Many people choose Pride month to come out. Pride, with all the LGBTQ events, parades, history and general conviviality, feels like a safe space for many — regardless of age — to declare their sexual orientation or gender identity. Throughout June there is a general ambiance of community and closeness. Pride month is a good time to announce who you are and to reveal your authentic self to those who matter most: family, friends, colleagues, that person you fell in love with but were afraid to tell your true feelings to — everyone who you want to know the real you.
The way we talk about coming out is as if it is a one-time event. It isn’t.
I came out to 17 people so far this week, and as I write this, it’s only Wednesday. Coming out is a continual and ongoing process for LGBTQ people that involves everyone we meet who we want, or need, to know who we are. I have been navigating the healthcare of my critically ill wife for the past few weeks. Which has meant declaring myself as her spouse to a myriad of strangers to whom I will entrust her care, her very life, every day.
The responses have varied. Living in a large city means one is more likely to deal with enlightened people. But nearly everyone to whom I have stated my relationship to her has said “what” or “uh…okay” after my statement. Coping with a health crisis is arduous enough. Having to worry about the homophobia of those in the healthcare system we are navigating is even more difficult.
The ongoing process of coming out and being an openly LGBTQ person in our own lives can be exhausting and fraught — like our very first coming out, it may not always go well. And the context in which we must come out can feel anything but the warm and safe confines of our own LGBTQ Pride community.
As a life-long lesbian and gender nonconforming queer activist, I came out for the first time decades ago, as a student at the Philadelphia High School for Girls — Girl’s High to Philadelphians. I was too young and naive to know that it wasn’t a good idea to make such a declaration. I was expelled for being an out lesbian from the school that my mother, grandmother and sister all attended.
The school principal, Dr.Ruth Klein, called my parents to inform them that I was a bad moral influence on the other 3,000 girls at the school and was no longer welcome. That the school was rife with lesbian students other than myself and that there were lesbian teachers at the school who had taught my mother 20 years earlier didn’t matter. My open lesbianism made me a threat, and that threat had to be removed.
My parents were mortified. I was grounded while they figured out what to do with me. What school would take me now? I had previously been expelled from the Catholic girls school I’d attended for my civil rights activism which led to my slapping a nun who used the n-word in front of me. My parents had pleaded that I be allowed to graduate from eighth grade with my class — a class in which I was academically first — and Mother Superior relented. But it left me with a tarnished record. I would not be welcome back at that school to attend high school there.
The decision was made to put me in the adolescent unit of a local psychiatric hospital for conversion therapy. A common practice in the late 1970s, this now-discredited pseudo-science utilized aversion therapies, medication and talk therapies that were, in combination, alleged to alter one’s sexual orientation and make you heterosexual.
The treatment was akin to torture and didn’t work. It did, however, create life-long trauma. There are, according to a Williams Institute study, about a million LGB adults who have undergone conversion therapy. That report showed that LGB people who have undergone conversion therapy almost twice as likely to attempt suicide.
I was one of those people, and so were several friends who had undergone that same treatment I had at that same Philadelphia hospital. We all had college-educated leftist parents who wanted to do what was best for us and believed, because this was such a popular psychiatric treatment, that the “phase” of our queerness could be changed in a few weeks by skilled doctors.
My experience with conversion therapy made me a life-long opponent and activist against the practice. Yet the perils of being an out queer or trans person can lead people to pursue conversion therapy even as adults, and there continue to be programs that allege they will change one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, even though the UN itself has signaled that conversion therapy is wrong and should be banned. Conversion therapy is still legal in most states, including Pennsylvania, and fewer than a dozen countries have banned the practice.
During Pride 2020, the UN released a report in which it stated at the UN Human Rights Council, “‘Conversion therapy’ is built on the false premise that it can alter the sexual orientation of gender diverse people, and many more countries around the world need to recognize its “dehumanizing” and deeply corrosive impact.”
That conversion therapy continues to exist so many years after my own experience is frankly criminal. But also problematic is the fact that it is still so difficult to be openly queer or trans in 2022. Literally every day the GOP, fueled and funded by extremist political and religious groups, is pushing policy and laws that are geared toward stifling and subverting LGBTQ identities. The midterms have been driven by GOP politicians using LGBTQ people as a talking point.
I have written a dozen articles on anti-LGBTQ laws that Republicans are pushing in state legislatures. I wrote about how, with the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage could be next.
I wrote about how as we enter Pride month this year, we have to reevaluate the purpose of this celebration with our community’s rights on the line.
This is where we are more than a half century post-Stonewall. LGBTQ people are still America’s second-class citizenry. Pride actually reminds us, even as we celebrate our LGBTQ lives, that we still aren’t equal, that every day half the people in this country and the politicians who represent them want to force us back into the closet and deny our existence.
There should not be so many obstacles, so many years after Stonewall, that keep us from living our full and authentic lives. So as we celebrate, we also must be mindful that the very things LGBTQ activists were fighting for in 1969, we are still fighting for today.