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Rashad Robinson Headshot

Outside the Box

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As a young boy I loved to hide. Small in size, I climbed into boxes, cabinets, or other empty spaces, waiting for that perfect moment to jump out and surprise an unsuspecting family member. I believed I could always elicit an amusingly awkward reaction from them. But, after a while, my family knew what to expect. When I jumped out, they no longer got scared. Now, my days of hiding are over -- both the literal hiding of my childhood and the closeted days of my young adulthood.

As the 2008 election heats up, the days of hiding are over for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. This reality is made evident by the announcement of a first-of-its-kind "Gay Debate" between presidential candidates that will take place in Los Angeles on August 9.

In spite of this historic media visibility, there will no doubt be people still clinging to the old playbook with rules advising candidates to keep their support for gay and lesbian equality under wraps in order to bolster their chances of winning the White House. Fearful that their opponents will exploit anti-gay sentiment, adherents to this playbook want to stuff us into a small box and hope we don't jump out before the election.

Election season is not the only time that our community is expected to stay hidden. Some people who don't consider themselves to be anti-gay nonetheless work to prevent our visibility or would be perfectly happy to have us disappear. They imagine that there are plenty of national issues more important than creating an America where all citizens are treated equally.

However, times are changing, and it is no longer expedient to capitulate to anti-gay bigotry, especially now that our issues are being covered more and more in the media and public support for gay and lesbian equality is reaching all-time heights.

Across the country, the public is discovering that "gay issues" encompass the same challenges, aspirations, and values shared by all Americans. Like gay Americans, our allies and the media have no interest in following a playbook that demands invisibility. They realize that gay Americans want a country that provides us with the equal opportunity to protect and provide for our families and ourselves. We want to feel secure in our jobs, which means ending the frightening reality that we can still be fired in 33 states simply because we're gay. We're fighting for marriage, so that we can support our families in sickness and in health. And when the media tell our stories, we are holding them accountable to do it in a fair and accurate way.

The evidence that growing numbers of Americans are relating to and supporting issues of gay equality is abundant. In May 2007, Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs survey revealed that public understanding and support of gay and lesbian Americans has reached a new high-water mark. A 2006 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that 60 percent of respondents favor legal recognition and protection for gay and lesbian couples. More tangibly, the crushing defeats of many extreme anti-gay candidates in the 2006 election make it clear that gay-baiting politics produce increasingly diminishing returns.

One reason that gay-baiting politics fail while policies supporting gay people and their families continue to grow is because the gay community and our allies aren't taking cues from a playbook that demands our invisibility. Across the country, we are living openly and honestly. We are educating our families, friends and neighbors and transforming initial reactions of surprise and awkwardness into understanding and acceptance. There is still much to be done in order to reach full equality. However, the conversations and dialogue created through our heightened visibility are exactly what our democracy and the electoral process are all about.

Given this reality, it is imperative that each of us question the wisdom of a outdated playbook that still encourages candidates to conceal their support for gay issues. Those who support this strategy are right to appeal to a broad range of supporters, but they are wrong to want a candidate who says nothing about the inequalities endured by millions of citizens. And, they have yet to realize that when our issues jump out, they are no longer new or scary to most Americans.

For millions of gay Americans and our allies, the hiding is over. Hearts and minds change precisely because we are visible. As a result, major candidates are speaking openly to the media and to us about their varying degrees of support for equality. Tossing aside the playbook, these candidates are doing exactly what the media are becoming increasingly skilled at --­ acknowledging the lives and the stories of the people they serve.