Coming Out Day is today, October 11th.
These days—four states are preparing to vote on same-sex marriage, with victory likely in at least one, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell headed for the dustbin of history, and progress being made on a wide variety of civil rights issues affecting lesbians and gay men—the incredible importance of coming out to the struggle for gay civil rights sometimes escapes notice.
I thought about this last weekend, when I spoke at a conference sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Center for Inquiry. The Center for Inquiry is a national secularist organization, promoting (gasp!) science and reason over supernaturalism. There were four speakers at the all-day conference, and we all took different topics. Not surprisingly, my own presentation focused upon the lack of understanding of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, and the ways in which Americans’ abysmal lack of civic literacy fostered misconceptions, and enabled revisionists determined to rewrite the country’s history.
The last speaker of the day was a lawyer from Los Angeles named Edward Tabash, and it was his talk that made me sit up and take notice.
Tabash’s talk was titled “Taking Atheism to the General Public,” and his message was simple: “We need to emulate the gay community. We need to Come Out.” As he noted, atheists and gays are two communities targeted primarily by religion. Not all religions, certainly—to suggest otherwise would be to engage in the same sort of stereotyping that we decry—but a fundamentalist, literalist “brand” of belief. Tabash urged secularists to emulate the political activism tactics of GLBT folks; as he pointed out, those tactics have resulted in impressive gains, and those gains all began with the deceptively simple act of coming out.
Last Tuesday, I had the honor of emceeing (is that a word?) IUPUI’s third annual Harvey Milk dinner. The dinner draws the campus GLBT faculty and staff and allies, and it has grown steadily since the first dinner. Two hundred and twenty people attended this year’s event; they filled a sizeable space in the Campus Center. An event like that—with that sort of attendance in that sort of venue—would have been inconceivable even ten years ago. It was possible because people took deep breaths, risked families and friendships and livlihoods, and demanded social recognition. They came out.
They took those risks in order to honor their deepest natures, in order to live honestly.
It took guts.
The local CFI has lots of members, but a significant number of them are “lurkers,” on the organization’s website, but unwilling to be identified. Many of them live in small Indiana communities, and rightly fear the reaction of their employers and neighbors. Still, as Tabash noted, the prejudice against secularists won’t change until more of us come out.