In June 1975, I’d finished my first year of law school, and I was clerking in a law office in Connecticut. I was sitting in a conference room in a big meeting about a construction contract when the phone rang. One of the senior partners picked it up. He looked over at me, and with a quizzical look, handed me the receiver.
It was my friend Hal from San Francisco. He told me he wanted me to come to the gay parade in New York in a couple of days. I started to say that I couldn’t talk about it at that particular moment. Hal said that if I didn’t promise to come, he’d call the firm back and tell them their summer clerk was a big homo. I knew he was bluffing — well I was pretty sure. But I promised anyway.
I borrowed my mother’s enormous brown Buick station wagon and drove to Christopher Street. I met Hal near Sheridan Square, as he’d asked. He told me we were going to be marching with the “Bronx United Gays.” There were four of us—two lesbians I hadn’t met, Hal and me.
The parade was very late getting started (some things never change). Finally, we started up Sixth Avenue (in those days, the parade went uptown from Greenwich Village to Central Park — way too long, but as I said, some things never change).
I was terrified of course; terrified that we’d wind up on the front page of Monday’s Daily News, terrified that somehow everyone or just anyone I knew would find out, terrified that people would be disappointed in me.
Then it happened. Just as we got to 34th Street, someone shouted out from the sidewalk: “Matt Coles!” Oh God. The dean from the law school? One of my mother’s bridge partners? My Sister?
It was Diane, the first woman I’d ever been seriously involved with. I looked into her eyes and said hi. She stepped off the curb and took my arm. When I’d broken up with Diane, I hadn’t had the courage to tell her that I was gay. I gave her a mountain of nonsense to explain, all designed to make sure she wasn’t hurt. But of course, she was.
As she took my arm, she smiled and said: “Well, this explains a lot, doesn’t it. Mind if I march with you?” No, I did not mind. As we made our way up Sixth Avenue arm in arm, the load of fear I’d been carrying with me lifted off my shoulders, and I began to have a really good time. I chanted “out of the closets and into the streets” at the crowd, and meant it. At 53rd Street, we started chanting “out of the Hilton and into the streets.” The crowd loved it, and so did we.
I was exhausted (and hoarse) later that evening when I pointed the big Buick toward Bruckner Boulevard and Connecticut. As I drove, I began to realize for the first time that it is so much easier to be out than it is to be closeted. As I thought back, I couldn’t quite remember why coming out had seemed such a hard thing to do.
I’d started the coming out process about a year and a half earlier, and I still had a ways to go. I won’t say it all went well; I will say that after that summer, I never looked back and wondered if I was doing the right thing.
One thing we know for sure about America: while we need to change the law, we won’t have real change unless people accept it. We don’t have to convince America to love us; we do have to convince America that equality and fairness mean we can’t be treated differently, not as parents, not as children, not in school, not in the workplace, not as lovers and partners.
We also know for sure that the only way we’ll convince America to accept equality for LGBT people is if we are not only out to our families, but honest with them about who we are, what we want out of life, and how inequality makes it hard for us.
To become equal, we’ll need the help of legislatures, courts and allies. But they’ll be there if we do the person to person work. Only we have the power to make ourselves equal. So I’m writing to ask everyone who reads this not just to be out with family and friends, but to talk to them and make them understand what it means to be gay in the USA in 2008 (straight people, you too; if you’re reading this, you know enough to start a conversation as well). It’s the one essential thing.
And thanks to Hal and Diane, for helping me open up that summer long ago.