As I write, it’s National Coming Out Day. Since 1988, this day in October has been a day of solidarity for those who have come out. It is also a hopeful, supportive, gentle opportunity for anyone in flux, transition or considering coming out. We all have coming out stories. It is important to voice them. When I told my high school friend Patti that I was lesbian, she spun around and announced, “Brown, you are missing the whole parade while focused on just the trumpet section.” I got her point. I felt properly rebuked. I was too new to it all to respond. Today I would answer Patti: Every band is made up of individual musicians. In 2022, it is still crucial that we all have time and space to be thoughtful and find our place.
October is LGBTQ+ History month. Coming out and sharing our stories builds our individual strength. Giving voice to our stories weaves the individual threads into the fabric of a community. As Winston Churchill said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I wonder if LGBTQ+ history has been learned? So, in an unscientific way, I went looking. I have been asking everyone around me about LGBTQ+ history.
The most pleasing result and affirming conclusion of my informal survey came from our straight allies. They are well informed. In the ensuing 50 years, more cisgender heterosexual people now know about the Stonewall Rebellion, the ACT-UP and HIV/AIDS era, marches, protests Pride Days and lots of legislation, marriage equality being at the top of the list. Since declaring the Stonewall Inn a National Historic Landmark, general awareness has even morphed into top-of-mind pop culture. Stonewall has been a question on Jeopardy. The phrase “coming out of the closet” has a common usage that applies to anyone facing an issue in their lives in a public way, coming clean to reveal anything about their personal lives and choices. It is not just for LGBTQ+ people anymore.
An October Rainbow History Project event featured a discussion of the GLF, or Gay Liberation Front in D.C. Hopeful and enthusiastic, looking for my place in the world, GLF was attractive. I was gay. I wanted liberation. The 2022 presentation included a brief mention of GLF, Black people and women. I was reminded of the experience of attending “Gay” organizations. Gay, it turned out, was not an inclusive term.
A confounding result of the survey came from within my current LGBTQ+ community. Simply, an elder who identifies as gay told me of a discussion on hate crimes. He was speaking one-on-one, with a person who identifies as nonbinary. The older used Matthew Shepard’s death as an example. The response was quick and concise. Matthew Shepard is not a reference point that resonates with today’s community.
Before anyone gets ahead of me, this vignette is in no way intended to dismiss one generation or another. Let me say one conversation does not represent an entire community from either vantage. No one person can speak to all that is experienced by others, even others of their own racial, ethnic or class affinity group.
My informal October survey brought me pride and pain. I am painfully aware that we need to educate our own people about the history of the LGBTQ+ movement. Yet that very history must tell all stories. This is why individual acts of coming out remain acts of courage and are vitally important. Is it the chicken or the egg? Does a community build cohesion? Or does cohesion build community?
Lynne Brown is the publisher of Washington Blade.