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South Bend Mayor: Why Coming Out Matters

06/16/2015 03:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016
South Bend Tribune

This post originally appeared on the South Bend Tribune

Any day now, the Supreme Court will issue a decision on same-sex marriage that will directly affect millions of Americans. It comes at a time of growing public acceptance and support for equal rights. But no matter what the Court does, issues of equality are hardly settled across the country. Today, it remains legal in most parts of Indiana (though not South Bend) to fire someone simply for being gay, and bullying still contributes to tragically high suicide rates among LGBT teens.

Still, our country is headed in a clear overall direction, and swiftly. Today, 57 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage; just 15 years ago, the reverse was true. Experiences with friends or family members coming out have helped millions of Americans to see past stereotypes and better understand what being gay is -- and is not. Being gay isn't something you choose, but you do face choices about whether and how to discuss it. For most of our history, most Americans had no idea how many people they knew and cared about were gay.

My high school in South Bend had nearly a thousand students. Statistically, that means that several dozen were gay or lesbian. Yet, when I graduated in 2000, I had yet to encounter a single openly LGBT student there. That's far less likely to be the case now, as more students come to feel that their families and community will support and care for them no matter what. This is a tremendously positive development: young people who feel support and acceptance will be less likely to harm themselves, and more likely to step into adulthood with mature self-knowledge.

I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay. It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognize that it's just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am.

Putting something this personal on the pages of a newspaper does not come easy. We Midwesterners are instinctively private to begin with, and I'm not used to viewing this as anyone else's business.

But it's clear to me that at a moment like this, being more open about it could do some good. For a local student struggling with her sexuality, it might be helpful for an openly gay mayor to send the message that her community will always have a place for her. And for a conservative resident from a different generation, whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn't know anyone gay, perhaps a familiar face can be a reminder that we're all in this together as a community.

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