The history of the day goes back to 1988, as the one-year anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. However, I would argue that the history of the day goes back much further than 1988. As we’ve explored in past articles, the coming out process, just like civil disobedience and political uprisings, has gone through considerable change throughout the years.
But my message today isn’t just another history lesson, but more of a warning; a challenge if you will. Speaking from my own perspective, someone who has been out now for nearly 25 years, I will sometimes find coming out stories to be tedious. If you identify as LGBT, you likely have multiple stories of your own coming out to immediate family, extended family, friends, coworkers – the list goes on and the process continues for many years. Even after 25 years, I still find myself coming out at unexpected times – when someone makes an assumption and asks about my wife (please, can’t you tell?!).
The challenge, then, is that we never take this process for granted. At this point in 2011, we have out, and open, people at so many different levels of society. Some frontiers are just beginning to crack – major sports, Hollywood….the military. The idea, the concept of coming out, can seem so routine, so boring. We can’t let it get to that point.
I recently challenged someone who wanted to push for another march through one of our progressive neighborhoods on National Coming Out Day because he believed it would garner more awareness of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. I appreciate the enthusiasm, but I believe that the act of coming out is already a signature political event, put in the most personal context. The LGBT community has won more allies and supporters by the simple act of individuals coming out to friends, family, and coworkers, than through all the political rallies and marches combined. A rally or march can whip up the troops – or our opponents. But one person making the statement “I’m gay…lesbian…bisexual…transgender…queer”, breaks down the most barriers, and builds the most bridges, on that connected, one to one basis.
In the years since 1988, we’ve seen an incredible impact on political discourse through the coming out process when we measure it through one key component of a democratic government – representation. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund wasn’t even founded until 1991. It started with just a small number of individuals meeting in a room to build on the legacy of Harvey Milk by electing out individuals to public office. Today there are roughly around 500 LGBT serving office in the US, however that is a fraction of the over 500,000 elected offices in the country.
Here in Missouri, we have a handful of out elected officials. You know them: Alderman Shane Cohn, Representatives Jeanette Mott Oxford and Mike Colona, Senator Jolie Justus and a number of other local level officials around the state, including one of the few transgender office holders in the country, Jessica Orsini, City Councilperson in Centralia, Missouri.
Again, I know it may seem passé to many of us out for a number of years, but after spending time in Jefferson City and City Hall, I will testify to the impact that each of these individuals have had in breaking down barriers and misconceptions of the LGBT community.
Earlier this week, a much anticipated announcement came from U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin that she will seek the office of U.S. Senator. The U.S. Senate is still, even in 2011, a glass ceiling of sorts for the LGBT community, and I can’t think of a better individual to smash that ceiling than Baldwin, having been the first out lesbian to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
So my challenge to you, the reader, is to not take October 11th lightly. It is a part of the fabric of our community and a day to celebrate and encourage one another. Until we acknowledge ourselves – be we LGBT or allies – we won’t see full equality.
A.J. Bockelman is Executive Director for PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy group. This bi-monthly column will explore the LGBT political world and he hopes that you will join him in that exploration. He hopes you will join him for a celebration of Out Elected Officials at the Victory Fund Brunch coming up on October 23, 2011 in Saint Louis. If you would like to provide feedback or get further information, feel free to contact him at AJBockelman@PROMOonline.org.
BY: A.J. BOCKELMAN