Back in the heady early days of the women’s movement, activists fashioned a slogan: the personal is political. It was a rejoinder to those men and women who denied the political nature of social attitudes that kept women “in our place,” social attitudes that dictated “proper” and decidedly unequal feminine behaviors and occupations.
That slogan is equally applicable to the struggle for gay rights.
When basketball player Jason Collins became the first major league athlete to come out, the news was met with a predictable chorus from the anti-gay right: Who cares? Why do these gays insist upon flaunting their personal sexual “preferences”? We don’t announce our heterosexuality—why do they insist on telling us about their homosexuality?
We know who cares–quite obviously, they do. And why is it important that GLBT people everywhere “announce” who they are? Because only by doing so—only by coming out—have gays been able to make progress toward civil equality.
Indeed, coming out has been one of the most successful political tactics in the history of civil rights struggles.
When most people didn’t know that they knew gay people, the popular images of gays were of what a friend of mine calls “the feather-boa crowd”–cross-dressers in gay bars, or limp-wristed, lisping stereotypes. (To the best of my recollection, there weren’t any stereotypes of lesbians. They were invisible.) Whatever the image, those unknown gays were “other.” Easy to demonize.
The coming out movement has changed that reality forever. When people realized that they had gay friends and relatives and co-workers, it became much harder to stereotype. Coming out was an incredibly powerful political tactic—and it worked. (It worked so well, in fact, that some atheist organizations are considering adopting it, atheists having largely replaced GLBT folks in most surveys as most distrusted and “un-American.”) Jason Collins’ coming out is part of that larger political movement.
There is another reason to applaud Collins’ revelation, however. It is impossible to separate homophobia from sexism; men (and it is almost always men) who sneer at or denigrate gay males generally do so by investing them with feminine characteristics. The terminology is telling: pansy, sissy, girly-boy. In my experience, most homophobes are also sexists who equate women with weakness and manliness with macho behavior. When a 7 foot tall, aggressive, muscular sports star comes out, it makes it difficult to cling to the theory that gay means girly.
A number of columnists and sports writers are predicting that the Collins announcement—and the generally positive reaction to it from other sports figures—will open the last remaining closet door, the door that has hidden gays playing major-league sports.
There has been amazing progress toward equality for the GLBT community over the past couple of decades. I am absolutely convinced that the primary impetus for that progress was the courage of those thousands of individual gay men and lesbians who made the personal political by insisting on living authentic lives, by coming out.
It’s easy to forget, when you are getting your news from Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper,or watching a lesbian couple house-hunt on HGTV–or when you read that ENDA is being re-introduced in Congress and the Supreme Court is on the verge of striking down DOMA–how incredibly hard it was for those who went before, and how much today’s gay community owes to those who went first, who risked everything to make the personal political.