Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Coming Out

The recent story about Ken Mehlman, formerly George Bush's campaign manager and one-time chairman of the RNC, announcing that he's gay has caused me to reflect.  Some people have doubted his assertion that he didn't know he was gay.  I didn't know I was trans - or rather, I knew but I didn't want to know.  It was a thought in my mind, never consciously acknowledged, free-floating like some scary shadowy thing in the depths of the ocean.  And even though I never made a living out of demonizing GLBT people and denying their human rights, I used to believe a lot of transphobic stuff.

Mehlman wants people to "understand" the plight he was in, and I do understand.  I know how hard it is to come out.  How terrifying it is to come out.  I know that he was afraid of losing his livelihood, his friends, and the love of his family.  I know that he may even have feared for his life.  I can believe that he believed that homosexuality is wrong.

Nor do I envy him for coming out in public.  It's not because of the anger and disdain he's gotten from gay people - he deserves that.  It's because coming out is a long process.  First you admit it to yourself.  Then you think about telling other people.  Then you actually do start telling people, which is a huge step, but it's not the end.  Probably Mehlman will continue to adjust his views.

In fact, the stages of coming out are kind of like the well-known "five stages of grief:"  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  Maybe they don't go in the same order.  Denial comes first, obviously . . . but I'm inclined to think that bargaining is an essential stage, both before and after the official announcement.  Mehlman says "I'm gay but I'm still a Republican."  That's bargaining.  He's trying to compromise with the world, and especially, I suspect, with his personal and professional associates.  He's saying "You can still approve of me, I haven't changed all that much!" 

And it's true that he's still the same person.  It's true that all of us make compromises with society between our desires and what is socially acceptable.  Many people, for example, work at jobs they hate when they'd really rather run off to Tahiti and paint naked people.  Maybe they compromise by covering their bedroom walls with Gauguin prints.  But for GLBT people it's a lot harder to negotiate our social compromise, because until recently everything we want to do, everything we are, was completely forbidden.  The answer was always "No!" and there really weren't any valid tradeoffs.  In a lot of cases the answer is still no.  You can't do that, you can't be that, no sane person would want to do that, you must be sick.  But we're trying.

One last note:  when I compare coming out to the stages of grief, I'm not saying it's a bad thing.  It's just that no one likes change.

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