The Personal is Political

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.


  1. Months ago I read a magazine interview with actress Meridith Baxter, always one of my favorites. She “came out” at age 56 after two failed marriages and stated she is the happiest she has been in her life. Her children are accepting of her going public and their relationships have not changed. All I could think was how miserable this beautiful, talented woman’s life and been for nearly half a century before deciding to stop playing the most difficult role of her life. All due to the small minds of too many people in this country who somehow believe the most personal part of the lives of others is their business. And that they have the right to disapprove, denigrate, belittle and smear the reputation of others who think, believe or act outside what they believe to be normal. What would we find if we could shine the spotlight on their personal lives and habits? Kudos to Jason Collins and all LGBT heros and heroines who bravely come forward and seek only the legal and civil rights which are their due and be allowed to live their lives as they see fit.

  2. “(To the best of my recollection, there weren’t any stereotypes of lesbians. They were invisible.)”

    Really? That seems kind of blinkered to me. Perhaps it is just that my experiences of the period differ significantly from yours.

  3. Some people might have shown him a little more respect had he bothered to share with his female fiance’ of 8 years that he was gay before announcing to the world that he was. What he did to her is unconscionable. There was nothing bold about his move when you consider how many had already gone down that path long before him. How many decades ago did Martina Navritolova or diver Greg Louganis come out? And don’t even mention Anderson Cooper. He is the most disgusting gay man in America. He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth as the son of heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and has spent most of his entire down low adulthood going through boys in New York like Kleenex.

  4. Gary, she is his ex-fiancée. He called it off with her four years ago and he also told her about his sexuality shortly before the article was published from all reports. What he did was not “unconscionable” by any stretch of the imagination. Undoubtedly there was pain after their break up, but you make him out to be a monster. In a world where gay people feel more and more welcomed, maybe this kind of hurt from gay men trying to make dating relationships work with straight women will happen less and less.

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