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Being Gay: It's Who I Am

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The most common criticism of the gay movement by straight people has been that it makes a public issue out of something that ought to remain private. "I don't have any problem with gays," the refrain goes, "but why do they have to be so, well, in your face about it?"

Of course, in an ideal world, sexuality would be a private matter. But it can't be so long as any of us are denied our rights because of our sexual orientation. That's what led me, a middle-aged, Jewish labor leader to decide to come out.

Coming to grips with my sexuality has been a difficult journey. Like anyone else born in the years before Stonewall, I grew up at a time when being gay was regarded as a sickness, a deviance, an aberration, and even a crime -- something of which to be ashamed. I was convinced, like others, that if I wanted to get ahead in my professional life, I felt I couldn't afford to acknowledge my sexuality.

It's a choice I made as a young lawyer in a large Hartford, Connecticut firm in the 1970s. I was convinced that the firm's partners would tell me that they didn't have a problem with my orientation, but that they didn't think their clients would feel comfortable with my being gay -- "not that there's anything wrong with it." Like millions of other gay men and lesbians, I learned to compartmentalize my life and built a firewall separating who I was at work from who I was. It came at a staggering cost, not only to me, but also to others.

Because I didn't let many in on the secret that I'm gay, there are people I've known all my life who have never really gotten to know me. More than that, though, it also robbed them of the opportunity to discover what I already knew: that gay people are everywhere, including the labor movement.

So why come out now? A lot it has to do with the battle in Albany to win Marriage Equality legislation. Assuring that gays and lesbians have the same opportunity to marry as other New Yorkers do is a fundamental question of civil rights. It's about whether we're going to be a state whose laws protect only some of us, or a state whose laws are written for all of us. It's shocking that, in 2009, this should even be an issue at all.

Though I could have continued to privately support the campaign for marriage equality by writing checks to Empire State Pride Agenda, I'm convinced that the most important contribution I can make is to remind legislators that gay and lesbian New Yorkers are in every walk of life and, yes, some of us are even labor leaders.

I have always believed that the only way to challenge injustice is by organizing people for change. That's why I first became involved in the labor movement. But change also requires being honest with each other and ourselves. For me, that means recognizing that the time has long passed for me to step forward and say: "yes, I'm gay." I'm sure to some that may seem "in your face." To me, though, it's being who I am.

Stuart Appelbaum is president of the 100,000 - member Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union (RWDSU). In addition to that he also currently serves as a vice president of the New York State AFL-CIO and the New York City Central Labor Council.