Why Gay Youth Need More Out Public Figures

Appearances do matter -- public appearances, the kind that a confused and lonely kid in Russia or Kansas or your neighborhood might see. "It gets better" is a nice but passive sentiment; come out, go out and helpit better.
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Coming out is hard to do. Most things worth doing are. The first step, being honest with yourself about your sexuality, is often the hardest. But once you do that, your closet's nature changes from denial to deception. And there are fewer and fewer excuses today for staying there.

The gay community is more public and more widely available today than ever before. There are major gay characters in Hollywood movies and on television. Stars like Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres have come out and thrived. A simple search on the Internet pulls up endless information on gay people, gay groups, gay charities, gay rights, gay products, gay cruises, gay cruising, gay porn. Many countries in the world permit full-on gay marriage, and America is finally catching up. The President of the United States made an "It Gets Better" video.

None of this support was there for me in the 1980s, growing up in what was then the Soviet Union. I'm living proof that homosexuality is born, not bred. I knew nothing about gay people when I was a kid: everyone around me -- and everything I saw and heard in the media and on the streets -- was straight. But I instinctively understood that I was different from other boys. Neither my classmates nor I had a word for what I was, but we knew what I was not: one of them.

Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14, I figured out that I wasn't sexually interested in girls but in guys, and I learned that this attraction was called homosexuality, and that it was a shameful and perverse disease that could land me in jail for years if I acted on it. I tried to fight it within myself. I tried to fantasize about women. I tried not to look at men.

I was lonely, and I was terrified. I looked for escape in the arts, and I remember going to a ballet alone at the age of 15. At intermission, a young man came over to me and sat down. As we talked about the performance, his leg began to rub just slightly against my own. I jumped up and ran out of the theater; my heart was pounding with horror. This guy had recognized the homosexual in me. He could see that I was one of them. I was devastated.

Relief for me finally came, ironically, in the form of a hateful propaganda piece in a Soviet newspaper. The article's point was that the West was being destroyed by its tolerance of homosexuality. That was ridiculous, of course -- that was during the Reagan years -- but the article opened my eyes to a whole world of gay life that I hadn't known existed. In the West, gay people were common!

I began to embrace my sexuality and found freedom in it. I no longer wanted to hide. I came out to my parents, my grandparents, my brother -- all of my relatives, in fact, even though my parents asked me not to. I was a gay man now, not a scared boy, and I wanted to tell the world. I left Russia when I could and, a few years later, moved to America -- where I was surprised to find so many closets still in place.

Some people have no choice in the matter, at least at work: in many parts of the country, it is legal to fire someone for being gay. But it is embarrassing that many gay Americans still lie needlessly about themselves to their friends, coworkers and families. It's shameful that older gay men and women who have been closeted all their lives continue being closeted out of inertia, and it's sad that younger gay men and women create fake lives instead of embracing who they are.

I am furious at closeted politicians who try to push back gay rights, like certain Republican congressmen. I am furious at celebrities and those with prominent positions in the media who live in glass closets and enjoy the fruits of gay achievements won by braver people in harder times.

Because appearances do matter -- public appearances, the kind that a confused and lonely kid in Russia or Kansas or your neighborhood might see. "It gets better" is a nice but passive sentiment; it's not enough. Courage is contagious: Come out, go out and help make it better.

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