This next Sunday is National Coming Out Day (NCOD). It is a day set aside to publicize awareness, promote acceptance and put a human face on the vast spectrum of human sexuality. Its genesis was in the first March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, held on Oct. 11, 1987, where the Names Project — the Aids Memorial Quilt — was displayed for the first time on The National Mall in Washington.
In 1988, the first NCOD was held to commemorate the anniversary. Reagan was president, an actor who would not say the word “gay” publicly. Twenty years later and we were mentioned in Barack Obama’s inaugural. The world has changed radically.
Just last month the New York Times Magazine had a cover piece on Austin, a 13 year old in Oklahoma who was attending his first gay dance. It makes me both proud to be in a country that can change so rapidly, and jealous that my youth was so very different.
Acceptance is growing, especially among the youth. In a city like Santa Monica, we don’t often have open displays of homophobia. I can’t recall anyone being tied to a lifeguard station and left to die (a la Matthew Shepard) or pummeled to death in a bathroom (like Navy seaman Allen Schindler).
In our part of the world we have linguistic homophobia. It’s not just the typical “queer” or “homo” slurs, but the more subtle phrasing. The gay community is itself guilty of perpetuating much of this self-hatred. By using terms like “straight acting” or “discreet” which carry a hidden homophobia we are continuing the belief that there is something wrong or intolerable about being gay.
I was told by a guy I’ve known for nine years now that he didn’t know I was gay. In fact he called me the “straightest gay guy he knows.” I’m frequently told I don’t “act gay” or “sound gay” or “look gay.” I’m not sure how to respond to that.
Would someone tell Tony Harris of CNN fame that he doesn’t “sound black,” or tell Carlos Amezcua that he doesn’t “look Hispanic?” People come in a wide variety of colors, sizes, temperaments, intelligence levels and ranges of sexuality. There is no “right” way. There is no “better.” There is just difference.
Intolerance comes in many packages, usually wrapped in hypocrisy. I see it in the men’s group that I attend, where someone will ask, “why does he have to talk about his gay lover here? It’s inappropriate.” But the fact is, the same guy who would condemn me for talking about my relationship problems won’t say the same thing about the guy who is talking about his wife, or the girlfriend he cheats on his wife with. That’s homophobia.
So how do you change minds? How do you bring people of ignorance into the light and stop the hating? You put a face on it.
NCOD is important, not just because of the highly visible gay people who have been associated with it (celebrities like Dan Butler, the actor who played Bulldog on “Frasier,” and Candace Gingrich, half-sister of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, or Betty DeGeneres, the first straight spokesperson for NCOD and mother of Ellen DeGeneres).
NCOD is important because it gives permission to Chris the waiter at your local greasy spoon to come out and be who he is; because when Chris comes out, his or her friends and family have to confront a new reality, one that perhaps they have never known. It is possible that they never knew an out gay person, and he or she might embody the example that changes their minds about being gay.
Lt. Dan Choi, the Westpoint graduate who majored in Arabic language and environmental engineering, was discharged for announcing his sexuality. His coming out and the honor and respect he is given by so many will not change the homophobes’ opinion of gay men, but he might give courage to the lesbian daughter of a homophobe to come out, and with that, change an opinion about lesbians.
Progress is being made. One person who comes out can affect the awareness of his or her family and friends; one person who was given just that little bit of extra courage, thanks to the face of someone they know, or someone they might never meet.
But that is why NCOD matters.
For the kids in the Midwest, it is men like Dan Choi.
For me, it was Dan Butler.
For my friends, it is me.
David Pisarra is a family law attorney focusing on father’s rights and men’s Issues in the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He can be reached at email@example.com or (310) 664-9969.