In September 1978, two months before fellow supervisor Dan White assassinated him, Harvey Milk debated California State Sen. John Briggs at suburban Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, Calif. The topic was Proposition 6, a measure that required school districts to fire gay teachers or anyone who supported gay rights. Seated in the gymnasium amongst a decidedly straight audience, my partner and I were impressed with how warmly Harvey was received. He brought down the house with one-liners such as "if it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you'd sure have a hell of a lot more nuns running around."
After the debate we invited Harvey to join us for a much-needed drink at the only gay bar in Walnut Creek, The Hub. Upon our arrival, he was greeted by the crowd as a conquering hero and was asked to speak. This is what he said:
Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.
Those prophetic words ring as true today as they did 35 years ago. There can be no doubt that coming out has been the major driving force in the long march toward equality for LGBT Americans. The evidence is overwhelming. From the AIDS pandemic through the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," visibility turned the tide. The same is true with marriage equality.
Most LGBT people will tell you that coming out is the most difficult thing they have ever done. There is fear of rejection by those you love the most. Once you start, you can never turn back. The closet door will be off its hinges, and the process will continue for the rest of your life.
As a college freshman, Will Portman had the courage to tell his father, a very anti-gay Republican politician, the truth about his sexual orientation. He did not know what to expect. The streets and shelters of Los Angeles and other major cities are filled with young LGBT people who have been thrown out of their homes by parents who usually cite religious reasons for turning their backs on their children. Suicide rates for LGBT teens are up to three times that of their non-LGBT peers. Yet Will was true to himself, and I suspect that like most of us who have taken this step, he will feel a tremendous weight lifted off his shoulders.
The actions of Sen. Rob Portman also demonstrate courage. He did what we would expect all good parents to do. He told Will that he loved him unconditionally and then reconsidered his views on sexual orientation. He has been blasted by the right as a traitor, and by the left as not really caring about the rights of LGBT people until he had some skin in the game. Sen. Portman could have easily remained silent about his son's coming out and sexual orientation. That inaction would have been politically expedient for a conservative member of the Republican Party. Instead, he took to the air and wrote an op-ed in one leading Ohio paper explaining why he had changed his position on marriage equality.
This month the United State Supreme Court will hear arguments in two of the most important cases in the history of gay rights, both dealing with marriage equality. Justices of the Supreme Court may seem aloof and not connected to the public, but beneath those black robes they are as human as the rest of us. Like Sen. Portman, Justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Roberts are unabashedly conservative. Now is the time for their LGBT family members, friends, colleagues and law clerks to follow the example of young Will Portman and the admonition of Harvey Milk: "Burst down those closet doors once and for all, and stand up and start to fight." Just one of these conservative justices may have a Sen. Portman moment.