The Extended Coming Out

While Facebook may have made it easy for armchair gumshoes to figure out my "lifestyle," I never officially came out to many in the extended family, or to old friends. That may surprise some who read "We Are Not Arguing Over Chicken" last month, where I argued that we need to keep the focus on the harm done by homophobia and not get caught up in poultry or personal attacks. I just never get around to the heavy lifting of the extended coming out. What's the point of going door to door? It's easier to let mom and dad tell whomever they want in the neighborhood. And does Great Uncle Joe really need to know? It can only make Thanksgiving slightly more awkward. After the blog went viral, well, so much for that plan.

My last piece was a plea to social conservatives. This one is directed at you, gay friends, straight allies, and HuffPost progressives. One reason I got so personal last month was because of a powerful statistic that will matter come Nov. 6. It's the most important factor that explains why the LGBT rights movement has made so much progress so quickly, and how we can make more: Straight people who know gay people are significantly more likely to support LGBT rights, by 20 points in one ABC News/Washington Post poll. Given where polls stand now, if we all vote and bring our friends, families, and allies with us, we could achieve anti-discrimination protections in housing and employment, and we'd be able to visit our loved ones in the hospital and not worry about the custody of our children. We could even achieve federal marriage equality.

When I wrote that piece last month, I came out not just to the anonymous crowd of HuffPost readers but to my father's colleagues, my mom's book club, and my cousins, aunts, and uncles in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, some of whom are staunch conservatives. That was a daunting realization, until it sunk in that the extended coming out may be exactly what I could do in order to further fight homophobia and support equality at the ballot box.

A couple of days after the piece was posted, my father called from the airport. "Conor," he said, "I'm sitting with a guy from work, getting ready to fly to a meeting. He read your story. It turns out that his son recently came out." My dad, a college jock and a serviceman turned business executive, made a connection within his corporation, one operating in a distinctly conservative industry. Having shared their individual stories, and knowing that they now have this common ground, those two fathers are better advocates for equality inside their company and can serve as allies for the greater equality movement.

Similarly, my mother had a conversation with some of her "book club babes" about the HuffPost essay. Since then, there have been more Facebook posts supporting equality from a handful of suburban women in Northern Virginia, a key swing demographic in the 2012 election.

Extended coming outs are always more public than the first round. I am grateful that mine seems to be making a difference, but there are mixed emotions. I feel guilty that I may have waited too long. While I remained in the closet to well-meaning aunts, there were close elections in local towns. They might have voted for candidates opposing equality because they didn't understand how their votes would affect real people like me.

It's not just the people who love us but don't understand the issues who need to hear our personal stories; it's our pro-gay friends and neighbors, too. Coming out can be brutal, but when I spoke up, I began to better realize that we have allies in unexpected places. The past few years have shown the LGBT community that we have supporters everywhere: on evangelical campuses; in Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam; in schools, frat houses, and sports teams; in both political parties; and in every branch of the military. They form a quiet caucus, supporting equality inside institutions that we perceive as being against us. But these benevolent "sleeper activists" are never going to engage and work for equality if we don't engage them and provide them the motivation. When they come home for Christmas and head to the beach for spring break, they need to be reminded that they're coming home and enjoying time with gay friends or family, and they need to know that we need their support in speaking up against bullying and homophobia, in combating workplace discrimination, and in lobbying fellow Americans to support equality. Most importantly, come November, we need their votes at the ballot box.

Being out to your parents and close friends is the first step, but it will take more to achieve full equality. When the neighbors ask about your dating life, tell them you've found a great guy, or you still haven't found the right girl. If you're a straight ally, mention your gay friends, particularly to Mainers, Minnesotans, Washingtonians, and Marylanders, whose states have marriage equality on the ballot in November. In the struggle for hearts and minds, the personal is the political. Your truth is the truth. Speak it.