Public and Private
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
to the entire nation! "Don't embarrass me"?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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