Coming Out and Being 'Born This Way': Matthew Shepard, Lady Gaga and Me

The week of Oct. 11 is always a bittersweet one. As I am often fond of saying, I don't think I was ever "in the closet." At the age of 5, I came home and told my parents I wanted to marry my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Steinberg. As a kid I was the quintessential tomboy, but as other girls grew out of it, I only grew more into being and feeling very different from other girls, and realizing I liked girls in a very different way than I liked the boys who were my bowling and baseball buddies.

I was lucky. I only had to deal with minor teasing in middle and high school and had supportive, even openly lesbian, teachers and coaches. I was blessed to have family members (OK, perhaps they just went to college with my dad, but we're Italian, so stick around long enough and you get the title of "Aunt") who have been a devoted same-sex couple for decades. They were the first people I came out to in my late teens, after meeting my first girlfriend in college. (I was pretty shy and a late bloomer. What can I say?) They suggested I try my parents next and gave me what was the "Lesbian 101" coming-out kit at the time: a Meg Christian/Chris Williamson cassette and some books, and their unconditional support and love, which they continue to give me to this day. The rest of my family, both here and in Italy, are pretty damn unconditionally supportive as well, which has helped make me the person I am today: an activist as motivated by what has not been my experience as by what has been. Simply put: I'm lucky, really lucky.

And after two decades of activism, I now see National Coming Out Day very differently. It would be easy to be glib and say that my challenge is finding someone to come out to, or that every day is Coming Out Day for me (try being me and answering the question "what do you do?" without coming out), but NCOD has truly been bittersweet for me since 1998, when I spent a sleepless night up in Laramie, Wyo., as we all waited for news about Matthew Shepard's condition. This year it is even more intense than usual, as Renna Communications is working on the release of a very moving and powerful book of poetry by pioneering lesbian author Lesléa Newman, October Mourning.

Next week I will go to a reading in New York with my mom, who has come a long way over the years, at the LGBT Center in Garden City. I expect it will bring up a lot of emotions from a time that was both incredibly challenging and painful but also life-changing in many positive ways, too. I will carry Matt's memory with me all this week and next, along with the memory of so many hate-crime victims who never got the attention they deserved from the media or our community. I have been to many, many performances of The Laramie Project, and every time it gives me chills, not just the content but the impact. I hear Judy and Dennis Shepard tirelessly continue to speak out all over the world, not only to keep Matt's story alive but to bring LGBT issues to wider audiences.

This makes me think about the bigger issues that continue to plague our "community." (It doesn't always seem as integrated or unified as it should be, wouldn't you agree?) Let's start with Lady Gaga. Got your attention? I know we can all debate the problematic and simplistic implications of saying we are "born this way," but what is, to me, the biggest problem we face is this country's complete inability to talk about sexuality and sexual orientation in a sophisticated, nuanced, honest manner, this despite the fact that we use sex to sell everything and oversexualize many things in ways that are not only not sex-positive but often inappropriate for really young kids, or offensive to... fill in the blank: girls, women, LGBT people, whomever. But I still love the song and the message and think Lady Gaga is doing a world of good for LGBT and questioning youth by saying all the things she does.

For me, the meaning of the song is that I was born as who I am, someone who can and does change, grow, and continually evolve. When people throw around the word "choice," I don't even blink; my only choice is being honest about who I am and supporting every else's choice to be themselves honestly. And Lady Gaga earned my respect when she performed at an HRC dinner and sang "Imagine" and changed the words to honor Judy and Dennis Shepard. As she introduced the song, she said she was not going to sing one of her songs (and I am sure the crowd would have loved to hear "Born This Way"), because the night was not about her. That made me think about her in a very different way. Take the most important messages in the song: God makes no mistakes, you're on the right track, you were born to survive, and just love yourself and you're set. Sounds right to me.

The other big problem is the near-complete lack of willingness -- both on the part of our own community organizations and, let's be real, on the part of society at large -- to talk about bisexuality. It drives me nuts, and I am a 5.99 on the Kinsey scale. All this talk about "ex-gay" therapies and laws that ban the practice have left this off the table in all the media coverage I have seen, and it only reinforces what I call the "light-switch" theory of sexual orientation: on/off, gay/straight. It's a dimmer switch, people, seriously.

So if you can safely come out to someone today, it will change your life and theirs. And coming out is still the powerful thing to truly change the world for us all, whether it is coming out to yourself or others.