Mark Segal

On Coming Out & Activism

Filed By Mark Segal | July 08, 2012 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: Anderson Cooper, celebrity gossip, coming out of the closet, LGBT activism, LGBT History

Closet-Door.jpgOn Monday I went to my Facebook page (MarkSegalPGN) and asked what I should write about this week. It's a tactic I've used several times when I can't decide on a topic and, I must admit, my Facebook friends come through with some interesting ideas, many of which actually get used here.

Most this round wanted a discussion of the need for celebrities like Anderson Cooper to come out. So I'll start there. In the early days of the gay-rights struggle, there was a line that went, "If everyone who was gay came out today, there'd be no need for the gay-rights movement." Put simply, we are your brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, boy/girl next door. There is not a segment of the population where we do not exist and those who are afraid of us don't know us, so the more of us who come out, the more educated Americans will be. When someone like Cooper comes out, it evokes conversation and with that conversation you might hear, "He doesn't look like one of them," or "Gee, I didn't know they were smart."

All of that might sound silly, but those conversations do take place and they are good conversations to have. Conversations start a process. It is silence that kills. So each time a celebrity comes out, there is talk. In the case of Cooper, it might be going in the right direction. Imagine if it were someone with a negative image.

I want to also acknowledge and give credit to Cooper. He's done an incredible amount of reporting from countries that are not gay-friendly, to say the least. While he's put himself on the line before, he's much more out there now. From someone who has reported from the Middle East as an openly gay journalist (I reported on Lebanon's first LGBT organization from Beirut) to Anderson Cooper: It can be done, and two thumbs up.

On a side note, many years ago there was a young conservative writer just off the boat from Britain who was setting the journalism profession ablaze. The surprise came when, in a newspaper interview, he announced he was gay. That writer was Andrew Sullivan, and Sullivan was the one who received and published Cooper's coming-out letter.

Coming out is a personal decision, one that each of us deserves to make on our own. We cannot know what issues others have to consider: Family, friends and coworkers are issues only each of us know ourselves. But think of this: While a celebrity coming out reaches many lives faintly, your coming out could reach hundreds of coworkers, family and friends in a more personal way. Many know that Cooper is gay, but do they actually know him personally? Your friends, family and coworkers really know you for who you are. Your coming out is more important not necessarily for society, but for you and your self-image.

The award for most interesting question goes to Peter Kourahanis, who wrote, "Should '70s-style gay activism play a role in today's modern-day gay-rights movement?" That brought a smile, then I felt sorry we hadn't done our job of teaching history to our own community. The answer is rather simple: We are where we are thanks to those activists of the '70s - and let's not forget those activists from the 1960s and even the 1950s.

But the reality is that many of those activists from the '70s and '80s have become part of the political or bureaucratic system as openly LGBT people. They have risen through the ranks and are forging many of the successes of today from within the very system they were fighting in the past. A good deal of the federal changes have been shepherded by those activists: All of the major national organizations got their start with '70s and '80s activists. It's almost like asking, should we still be using the techniques of Martin L. King Jr. of the 1960s? Or Gloria Steinem of the 1970s? A good activist or a community of progress should always have a book full of tactics. And history has proven to be the best teacher of progress.

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