Since 1988, October 11th is the day celebrated as National Coming Out Day, or NCOD. The founders chose this particular date to commemorate the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. As we approach this date this year my thoughts have been all over the place. My first thought was what a great year this has been for the gay rights movement. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has become official, there are an ever growing number of jurisdictions nationwide where same sex marriages are being recognized, (including the District of Columbia) and for the first time ever several nationwide polls show that more than 50% of Americans favor equal rights for homosexuals. This demonstrates that our society is providing a much more embracing atmosphere which should, over time, make the coming out process easier for someone who has held back in the past. NCOD, if only from a symbolic standpoint celebrates that fact.
Another thought that I had though was in regard to the entire coming out process. I certainly can’t imagine the courage necessary to take that first step out. I never had to be concerned, (and frankly never really cared) how others would view my relationships, just as I never had to have (either of) my marriages and their legal validity put up to a vote. It still boggles my mind that many are still subjected to this litmus test. What must it feel like to have to live your life hiding your most important relationship? How frightening would it be to prepare to tell someone you love this secret, while wondering if they’ll still love you after you make but one simple statement? How would your boss feel about this, if you’re in one of the majority of states where this one fact would be cause for legal dismissal?
I don’t really know the answers. I only know the questions. Let’s call them rhetorical questions and just know that the answer to all of them is not pretty. There is one issue I can speak to with significant personal knowledge though and that is what happens when you’re on the other side of the fence and someone comes out to you. As a parent, the first thought that crosses your mind is, or should be, “how can I make the world safer for my kids”. This isn’t a “what if” situation. At that point the fact that they’re gay is just that, a fact, a definite. There is no, “but what if my kids are gay?” If you are like me, it turns a switch that says “this is the circumstance, now what are you going to do about it?” I’m not naïve; it’s become quite obvious that some parents choose a negative approach. That same “street smarts” told me that there were dangers out there for my kids that I never had to face. There was AIDS, bigotry and ignorance that I, as their Dad, now needed to learn more about. As a father, your responsibility to your children remains until you take your last breath, and hopefully the positive results continue afterwards. With that in mind, it didn’t take long to learn that I couldn’t do a lot about some of those issues.
I also learned early on that there is a coming out process that you have to work around as the parent of gay sons. It’s a multi-step process as most things in life turn out to be. Clearly, these young men don’t start walking around with placards around their neck proclaiming their gayness, so you need to recognize that just because they’ve taken the bold step to come out to you, doesn’t mean that it’s common knowledge. You don’t send out announcements like you did when they graduated. So there has to be a feeling out as to who should know. The early short answer is nobody. If they want to tell someone, it’s their business. How long this goes on is strictly dependent on the individual.
Both of my sons are outspoken in their own way. (Where that nature came from I have no idea because both their Mom and myself are so reserved and quiet.) Early on it was obvious that they were pretty open about their lives. This inner peace that they show is one of the infinite reasons I’m so proud of them. It’s also what I try to learn from them. This left another process to work through, and that’s the process of coming out as a parent of gay men. Some may not even know that process exists, but believe me when I say it most definitely exists.
“Oh, how old are your boys? Little Janie is younger and she’s been married for four years and she’s given us two wonderful grandchildren! Are the boys married? How many grandkids do you have?” Jeez, no wonder they call them breeders! For awhile, not wanting to get into a deeper discussion about this, you have answers ready like “they haven’t met the right person yet” or just, “nope, no grandkids yet”. After saying this for a period of time you realize there is only one honest answer to those questions.
Another situation is when a friend makes openly anti-gay remarks, which, perhaps when I was younger I would let it roll off my back, but now? Sorry, but when you’re a kid, you didn’t let someone talk about your mother, when you’re a parent you don’t let someone talk about your kids, even indirectly. But what can you say without flat out announcing that you are the Dad of two gay sons and what they just said has offended you?
So, for a father, or a mother, or a family member, or a true friend, you need to take the step to come out as a straight ally. It doesn’t take the courage it took your kids to come out to you, but the step is necessary nevertheless. Let me tell you that the step is a release as well. For me, it’s brought me back out into the sunlight with a vengeance. There is nothing about the successful young men my wife and I raised that want to remain a secret. Ask me about them and it can be hard to shut me up. Pride drips from me like a leaky faucet. Now I love it when someone asks me if my kids are married. My answer is more like, “no, here in Virginia it’s illegal for my boys to marry. How did your kids get around that?” Talk about talking points for opening up a discussion! Who do you think is uncomfortable now?
I won’t even say what my response is when someone makes an anti-gay remark. I’ll leave that to your imagination. But, as most who know me are aware, I’ve never been one to hide my political views. Well, at least not since I freed myself by coming out as the father of two gay sons.
I will add though that I feel that straight allies are more necessary now than they ever have been. Why? It comes down to sheer numbers in the voter population. The civil rights movement was successful with the help of a number of white people who realized that bigotry against African Americans was just plain wrong. Being that the black population was less than twenty percent of the country, correctly thinking white Americans were needed in support. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals have been used for the past decade as political pawns. The Defense of Marriage Act came about because “they” wanted to get married. Really?!?! Gay marriage doesn’t hurt marriage. Adultery hurts marriage. Spousal abuse hurts marriage. Irreconcilable differences hurt marriage. The classic falling out of love hurts marriage. Like the African American community of fifty years ago, the GLBT community “might” be less than twenty percent of the population as well. Now it is they who need correctly thinking straight Americans for support.
Happy National Coming Out Day!! Make something good happen this year!
Vice President, Metro DC Chapter – PFLAG