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Michelangelo Signorile: Breaking Down the Closet

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June 19, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, was an incredible day to be the host of an international radio program. It was a privilege to take calls from lesbian and gay listeners across California who were on their way to get married or had just tied the knot. They braved the traffic, the lines and the protesters, some of whom tried to drown out their ceremonies, but really nothing could dampen this day. The callers told us their experiences, bringing tears to many an eye. For many it was the first time they went public about anything, the personal and the political all wrapped up in one. They shared it all with so many others across an entire continent.

Electrified by what they were hearing from those in California, people called in from just about every state and province in the United States and Canada cheering on the Californians, sharing in the collective experience. Moderating the discussions and celebrating along, the event had me thinking about so many things, taking me back a bit, and also looking at how much we had achieved, as well as all the work we have ahead of us.

Here we were in 2008 celebrating the right to marry in the most populous state in the U.S., a state where most other rights had been achieved for GLBT people. And we were sharing the experience on an international media forum dedicated to our own issues. Our blogs, our web sites, our Internet and satellite radio networks, our cable and satellite TV channels, have all become our community centers, our bulletin boards and our campfires. We gathered around from every nook and cranny of America on the show Tuesday, connecting in a way we hadn’t dreamed possible 15 years ago. And we discussed the reality of a right we hadn’t even dreamed 15 years ago would be possible today, either. Gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people from the far reaches of Montana and Maine were one with the Angelenos and the San Franciscans. The euphoria was unstoppable.

And yet, for the vast majority of us, we were outsiders looking in at California. We’d been through Canada making marriage legal as well as the difficult but successful battle in Massachusetts, the culmination of which was only a year back, and which certainly paved the way for California. But that still leaves tens of of millions of us without this right. Moreover, for people who called to the program from Oklahoma and Alabama and Texas and Florida and most other states, they still do not have basic protections against discrimination. They can be thrown out of their homes or their jobs on a whim and can be discriminated against in public accommodations. Hate groups thrive throughout this country and the bigots continue to spew their vile ideologies. Gay-bashing and violence are very real threats, even in California, where 15 year-old Lawrence King was was shot and killed in a classroom in Oxnard, killed this year by another student at school simply because of his gender expression and perceived sexual orientation.

And even marriage for gays and lesbians in California, the right people exercised yesterday, is under assault as a ballot measure to ban marriage will be brought before voters in November.

So the work to be done is as a monumental as all that been achieved. But yesterday made me realize once again that it is the really simple things that take on the big challenges. Yesterday brought me back to the ‘outing’ wars of the early 90s, which focused on the ultimate power we have to change society simply by going public and urging each other, including those in positions of prominence in society, to be out. The debates focused attention on the power of the closet and the power of breaking it down.

As people across California — including high profile people like Ellen DeGeneres and state and local politicians, but also just average, every day people — stand up and get married, they are creating visibility, coming out to the world in the glare of the media spotlight. As as the public sees the thousands of people behind this movement — many of them their own friends and family — their opposition to what they believed about same-sex marriage or any other issues regarding gay rights softens. The photos, the television interviews, the appearances by activists bringing humanity to the issue, is going to help to battle against the ballot measure in California. And it’s going to go a long way toward breaking down stereotypes and smashing myths across the country.

During gay pride in June 2008, as extraordinary a year as it might seem, it appears it’s the same basic issues that are the weapons we each use in our own lives every day: Visibility, telling our stories and coming out.

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