On October 11 each year, we commemorate National Coming Out Day. Activists Robert Eichsberg and Jean O’Leary founded the holiday on October 11, 1988 to mark the one-year anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington Lesbian and Gay Rights.
I am not sure of the exact derivation of the word “closet” as referred to in the phrase “coming out of the closet,” but as author and historian Judy Grahn states in her groundbreaking 1984 book Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds:
“At present the term ‘closet’ implies a scandalous personal secret, or skeleton, in the family closet. In the case of a Gay person, it refers more precisely to being the skeleton in the family’s closet. That skeleton is the reality of Gayness itself. The sometimes violent and always frightening suppression of Gay culture often forces Gay people to live in the closet, in a secret world….”
Today, and even many years ago, we can understand there exists many closets based not only on sexuality, but also on issues of race, ethnicity, gender and gender identities, religion and non-religious identities, ability and disability, age, and other “othered” identities.
The good news is that lesbians, gay males, bisexuals, trans people, and heterosexual allies are coming out of their particular closets of silence, hatred, and fear in greater numbers than ever before. As marginalized people, we are pushing back the boundaries unwilling any longer to accept the repressive sexuality and gender status quo. In coalition with other disenfranchised minoritized groups, we are refusing to buckle under and assimilate into a corrupt and corrupting system that forces people to relinquish their integrity and their humanity.
This year, as we observe National Coming Out Day, I am reminded of one of my heroes, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated on November 27, 1978. Harvey was a visionary. He was a man who clearly saw the way toward a society free from bigotry, where all people could walk side-by-side while maintaining their uniqueness, their multi-dimensional diversity.
Harvey Milk was also a realist. As an open and proud gay man he clearly understood that he ran the constant risk of being the target of violence bred by a society that teaches people to hate us and teaches us to internalize that hatred.
Though Harvey’s election as the first openly gay man to the San Francisco City Board of Supervisors was indeed stunning and ground breaking in its scope, in the greater course of things, he knew that he still lived in a country that practices sexual and gender apartheid. He saw the ways in which lesbians, gay males, bisexuals, and trans people were targeted and denied many of the basic rights granted to others, including the right to live.
I believe, for example, that whenever anyone is demeaned, targeted, and oppressed for their gender identity and expression, that’s everyone’s issue.
Whenever hate crimes legislation is drafted without including the documentation of violence directed against LGBT people, that’s everyone’s issue.
Whenever any person is targeted and murdered for living their truth, as, for example, the ever-growing number of trans women of color and unarmed black and brown men and women, that’s everyone’s issue.
Whenever our relationships are devalued and not accorded equal social status, and whenever states or municipalities pass so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts,” like the one supported and signed by Indiana Governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, that’s everyone’s issue.
Whenever the Centers for Disease Control and the Red Cross refuse blood donations for no other reason than the sexual identity of the prospective donor, that’s everyone’s issue.
Whenever our state legislators refuse to pass bullying prevention legislation because it would include homophobic and cissexist harassment and prevention, that’s everyone’s issue.
Whenever states refuse to pass anti-discrimination laws that would protect people on the basis of sexuality identity and gender identity and expression, that’s everyone’s issue.
Whenever homophobic, cissexist, anti-Semitic, racist, misogynistic, ableist, ageist, and anti-Muslim epithets is lodged against anyone or spray painted around our communities, that’s everyone’s issue.
Whenever educators exclude the issues and stories of our lives in the classroom, that’s everyone’s issue.
Whenever anyone of us is taught to hate ourselves, each one of us is demeaned, and that certainly is everyone’s issue, and we have a right, or rather an obligation, to speak up, to fight back with all the energy and with all the unity of which we are capable.
Today we still live in a society that proclaims we do not deserve equal rights and should not exist to the same extent as others, but exist we do, everywhere, in all walks of life. The reality is that we are helping to hold up this society. If all the lesbians, bisexuals, gay males, and trans people suddenly left their jobs, this country would literally crumble.
Yes, we are still fighting a war against ignorance, but there is much of which we can be proud, much about which we can be optimistic. For we have traveled many miles, though we still have many more to go.
One year before his death, Harvey Milk recorded a will that was to be played in the event of his assassination. In it he stated that he never considered himself simply as a candidate for public office, but rather, always considered himself as part of a movement: a liberation movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people, and a liberation movement for all people.
Each time Harvey spoke in front of a crowd, he urged people to come out everywhere and as often if they could:
“Tell your immediate family,” he would say. “Tell friends, neighbors, people in the stores you shop in, cab drivers, everyone.” And he urged heterosexual people to be our allies, to interrupt derogatory remarks and jokes, to support us and offer aid when needed. If we all did this, he said, we could change the world.
A concept of Jewish tradition is Tikkun Olam, meaning the transformation, healing, and repairing of the world so that it becomes a more just, peaceful, nurturing, and perfect place. I hope that we can all join together as allies to defeat all the many forms of oppression and to make the world a more nurturing, perfect, and welcoming place for people of all backgrounds and identifications.
Let us all join and go out into our lives, and to work for Tikkun Olam (or however people express the concept in their own traditions). And let us transform the world.