LGBT Rights Come Out Into the Open

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Over the last two weeks, I have experienced two events that have shown the distinct changes the LGBT community has undergone over the past several decades – especially on the issue of “coming out.”

The first event was the National Equality March. Tens of thousands of pro-LGBT equality demonstrators marched past the White House and toward the Capitol building to demand action from President Obama and the members of Congress in support of LGBT equality. The second event was a much smaller and quieter affair, a group tour of the history of Dupont Circle, which is a neighborhood that continues to be the center of gay nightlife in DC.

The march was striking. It was full of vibrant young people of all sexual orientations, including many wonderful straight allies of all religious beliefs and races. This diverse group marched down Pennsylvania Avenue chanting, among other things, “Obama, Obama! Let mamma marry mamma!” or “Gay, straight, black, white, marriage is a civil right!” This stood in direct contrast to the second event, the history tour, which was led mostly by older gay men and filled with stories about survival, growth and sex. This contrast reminded me of the immense progress of the past 40 or so years and the profound changes in the coming out process.

Before the Stonewall Riots and the emergence of the AIDS crisis, coming out for many gay people, especially gay-identifying men, was more an issue of community, survival and breaking away from the past. At the time, oppressive laws were still in the books and LGBT individuals from that earlier generation who wanted to be open and honest could only go to bars or clubs that often weren’t operating legally. In the case of sex, many of those LGBT individuals, especially gay men, could only find pleasure cruising in public spaces or unsanitary bathhouses and clubs.

Times have changed, however, and with the enactment of laws and court cases protecting LGBT individuals in the last 40 years, we’ve seen a change in the coming out process. Instead of moving to the city, coming out and finding a safe community to be in, it seems that many LGBT individuals now come out just to state who they are. It has also led many more LGBT individuals to come out at a younger age.

Just recently, I read a New York Times magazine article on how more students are coming out in middle school. The article profiled young teenagers in both urban and rural areas, and from both wealthy and working class families. The article also pointed out that with rising acceptance of LGBT individuals, many of these LGBT teens are coming out with the support of friends or families. Sometimes instead of going to specific places to find a community, find people to date or hook up with or even meet openly LGBT individuals, many of these teens are growing up within existing networks of friends and family.

While it’s important to keep up the fight to advance LGBT equality, it’s also important to look back through our history to see the progress that has been made. The past few decades have shown immense improvement in terms of rights, acceptance and, of course, the coming out process. As we move forward with the passage of stronger hate crimes legislation and change the marriage debate with the defeat of Maine’s Question 1, let’s also remember and celebrate the LGBT community’s progress on this 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Jon Wong is a former UC Irvine student. He graduated from UC Irvine in 2009 and can be reached at jonwong87@gmail.com.

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