Living in the closet may be good for your pocketbook. But it can be hell on your mental state, the lives of those around you and the future of the LGBT youth who are watching you for clues on how to live
Seems like we have been hearing a lot about people coming out lately. The most notable so far was Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the Republican Party. His announcement was not very surprising since there had been rumors floating since he stepped down from his job with the GOP. But it did cause a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides of the political aisle.
The folks on the left were outraged that he sought forgiveness, and the folks on the right were outraged … in general.
What his media event makes clear is the value and hazards of being “out.”
For Mehlman, his closet existence gave him free reign to work with homophobic bigots with impunity. He could walk the halls of power in the GOP, aiding his party and candidates in their systematic oppression of LGBT Americans and still get to go home and have sex with men.
The down side of that is now that he has come out, he has absolutely no “street cred” in the LGBT political scene and even less with the right wing.
That brings me to the whole process of coming out.
For me, it happened at least three times. First when I was 18, and having sex with a couple of high school friends. I finally got the nerve to tell my family and pretty much got a
“That’s nice,” and a pat on the head.
My mother was going through a lot at that period in her life so she just might not have understood what I was telling her.
The second time I came out was with my girlfriend. That’s right, girlfriend.
She and I had been living together for a while and I told her that I really liked having sex with men. Hey, it was 1971! She didn’t like that kind of competition. So I moved out, but in true ’70s fashion, we remained friends.
Shortly after, I came out again to my mother — and this time it took. She was a bit upset that she would not have grandchildren, but being the good Jewish mother, she promptly started trying to hook me up with her gay friends. Not a pleasant experience!
From that point on, I was never really in the closet again. The good thing about that is I rarely had to worry about keeping stories straight (pardon the pun) and didn’t need a beard. I could participate in political activism and actually work to achieve my own freedom and equality.
Moreover, contrary to common wisdom at the time, being out never hurt my career; I managed to do that independent of my sexuality.
When I see stories like Mr. Mehlman’s, I have a certain amount of sympathy. I understand how scary life outside the closet can be, yet I also know the insidious damage that being closeted can cause.
Had I stayed in my closet any longer, I might have gotten married and had children. Coming out after starting a family really hurts everyone; I know this from the experience of friends.
Staying in the closet may seem like a good career move. But aside from money, how soul crushing is it to have to hide who you are every day with your peers? It can’t be easy, and because of that I find it hard to be completely unsympathetic to Mehlman’s plight.
But I do understand why he is not being welcomed with open arms by the LGBT community.
If anything, his story should serve as an example of how not to come out of the closet. Waiting so late in your career and life makes it more difficult. What’s worse, it sets a bad example for young people who might look up to you.
What? Bad example? I sound like my mother, and occasionally that is a good thing.
Whether we know it or not, every one of us is constantly influencing the younger people around us. When we act in a manner that is patently duplicitous and self-serving, they notice.
It sends a message that it’s OK to lie and cheat in pursuit of your career or whatever other goal you have in mind.
That means there will be a whole generation of LGBT Americans who decide the closet is OK so long as you profit from it.
Whether we like it or not, all of us in the LGBT community have kids. They might not be biological family, but when they come into the community they look for role models — and we are what they see.
You don’t have to be rich or connected or politically astute or in a position of authority; they will find you. They watch how people who are already out manage their lives, and they model their own behavior on that example.
If that makes you nervous, that’s a good thing. Being conscious of how we live our lives can often make us examine our choices and our behavior. We don’t all have to be paragons of correctness and we don’t have to be in-your-face activists. We just need to be authentic in our loves and that means being who we are. It means being out.
So if you are out already, I salute you. Coming out is scary, difficult, joyous and liberating. It is a rite of passage to wholeness.
If you are struggling with the closet door, there are plenty of folks who can help you. Your actions, your example, might just save someone from the despair of living a lie.
Set an example for someone. Let them know it’s OK to be LGBT — or whoever they are. If you don’t do it for yourself, at least do it for our kids.
Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. His blog is at http://dungeondiary.blogspot.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.