Women Need To Come Out Too

05/12/2013 10:38 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2013

The recent announcement by Jason Collins, a professional basketball player, who came out as gay has broken another barrier in the LGBT community's quest for full equality. Jason is the first major league sports figure to come out while still playing his sport. This is an exciting step in eliminating yet another stereotype. This, along with advances for marriage equality in numerous states, is in stark juxtaposition with the growing onslaught of state restrictions on the right of women to make private health care decisions without state interference.

The parallel tracks of the LGBT community's struggle for equality and those of women have crossed in recent years, with the LGBT community scoring significant gains in protection from discrimination and more recently the right to marry. While the right of women to control their reproductive lives may have hit a high point in the years immediately after the 1973 Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision granting women a constitutional right to abortion.

We are several weeks away from Supreme Court decisions that could be similar landmarks for the LGBT community. But the question remains why lesbians and gay men have gained ground while women's rights are in retrograde. When I became NY State's first openly gay State Legislator 23 years ago, I did so as an open lesbian and as a strong feminist, who had fought hard for reproductive freedom. I have always believed that the issues I faced as a woman and a lesbian were the same: the right to control my own body and private decisions about my life.

What explains the difference in the trajectory these twin struggles for basic rights? It is too facile to say that the LGBT community is half men, and they are not about to put up with the denial of their rights. On some level that may be an element, but the answer is more intangible.
Society has been educated, or at least influenced, by movies, TV shows and other socializing media, which have made gay lives more accessible to the general public. Many polls reflect the fact that people who come to know that they know gay people have a far more favorable opinion of LGBT rights.

Conversely, women may discuss with other women their use of contraceptives or confide in a close personal friend or family member about an unintended pregnancy, but few women make public statements about having an abortion. In addition, the vast majority of state legislators are men and none of them have ever experienced that sinking feeling that accompanies a late or missed menstrual period. The disconnect elected officials have regarding women's biology, let alone their feelings, were dramatically exposed in the elections of 2012.

In the past, pro-choice organizations may have used testimonials from average women facing unintended or problematic pregnancies, but the advent of very aggressive intimidation tactics by anti-choice forces has made women less likely to speak up individually. What is the appropriate push back against the murder of doctors, clinic bombings and even harassment of support staff? This has not only enforced fewer options for women, but has bred a growing silence among women themselves. Elected officials trivialize women's concerns and the Republican control of many state legislatures, or even one house as in New York, has emboldened the most rabid attack on private health decisions by women since Roe vs. Wade was decided.

Just as gay people stayed in the closet for fear of losing jobs, being harassed where they live, or the general social stigma associated with being gay, women have retreated to a closet for the same reasons and it is that silence that allows anti-abortion forces to make advances across the country.