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Coming Out
Public and Private

In the days surrounding September 20th, I started getting a slew of calls and e-mails from media people asking me to turn them on to Active Duty LGBT service members who would be willing to Come Out to their families and military units Live On Television or web media.  It gave me a sick feeling right away.  For me, the experience of coming out to parents should be as profoundly private as when a mother teaches her 4 year old how to wipe his own behind.  When my mom and I had that conversation about my being gay, her first comment was, "Whatever you do, don't embarrass me."  That was Not really what I wanted and needed to hear.  I'd have preferred it if she'd first said, "I love you and always have..." Something like that would have been nice.  But, that is the way my mom was; I knew she loved me, anyway.  But, just imagine how pissed-off she would have been to find out that our whole conversation was being broadcast live to the entire nation!  "Don't embarrass me"?  Holy Shit!

Do I fault the 20 something service members now coming out to the world every which way? No.  From the perspective of a 65 year old lifetime activist, I know that they are being encouraged to step forward bravely and be silent no more, while having it piously pointing out that "you don't have to do this, of course... ."  What used to be sacred secrets is now fodder for entertainment, these days.  In the "tell all" spirit of the times movie stars and politicians write books and appear on TV talk shows telling absolutely everything about every intimate experience including how their mother taught them how to wipe their own ass when they were four.

And yet, I got call after call in September, from news media and others wanting me to find them lesbian and gay active duty people willing to "publicly" share, live, one of the most personal intimate family moments with the whole world.  Holy shit!  All I could think of, over and over, was my mother saying, "Just don't embarrass me!"  Bless her.

So, what is the point of this public sharing?  is it coming-out exploitation for the sake of "news entertainment?"  Or is there an important ,valid, redeeming reason for it?  Both, of course.  "Visibility" is the key word here.  Giving the average person the opportunity to "be aware" of inequality through seeing and hearing individual personal stories, as opposed to the cynical bigotry spewed by right wing hate mongers, has been the single most effective means of achieving civil rights progress over the past 60 years or more.  And if it is done publicly for all to see, then pusillanimous politicians, who need to change laws, cannot hide their heads in the sand and pretend that they don't know.  It works quite well, much to the chagrin of Congress.  The news media made this possible, particularly in the era before the internet.  The need of the free press to be edgy and dare to tell the truth has fueled the fires of freedom throughout history, and still does today.

One of the first and most famed service members to come out publicly was my friend Leonard Matlovich, in 1974.  A genuine Vietnam War hero with Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and 18 years of sterling service in the Air Force, he wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force, published publicly, announcing that he was gay.  It had an enormous effect.  Prior to his courageous action, the mere mention of homosexuality was considered to be "unfit for family media" and television.  "Homos" were believed to be "sissies" and "filthy perverts" skulking in the shadows.  Yet, here was a "brave decorated genuine American war hero" who was gay, mustachioed and masculine.  It was a revelation; it was "news" and was reported on the national evening news programs; his photo, in uniform, was on the cover of 'Time' magazine with the words, "I am a homosexual."  It was a monumental personal sacrifice.  I never asked him if he'd first privately told his parents; but I hope he did.

So, yes, there is an essential point to publicly coming out.  I just think that mixing public and private at the same time is a mistake.  Unless you happen to hate your parents and want revenge, what is the point of tricking them into participating in your public outing?  The same kind of personal respect goes for the people you trained and fought side by side with; they are like family.  A little private advance warning would help if you plan to go public; it gives them the chance to perhaps decide to not behave like assholes when the media barge into the barracks with everyone sitting around in their underwear.  It gives your dear mom a chance to clean the house before the news vans drive up on the lawn and ruin the rose beds. Imagine how embarrassed she'd be if they looked in the door and saw the dirty laundry being sorted.  When your mom shouts, "How could you do this to me!" She's not talking about your announcing to the world that you're gay; she's talking about not warning her so the house can be clean.

I proudly admire today's young idealistic service members who have the courage to come out.  Each one is an inspiration to so many others still hiding in fear and false shame.  Without their unique bravery and idealism, they would not have had the courage to step forward and volunteer to serve their country in the first place.  Aside from some exploitative scandal mongers, most mainstream media have learned to tell out stories respectfully, reporting our coming out courage without sensationalism.  Tomorrow, for example, I'll be telling my story publicly, yet again, for NPR.  That will be a lot easier than the private conversation I had with my mom so long ago.  Now that I think of it, telling the world seems to be a lot easier than telling one's parents.

My coming our conversation with my mother, in 1967, was at a time when you could count the number of publicly out people on the fingers of one hand (LGBT pioneers Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Harry Hay, etc.), so that wasn't really an issue that we needed to discuss.  It was pre-Stonewall.  My mother, bless her, was the one who started the conversation, not me.  She'd guessed that I was gay when I was eight years old when she saw  me fall in puppy love with a foreign exchange student.  She kept her silence for twelve years, just watching me grow up and waiting quietly.  So, when I was 20, she decided it was time to ask.  So, instead of me giving her a heart attack, she gave me one.  After a week of 'luncheon conversations' about gay issues, which she had been studying for years, she finally asked, "Are you?"  I gulped, nodded, and said "yes."

"Ah," she said matter-of-factly, "I thought so."  I was blushing fire engine red.  Then came the "don't embarrass me" comment.  She was worried about me embarrassing her!?  I thought I was going to die.  A few years later she came to visit my lover and me in our home.  She wasn't in the least surprised that he was a foreign immigrant from Southeast Asia.  She was surprised at how neat and clean our home was, since I had not been a tidy little boy.  She noted the lovely curtains he had made for our windows, the matching furniture, and the gourmet meals he cooked.  She approved.

  2011 Gay Military Signal