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.)
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.
Especially when Ellen DeGeneres got her own show! Not the one where she dances, but that first one, where she accidentally came out into a microphone that was on a podium and she didn't know that it was turned on but it totally was! And then Will and Grace was on TV! And RuPaul! And later those Queer Eye guys coined the word "manscaping!"
These days, it's practically fashionable to be a Hollywood gay, or, at least, to be banging one. Many of the same gay celebrities who helped to catapult homosexuality into the mainstream in the '80s and '90s have maintained a high profile, parlaying their relationships into continuing examples of gay activism. Ellen and Elton married Portia and David, and a host of young celebs have set a (mostly) positive LGBT example for their fans. Thanks for keeping the dream going, Lindsay Lohan. We like your hustle.
Organization and activism: Then and now
It's hard to galvanize any community if it's forced to function as a secret society. O'Connell says that, as a confused high-school student in Revere, she had absolutely no idea if any of her peers were gay. Years later she found out, after being plucked from the line outside the now-defunct lesbian club Someplace Else by the bouncer — who'd been one of O'Connell's high-school classmates and a popular athlete. Once inside, O'Connell was surprised, again, to find three more sporty school-chum ladies sitting at the bar — giggling, because, they said, they'd always watched O'Connell in high school, just waiting for her to come out. Supportive, huh? And not at all creepy.