Someone recently told me they considered themselves not to be openly gay. And it started me to wondering exactly what the expression means if it doesn’t apply to an individual who is already widely assumed to be gay by just about everybody who knows them.
The person I was talking to frequents gay bars and is well known to be gay by members of Cedar Creek Lake’s LGBT community. This person is also known to be gay by a lot of people in the Dallas crowd. And I’m pretty sure a lot of straight people also know the score as concerns this individual’s sexual orientation.
"I’m not openly anything," the person informed me when I questioned the logic of the argument. The statement surprised me, and it led to the question in my mind: "Then who is openly gay, and how does one get there?"
To answer that question, I looked back at my own life and the steps that have gotten me to where I am today. I think most people would agree I’m openly gay.
The path to being openly gay surely first starts with self-discovery. So my mind raced back to an event in my own life in 1964, almost a half-century ago.
At the age of 14, I read an Ann Landers column that included a letter from a woman who feared her son might be a "homosexual," which was a word I’d never seen or heard before. I was curious, albeit a little alarmed.
So I went to the Wichita Falls City Library to look in the giant dictionary on the wooden stand to find my answer. (The dictionary at home and the ones in high school English class had no mention of "homosexuality" in those days.)
At the library, I seem to remember, I read the words "sexual attraction to members of the same sex " just before I nearly fainted. I don’t think I was ready to be openly gay at that point.
A couple of years later, I recall seeing several members of the Mattachine Society on television, wearing dark glasses and carrying signs in front of the White House as they demanded equal rights. Considering the sunglasses they used to disguise their identities, I don’t think they were being all that open about it either, even though what they were doing was incredibly courageous.
It would be 1969 in Dallas before I ever heard the word "gay" or learned there was such a thing as a "gay bar."
After I first discovered where the gay bars were in Dallas — which to my amazement were in the Oak Lawn neighborhood where I rented my first apartment — I, at first, steered clear of them. I opted instead for the hippy bar, the old Knox Street Pub at the intersection of Knox and Travis streets. Little did I know that I had just walked in the doors of the gayest straight bar in Dallas.
Sometime during that summer of 1969 I ran into someone I knew from Wichita Falls who was a little older than me and whom I had always viewed as somewhat mysterious and interesting. One night he asked me if I had wanted to go with him to a bar that stayed open until 2 a.m.
"OK," I said. "Do you mind a gay bar?" he asked. "Why, no," I said, "As a matter of fact, I don’t." At that point, I had found a mentor and was well on my way to learning about the gay culture.
A few decades have now passed. The events in my life have included marching in the New York City gay rights parade in 1977 (a truly major step in my development), writing about the gay rights movements for mainstream and alternative newspapers, working for the Southern Poverty Law Center on a human rights project that included LGBT rights, appearing in the national print and broadcast media and writing for LGBT newspapers and magazines across the country.
Along the way, I began discussing my sexual orientation and the gay rights movement with family, friends, coworkers and others. There have been mixed results with that. Some people who have known me since I was of pre-puberty age have told me they always knew (So why didn’t let me in on it?). Others have said, "Please, we’re tired of talking about it." Others have shunned me.
In the final analysis, I would say someone is openly gay when they no longer care who knows about it, and when that person is willing to accept the consequences of whatever that acknowledgment may bring to them.
If you are still worried that someone may dislike you or harm you because of something that is an intrinsic part of who you are, you probably aren’t openly gay. Only you can make that decision, and it’s your prerogative. Maybe some people never get to that point. •
David Webb is a former staff writer for the Dallas Voice who lives on Cedar Creek Lake now. He is the author of the blog TheRareReporter.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 30, 2010.