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Our First Election Out of the Closet

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Alamy
Alamy

For most of history, gay people have been invisible. Gay men and women have hidden our desire in order to protect ourselves from laws and cultures that forbad our basic instincts. It is awesome and confusing to live in a time when society is figuring out how to treat us as something other than criminals or psychotics, and we're figuring out how to live in the open.

This presidential election has been just as awesome and confusing. For the first time in history, an American presidential candidate came out about his support of us. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and even Obama in 2008 officially declared that they opposed same-sex marriage. Conventional sentiment was that it was political suicide not to. All of them gave us a wink and a nod, subtle gestures that were supposed to let us know that they were cool but just couldn't actually come out and say that they accepted us.

And that is what gay people live with, an understanding that we can live but must accept humiliations: others saying things are "gay" when they don't like them, mocking our voices and constantly reminding us that our sex lives are somewhat preposterous and disgusting. You can live with and love someone, but you have to call her your roommate in front of Grandma. You can have a ceremony, just not in the family home where all your brothers got married. You can register with the state, but we sure as hell aren't going to call it "marriage." We can exist, but if we shove our gayness in anyone's face, we will be punished.

The subtleties of the indignities we face are tied to the subtlety with which we handle them. A thousand times a day, gay people have the chance to deny their difference to fit in with society. Women and racial minorities are physically distinct. They can't hide their marginalized status. Gays can and do. It is our best defense and our greatest weakness.

Gay people are really bad at getting politically organized, and one of the reasons is that we don't like shoving our gayness in other people's faces. Heterosexuals probably think that last sentence is preposterous: Oh! Those parades full of naked men and dykes on bikes! Rainbow flags and HRC stickers! Gay people can't shut up about being gay! Actually, no. Gays spend most of our lives shutting up about it. It's just that because our status is relatively invisible, we can only make it visible through some kind of action. Holding hands, speaking up, putting on a sticker -- each of these is a little transgression. For gay people, unlike for visible minorities, every fight is a choice.

This election, I've spent a lot of time on Facebook reading posts by people who know and love me and who are supporting Mitt Romney. I've had to ask myself whether I should send them a message or post something to remind them that Romney's policies will affect me very directly, that the vague "gays" who are spoken of include me. And in any number of situations, I've lacked the courage to do so. I've allowed my friends to "accept" me but not my homosexuality. Some of my gay friends openly requested that anyone they knew who supported Romney defriend them. They demanded solidarity from their straight friends. They shoved their gayness in their friends' faces, and that is awesome.

But there is a bigger problem: The fundamental reason that gay people have been bad at organizing politically is that we are terrible at demanding solidarity from ourselves.

Gay people have never been treated as an important demographic in a presidential campaign. At a time when our rights are most directly politically at issue, no question was asked at any of the presidential debates that related to us remotely. The presumption is that we do not matter because we are an insignificant, small minority and that we are voting for Democrats anyway. Neither of these things is true.

A recent Gallup poll, the broadest ever conducted, found that around 3.4 percent of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. American Jews, a highly contested demographic, are 2.2 percent of the country. In 2008, 27 percent of openly gay or lesbian Americans voted for John McCain. McCain valiantly fought for the support of Jews and only got 22 percent of their vote. Republicans don't fight for our votes because we give them a decent chunk of it when they're actively demonizing us. It's self-destructive, and it's got to stop.

While we are asking our friends and loved ones to support us, we must be asking ourselves to support us. Gay men and women can argue that they are voting based on other issues, but what they are really saying is that their own civil rights don't matter. This is an act of impressive cognitive dissonance, but our years in the closet make gay people masters of cognitive dissonance.

We are used to turning our homosexuality off: in the workplace, when we go home for Thanksgiving, when we're anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. Sometimes we turn it off in our own head because it's hard to deal with. It's not fun to be reminded that you no longer have the same values as your parents, and it's not fun to be reminded that you can no longer be the true image of masculinity, so you turn on your homosexuality when you want to go to a gay bar, then you turn it off when you vote for Romney. This cognitive dissonance is a strategy to get through life without constantly being reminded of our socially inferior status, but it is also an act of profound self-sabotage.

But when we support an anti-gay candidate, we are not just betraying ourselves. We are betraying our community. We're screwing with Ellen's rights and Zach Quinto's dignity. We're being very mean to all the folks who were nice enough to have sex with us over all these years. And when we vote for Mitt Romney, we're ignoring John Lauber, the kid Mitt attacked in prep school because his hair was a bit too faggy.

We live in awesome and confusing times. For the first time in history, gay people have a president who is openly, unreservedly on our side. We're not used to this. We're used to hiding to protect ourselves: hiding externally to protect ourselves from the hostility of others, and hiding in our own heads from the constant reminders of a world that rejects us. But times have changed, and we've got to grow up. President Obama has come out of the closet; he supports us. We have to come out in support of ourselves, too. It is rough, and it will present hard questions and hard situations, but we must take our fight seriously. Whatever the results of this election, we must keep struggling with our laws, our communities, our families and ourselves. We must shove our gayness in others' faces, and we must shove our gayness in our own faces. We are the first generation of gays to really be living out in the open. Figuring out how to do it is not easy, but it's worth it.