COMING OUT MAY NOT BE ENOUGH TODAY
by: Nadine Smith
My job at Equality Florida leads me to travel -- a lot -- and I speak with many strangers. Traveling on a plane invites a kind of intimacy unlike most forms of public transportation. Perhaps it is the sense of shared vulnerability, so high in the sky in a metal tube, that prompts people to ask within moments of meeting, "What do you do? Are you married? Any kids?"
Once on a non-stop flight to San Diego, I sat next to a man who began the interrogation before the plane had even taken off. He was a big fella from Arkansas, scared senseless of flying and trying to mask his desperation by drinking just enough Amstel Light to get brave but not drunk. He’d miscalculated but only a bit but he’d had enough to be a talker.
Ignoring the white iPod buds in my ears and the magazine in my lap, he began telling me about his divorce, his daughter in college and his high-school-aged son who had dropped out of school just to devote full-time to worrying his dad.
I don't mean to make him sound like a jerk because he seemed like a nice guy. In fact, his litany of questions felt motivated by a desire to not dominate the conversation by eliciting a similar personal summary from me. "What do you do? Are you married? Any kids?"
Any of those questions answered honestly, unselfconsciously means coming out to the aforementioned big, intoxicated, stranger on a flight that will last half a day. I realize that I don’t have to be in activist mode all of the time -- and after all, you never know what my coming out to him would trigger. Those who attack us view the act as arrogant, aggressive flaunting (and the ever-popular and Freudian act of "shoving it down their throats"). It’s a risk, one rich in irrational, unarticulated fears.
So I came out to my Arkansas seatmate. I talked about my work at Equality Florida clearly saying the words "lesbian," "gay," "bisexual" and "transgender." It was the right thing to do. First of all, it took his mind off his fear of flying.
Then, he wanted to let me know he "had no problem with gay people." I wanted to tell him I had no problem with inebriated good ol’ boys, but there was something about him that caused me to hold off on the snarky reply.
After a few more awkward moments, he shared that he thought his daughter might be gay, that he didn't know how to talk to her, that he felt she was drifting away and that he wondered if the divorce might have left a bad impression on her about men. His questions were shallow and profound, insulting and utterly vulnerable. I shared some of the things I'd experienced with my family.
I didn’t feel compelled to turn the flight into a traveling therapy session, but it helped me see how often and easily I had avoided those moments and the unmistakable message of shame it delivers internally and to those straight people around me.
Since then, I've had conversations that revealed a deeply held and unrepentant bigotry and others that gave me an unshakeable conviction that we are winning steadily. I realize that the other person’s reaction is the least important thing in these moments. It is about unlearning the messages of self-hatred and getting emotionally in touch with our lives.
We avoid authenticity in our lives by making some aspects of them "private." There is a difference between making out in public and avoiding the casual and comfortable ways most people show affection to the person they love. There is a difference between regaling co-workers with details of your sex life and changing pronouns, obscuring the fact that you are in a relationship.
We know that straight people who care about us won’t ask about our lives, but they will fight for us when they are invited to and when they know enough about our lives to empathize with the hardships discrimination inflicts. The same research tells us we avoid those conversations with the people closest to us -- our families, our straight friends and co-workers -- our civilian version of don't ask, don't tell.
It is time to stop thinking of "coming out" as a single grand or dramatic gesture but rather than a steady progress to the consistent act of "living out." And we need to live out now more than ever as the Far Right escalates their attack on our lives, our safety, our families and our children.
As the anti-gay measure that would permanently ban marriage, block civil unions and undermine existing domestic partnership protections moves toward the ballot, we must push beyond our comfort zone, engage our friends, insist our families do more than "tolerate" us. We need our allies to be our champions.
Most of all we need to start living out as a reflex, as our cultural default, erase the part of our hard drive that constantly advises us to give in to irrational fears or avoid those moments.
Nadine Smith is executive director of the Tampa Bay-based Equality Florida (www.eqfl.org).