Look back on high school. Who do you remember? The kids who stuffed someone in a locker or the dozens or hundreds who were horrified when they learned about it in the cafeteria? Look back on college. Did those few people who were more than generous with their self-important opinions set the tone? Or was it the ones who patiently waited for a turn to speak that never came? The people who express themselves, however unacceptably, make an impression that lasts. When it comes to our views on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality, we often hear more from those who dislike us than from those who could be our friends, if we only knew.
That is why many LGBT people experience a world that is much less welcoming than you’d expect by reading poll numbers. Young people overwhelmingly recognize that we are equal, yet we also know that LGBT youth experience harassment in schools and experience depression at a high rate. Where are the affirming voices to counterbalance the hostile ones?
Americans strongly favor workplace protections, but many LGBT people who are out to friends are not out at work. We hear the shouts of condemnation. We hear about the parade of horribles that will befall society if we treat LGBT people as the human beings that we are. But most people don’t agree with that. Where are you? And many LGBT people, regardless of how privileged we are, don’t tell our straight friends about what our community faces. Where are you? In the age of Twitter, when you can instantly learn which celebrity is eating a bagel, the silence is incomprehensible.
This is the great irony of our time in LGBT rights history. If you watch enough TV, you’ll think that you can’t even become a beauty queen, much less an elected official, if you oppose our rights. But if you hear a United States senator call the Hate Crimes bill the “Pedophile Protection Act,” if you hear your classmate say “that’s so gay,” it feels different. It takes over a decade to persuade your government—which already has a law protecting police dogs—to pass a law permitting the Department of Justice to step in when LGBT people are attacked and killed for who they are. It feels like you can’t get an education without being reminded daily that to some of the people around you, you’re a living insult.
As we prepare to celebrate National Coming Out Day on October 11, I’m reminded that this time for LGBT people and our allies to be open and honest is a process that never ends, and never ceases to benefit ourselves, our neighbors, and our families. At this point in our history, National Coming Out Day has a new significance. We are closer than we’ve ever been to protecting our rights, but it won’t happen if we are the quiet ones, waiting. Every one of us needs to set the tone. Every one of us needs to speak up.
To my LGBT friends, the odds are that your neighbor, your sister, and your grocery checkout person think highly of you. The odds are also that they have no idea what you are facing. They don’t know that even though some of us can marry, we still don’t get as much out of Social Security. They don’t know how many of us have missed out on a job, lost a relationship with a family member, or feared for our lives because we are LGBT. We need to tell them. And we need to tell them that our lives are still good—that we’re nobody’s victim. Then we need to answer their questions—even if they use the word “lifestyle.” Even if the question starts with “so how do you….”
To the majority of non-LGBT people out there who would welcome us into your lives if you only knew how, and knew that we want you to: we want you to. And it doesn’t matter if you know how. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never said “lesbian” out loud. Practice in front of the mirror, if you’d like. Or not. Your LGBT co-worker or neighbor will understand that for you, this is the beginning of coming out. Too many people don’t get to the beginning. If you think you’re not outgoing enough, if you think you’re not knowledgeable enough, if you think, heaven forbid, that you’re not fabulous enough, speak up anyway.
To get the conversation going, HRC released videos of LGBT people and their families, friends, teachers, and other allies talking to one another about the experience of coming out and communicating as LGBT people and allies. They aren’t actors and they aren’t professional civil rights leaders. They are people who are ready to talk. I hope that you enjoy watching them, and feel inspired to join them.