Why Coming Out Matters

By Cliff Dunn

It is a function, I think, of getting older, that one’s stream of consciousness occasionally overflows the levees, and a conversation you are having today quickly melds in your right-brain with one you had 20 years ago. This was precisely the case this week, when a discussion I was having about coming out shifted my memory back two decades, to a conversation I had with my friend, Shane Gunderson, longtime advocate and activist for the homeless, the incarcerated, and for LGBT rights. Precisely 20 years ago, Shane and I served on the Central Committee for the Florida Young Democrats, and during our 1992 state convention at the Bahia Mar in Fort Lauderdale— sometime between long island ice teas and tequila shots (hey, we were in our 20s)—we came around to discussing the phenomenon of “outing” gay celebrities against their will.

I recall being vehement in opposing the idea of breaching someone’s privacy, in order to make a point about social transparency and to strike a blow for civil rights. I don’t want to put words into Shane’s mouth, especially after such a long passage of time, but I remember his appeal to a “greater good” that could be accomplished by public awareness of the sexual orientation of movie stars, musical performers, athletes, and others celebrities.

Now, mind you, this was in 1992. The world looked a lot different to me then than it does now. But those superficial differences—which wouldn’t gain the notice of the Grand Canyon, were it to care about such things—are really only skin deep.

Although I think the world is a better place for LGBT persons today than it was then, we still have a long way to go. That summer of my conversation with Shane, Matthew Shepard was still 15 years old, full of wonder and the promise of a life that would be cut tragically short a little less than six years later. Is the world better for me than it was for Matt Shepard? Yes. Was his individual world much different from that of other young gays who struggle today for acceptance and the right to enjoy their full measure of civil rights? I’m not so certain.

Although the clownish Fred Phelps is a source of embarrassment and ridicule—even among those who agree with the context of his message, if not its delivery—we still must contend with such moronicisms as the nameless—and tasteless—L.A. preacher who heckled Gay Pride marchers last month, yelling “The penis doesn’t belong in the anus,” and “Stop eating your poo-poo.”

I can chuckle at the absurdity of it all, from the safety of my soapbox here in the gayest gay village of them all—until I remember that this idiot-of-the-cloth is using the same hyperbolic language that pastors in African nations use to whip up the tribes (so to speak) against LGBT persons. The difference, of course, between Rev. Moron (U.S.) and Rev. Moron (Uganda) is that you and I can drown our delicate sensibilities at Matty’s or Bill’s, while the reality on the ground for Africans is— horrifically—different. To say that “Matthew Shepard Lives” is to very accurately portray the daily dangers with which LGBT persons live in Africa, the continent that birthed us all.

One doesn’t need to travel to the Dark Continent to hear this kind of bigotry and hatred spouted at an unsuspecting audience. Recall the case of North Carolina pastor Sean Harris, who advised, “Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok?” This is 2012, not 1992, but the vitriol is still real. You would think that Matt Shepard had never lived. Or died.

I’m not certain I’ve gotten any less squeamish in the intervening years about outing someone—celebrity or otherwise—against their will. But I know now what Shane knew then: In the big picture, and for the “greater good,” Anderson Cooper coming out last week will add to the lasting impact of the way society at large views LGBT persons. Every person who doesn’t come out sends a message that there is something inherently wrong with being who—and what— we are. I cannot help but wonder if the hypothetical coming out during the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s of that era’s biggest closeted names might not have had a profound impact on a future we now view as the past.

Matthew Shepard might wonder the same thing.