I have no gay cred. I've never had to come out because I'm not gay. Worse, where my qualifications are concerned, I've only ever been on the receiving end of one coming-out conversation. It was in high school, and it went something like this.
"Hey Sara, it's Jason."
"Hey Jason, what's up?"
"I have something to tell you."
"What is it?"
"I don't . . . like girls."
"Cool. What are you doing this weekend? Want to practice for the Jazz Choir concert?"
(I have unlimited music-nerd cred.)
Being gay: Then vs. Now
THEN Your mother kicked you out of the house.
NOW Your mother wants you to decorate the house.
THEN You had nothing to do in June except Pride because you were excluded from the family weddings and graduations.
NOW You have too much to do because you have to attend Pride and your family and friends' weddings and graduations.
THEN If you were a performer, your manager told you to stay in the closet so your gayness wouldn't hurt your career.
NOW If you're straight, your agent encourages you to take roles as gay characters to further your career.
THEN Being gay was special.
NOW Being gay is not the most special thing about you.
THEN Your female best friend was called a fag hag.
NOW Your female best friend is called a fairy princess.
THEN Straight people were envious because you couldn't marry and rarely had children.
NOW Straight people think you're crazy because you want to get married and have children.
THEN The military won't let you serve.
NOW The military won't let you serve.
-- Sue O'Connell
So what, then, makes me a good choice to write a piece about the leaps and bounds that "coming out" has taken in the past five, 10, 20 years? Not a damn thing, actually. I'm not one of those naive assholes who believes that I'm inherently in tune with the LGBT experience because I have a gay friend, or because I totally made out with girls while I was a freshman at Sarah Lawrence.
Sue O'Connell, though, has gay cred emanating from every pore, like a beacon gleaming from atop the highest peak on Lesbos. The co-host of gay and lesbian talk show One in Ten on 101.7 WFNX (owned by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group) and co-publisher of Bay Windows (New England's largest LGBT newspaper), O'Connell is the perfect resource for this article.
Her own coming-out story is one of my personal favorites: around 23 years ago, pondering her sexuality but bereft of Internet technology (oh, the 1980s, so fluorescent yet so dark), she hoofed it on down to her local public library and picked up every Rita Mae Brown book she could get her lady-loving hands on. She told the bemused librarian that she was researching a paper.
A lot has changed since those prehistoric, pre–World Wide Web days, when anyone who wanted to seek information anonymously about anything socially taboo was forced to invest in sunglasses and a fake moustache. According to O'Connell, without the luxury of Google-searching key phrases such as "lesbian" or "I think I like girls" or "Georgia O'Keefe paintings cheap," finding anything about sexuality that wasn't shrouded in secrecy was a challenge. Coming out "then" versus coming out "now" was a whole different ball game, where the only team you could ostensibly bat for was your own.
Celebs: then and now
Upon coming out to her family, one of O'Connell's relatives, shocked, replied, "But . . . you're pretty!" as though declaring oneself lesbian turned women into hags. O'Connell says that because her generation of gays lacked positive and non-cliché public images of homosexuality (like, any sort of depiction of a lesbian that deviated from a flannel-clad gym teacher with a mullet and a crooked smile), there was no example set for "civilians" like said scandalized relative to look to for clarification; no socio-politically rabid famous person to take up homosexuality as a cause célèbre. And there certainly weren't many Hollywood types who were wearing their sexuality like a rainbow-colored badge. Rock Hudson? Who'd a-thunk it? Who'd a-tolerated it?
But then came the early 1990s.
Remember when celebrities were positive role models, not just stumbling personifications of the repercussions of cocaine abuse and self-actuated puking? When public figures used their powers for good? When k.d. lang transformed her constant craving for chicks into a platform for social activism? When Elton John came out as gay (after previously declaring his bisexuality, more than 10 years prior) and then set to work fighting the AIDS virus as fervently as possible? Granted, these, and other, public declarations of sexuality didn't necessarily make it easy for John and Jane Doe to come out to their friends and family. But it sometimes made it easier.