In class this week we discussed the effectiveness of organizing and advocacy versus simply coming out in the struggle for gay rights. Clearly, both of these things were essential to achieving the progress that GLBTQ people have realized in the past decades. I want to explain what I think the particular effect of each of those strategies is. First, some charts showing the progress of gay rights both politically and culturally:
It is safe to say that the legal and political victories of the gay rights movement would only have been achievable through skillful organizing and fierce assertion of political power. However, the political progress of gay people has also been paralleled by cultural progress, and I think that their cultural progress is largely due to people coming out and identifying as gay.
I want to explain why I think coming out is so important for changing cultural attitudes. Although I dislike arguments based on personal anecdote I am going to use my own experience to illustrate how someone can come not just to tolerate gay people, but to fully accept them. My public school system in suburban Massachusetts went to great lengths to affirm that being gay was a normal thing, and to create a safe space for everyone. However, the idea of homosexuality still made me quite uncomfortable. It seemed weird, abnormal, and even gross. I think part of my discomfort was due to the fact that although my school was at least superficially tolerant, there were very few students who were out as gay, and none of them were very close to me.
Then I went to college, and I met many people who were proudly out. I became acquainted with many of them, and became good friends with a few. I think getting to know these people well really helped me to fully accept gay people. I am no longer made uncomfortable by the idea of being gay, or by gay sex. I don’t think being gay is weird or unusual. It is a normal part of being human.
I think it is incorrect to assume that if someone becomes friends with one gay person, he or she will come to accept all gay people. However, I hope that my personal anecdote has given you a sense of the power of coming out. In combination with political organizing, it is a powerful tool for advancing gay rights both legally and culturally.