies about us.
I have a fancy degree in the study of social movements but everything I know about real social change comes from living here. It boils down to this: Laws don’t change people’s minds, personal relationships do. [Ref #3]
I’ve made other modest contributions to the struggle for equal rights under the law for LGBTQ people. I was a founding member in college of Wellesley Lesbians & Friend; in the early 1980s I was a board member of the Alaska Gay & Lesbian Resource Center (now known as Identity, Inc.); in the late 1980s I was principal writer or coauthor of the two most comprehensive studies done to date on lesbian & gay Alaskans & on sexual orientation bias in Alaska; & this year I wrote extensively on this blog about the Anchorage equal rights ordinance passed by the Assembly but vetoed by the Mayor, for which I received recognition at the True Diversity Dinner with an award for Excellence in Online Media.
But the most important work I’ve done is to simply live my life, openly, as who I am. Which is no more & no less than what everyone should do, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity or any of the other things that make us various & gloriously different from one another.
If that’s legendary, then let’s all live legendary lives.
Harming none, do as you will.
Note: Julia O’Malley was the recipient on September 30 of the True Diversity Award for Excellence in Print Media. Congratulations, Julia!
- 8/18/09. “What decade is it again, Mayor Sullivan?” by Julia O’Malley (Anchorage Daily News).
- 8/19/09. “Boomers: this is not personal, it’s about statistics” by Julia O’Malley (Anchorage Daily News).
- 6/5/09. “Looking for common ground at the Baptist Temple” by Julia O’Malley (Anchorage Daily News).