Thursday, June 23, 2011

Coming Out & Marriage Equality

Mayor Jason West
As I usually do, I watched the Rachel Maddow Show tonight on MSNBC.  One of her guests was the mayor of New Paltz, New York, Jason West.  Mr. West and Rachel talked about the marriage equality bill pending in the New York State Senate.  Mr. West is the mayor of New Paltz who, in February, 2004, decided to perform weddings for same–sex couples in his town.  He lost his reelection attempt in 2007, but was just reelected to a four–year term that started on June 1, 2011.  When he isn’t a mayor, Mr. West is a house painter.  He holds several academic degrees and is very articulate on many issues, including marriage equality.  He is 34 years old.

When Mayor West performed the same–sex marriages back in 2004, he was arrested for violating laws and the Constitution of the State of New York.  All charges were dropped, but the fact that he was charged at all shows the hostility he faced in his town over this issue.  In 2007, he lost the mayoral election, in part at least because of the bad feelings still in play in the town over his attempt to foster marriage equality.  He said tonight that the animus towards him largely has disappeared, as witnessed by his recent election to the same job he lost in 2007.  He attributes this change of heart to a broader change throughout the country in attitudes towards gay people generally and marriage equality specifically.

Several times during his chat with Rachel, Mayor West said that one of the most powerful tools that gay people have, and that gay people in the last several years have used, is coming out.  Initially, I thought he meant coming out for marriage equality.  But it became clear as he and Rachel talked that he meant coming out of the closet.  He said that he believes his town, and the whole country, has changed so rapidly and so dramatically in their view of gays and gay issues because so many gay people—famous celebrities and ordinary people alike—have come out of the closet.  When straight people get to know gay people as individuals, colleagues, neighbors, and family members, their understanding of what it is to be gay changes.  As straight people come better to understand gay people, he said, their attitude about issues like gay marriage and gay adoption changes and their concerns about these issues tend to evaporate.

To come out, when to come out, how to come out, and to whom to come out all are very personal decisions.  Every gay person knows someone who has had major negative repercussions because he or she has come out.  Jobs are lost.  Friends are alienated.  Families are torn apart.  All these bad things do happen.  Most gay people, though, have much less dramatic coming out stories.  There may be difficult times, but generally these difficult times run their course and life becomes better because the gay person is free of the bondage of the closet.

Harvey Milk
Harvey Milk made coming out his gay political cause.  He saw the power that gay people could have if every gay person were known to be gay.  He also saw the need for young gay people to know that there are millions of other gay people in this country, and that most of them live peaceful lives.

I have a friend who is 68 years old.  He is gay and in a long–term relationship with his “roommate.”  He is retired from the U.S. Navy and is active in teaching meditation skills to people in the San Francisco area.  In my view, he has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by coming out.  I’ve been pleading with him to do just that ever since his retirement, fifteen years ago.  I was 40 when I came out.  He can be 68.  It’s still good.  He has over 30 nieces and nephews in his large Irish–American family, all of whom would benefit from his coming out.  He has two nephews who are out and proud gay men.  His family has traditional Catholics who have a problem with these gay men in their midst, but most of his family are professionals who welcome the honesty and health that these two young men display in their out gay lives.  My friend resists coming out because of the negative reaction he expects from the few traditional family members.  He wants to be on good terms with all his family as he enters the final stages of his life.  I am going to send him the link to this post.  He fully supports marriage equality and fought like hell against Proposition 8.  Maybe if he realizes that his coming out may make a difference in just one person’s view of gay marriage, he will do it.  Maybe he and his “roommate” can, after 25 years together, make it legal and get married!

It’s amazing to me that Mayor West has such a clear insight into this issue.  I always think of coming out as something that we all have to do for our own mental health and quality of life.  Mayor West, like Harvey Milk, gives coming out so much more weight than that.  He knows, as Harvey knew, that coming out is first and foremost a public political act, whether we individual gay men and women realize it or not.  We will never know whose life has been impacted by our honesty: a teenager in Pennsylvania, a voter in West Virginia, the father of a gay kid in Florida, or a State Senator voting on marriage equality in New York.

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.” From a tape recording (1977) quoted by Randy Shilts in The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982), p. 372.

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