R.J. Alcalá and I never would have imagined, in the fall of 1970 as we sat at my kitchen table kicking around possible titles for a proposed gay liberation newspaper, that it would become, by 1978, the oldest continuously published LGBT publication in New York State, a distinction that it holds to this day. After 42 years, I have no recollection of the rejected titles, but when he came up with The Empty Closet both of us instantly knew we had a winner.
Until that time, our world was the "closet," and the only gay publications we knew at that point were right there in the closet with us: furtive magazines, sent to subscribers in plain brown wrappers, consisting of articles either unsigned or attributed to fictitious names.The Empty Closet would be different. We would come out in it. We would show the world that we could come out without catastrophic consequences or whatever we feared that had kept us invisible and isolated. What we were doing felt revolutionary, dangerous, and exhilarating. It was all of those things.
In the beginning of course, The Empty Closet did have authors and staff members who were too fearful to sign their names, and we too sent out issues in unmarked envelopes, but the Closet was always available in public places for anyone to read. Gradually, names appeared, advertisers came on board, and the gay community collectively came out in Rochester, New York, a city with a rich history of activism and social change.
The earliest years of the gay liberation movement coincided with my own personal coming out. I needed to shout from the rooftops. I made appearances in the media. I founded the Speakers' Bureau, which arranged for experts on gay issues to address classes and organizations. I could not bear the silence and the ignorance. I needed the world to know what it was like to be me. Coming out was the most important and liberating thing I ever did. After the first decade or so, I finally felt integrated with the world at large.
The Empty Closet meanwhile grew from a student publication at the University of Rochester to a community-based newspaper. It gained wider circulation. The quality of its journalism rose with the hiring of professional staff. More and more advertisers wanted space in its pages. The size of the visible gay community in Rochester increased. Dozens of gay and gay-friendly organizations appeared providing more news for its readers. Today, a person reading the Closet can get an immediate sense of our vibrant and integrated gay population.
So much has changed since those early days. I never thought I would live to see legal gay marriage and gay families who are accepted into their wider community, let alone a lesbian U.S. Senator, an openly gay Episcopalian Bishop, or gay television personalities who host their own shows. There has been so much positive change, so much coming out, that there are days when I can almost believe our liberation has been complete.
The other side of the coin, however, remains bleak indeed. Every social change spurs a backlash, and we've had plenty of those. Now that dialog is happening out in the open, anti-gay voices are also being heard, loud and clear. Countless young LGBT people are committing suicide because they were bullied or exposed to hateful rhetoric. The messages of reactionary religious and political leaders give gay bashers permission to bully, injure, torture, and kill gay people. Who among us has not known a gay person who committed suicide? Who among us does not know a gay person who has been physically attacked or murdered? Lately, largely due to the instantaneous and wide-ranging nature of media, we are aware of the epidemic proportions of these tragedies.
I was deeply disheartened to see the full-page ad in our local daily newspaper purchased by Billy Graham in this recent election season, reminding voters to vote for traditional values, including marriage between a man and a woman. How can respected leaders not know what harm such admonitions will enable? I later read that these full-page ads appeared in newspapers all over the country.
I grew up in an era when I never heard words like homosexual, lesbian, or gay. The publication of The Empty Closet and the social movement it represents brought those words out into the public dialog, and I believe that was a good thing. Despite unspoken messages that we were unacceptable human beings, we were able to talk about who we really were, but today's youth is constantly exposed to blatantly graphic and widely disseminated expressions of hate. This backlash presents new and different challenges. I can't help but wonder what kind of strength is required today for those LGBT persons grappling with their place in the world.
The struggle, in other words, is not over. The Empty Closet continues to represent sanity and liberation in this era when the voice of anti-gay bigotry invents ever more public ways of being heard. We needed this paper then, and we need it now.