Last year, as I talked about the Boy Scouts’ LGBT policy change on several television and radio programs, the one thing I didn’t talk about was fear.
During the interviews, I was asked about my thoughts on the policy and to share my personal experiences. Each time, I shifted in my seat and did my best to conceal my true feelings while looking natural. I talked about watching a close friend being kicked out of Scouts for being gay. I talked about the wrongness of the policy and what had happened. At no point during those interviews did I reveal that I was bisexual. Even as I worked alongside Scouts for Equality to increase visibility around the issue, and even when the producers of a major television program mentioned to me that they were looking for gay and bisexual men who had been in Scouts to be on the show, I never revealed that I am bisexual. I was too paralyzed by fear to reveal who I really was.
I hadn’t forgotten the homophobic jokes and slurs hurled at my friend by others in Scouting. I hadn’t forgotten walking around my undergraduate university one day and discovering that a group of people had graffitied the sidewalks with homophobic pictures, jokes, and slurs all over campus. I especially hadn’t forgotten reading headline after headline reporting people being savagely beaten and murdered for the “crime” of being LGBT. These and other experiences burned an enduring sense of fear deep into my soul.
That pervasive sense of fear and shock came washing back over me this past week as I sat in horror watching the news about the terrorist attack in Orlando, which claimed the lives of 49 of my LGBT brothers and sisters and wounded 53 more.
That fear is something I’ve lived with for the last two decades as I struggled to accept being bisexual. Just a couple of months ago, I came out to my mother. And only last week, I came out to my father. I’m still in the process of coming out to others, but one thing thus far has been consistent. Every time I’ve come out to someone, I’ve been panicked and afraid.
Many in the LGBT community continue to feel a similar sense of fear in their daily lives. It’s easy to see why. Research shows that just having LGBT information on your resume can result in 23 percent fewer job interviews and over 18 percent of the 6,418 hate crimes reported to the FBI in 2015 were based on sexual orientation.
Things like that have made me afraid to walk by bushes or to get in my car without first checking the backseat. It’s terrifying to think you could become the next statistic.
As a sociologist, I’m reminded that my fear, like that of my LGBT brothers and sisters, is only one expression of the deeper institutionalization of fear among LGBT people across America. Fear is the intended result of codifying homophobia into laws like HB2 in North Carolina and of states failing to enact laws to protect LGBT people from housing and employment discrimination. Fear is a likely reason why the Boy Scouts’ “new” policy still enables faith-based troops to exclude LGBT adults from membership in their units. Fear is also a likely reason Omar Mateen timed his terrorist attack to coincide with LGBT Pride Month, to serve as a painful reminder of trauma and bloodshed and terrify LGBT people for years to come.
Research suggests that most homophobes have homoerotic feelings. To me, this combined with Omar Mateen using gay dating apps suggests a real possibility that Omar Mateen may have been frequenting the Pulse nightclub not just to case the location, but because he might have been struggling to come to terms with his own same-sex attractions. If he had those attractions and not faced the condemnation so often levied against LGBT people, this tragedy and terrorist attack might have been prevented.
After hearing about such atrocities, the knee-jerk reaction for many people who are struggling to accept themselves as LGBT is to stay in the closet, to hide from others and from themselves. After the attack, I considered not coming any further out of the closet myself. But giving in to that fear is what Mateen and every other homophobe across the world wants. They want us to cower in fear, to strengthen their stranglehold on us by silencing ourselves.
Only by speaking out can we create lasting change. And that change begins with coming out. Now more than ever, we should never let our voices be silenced. We should never give in.
DaShanne Stokes, Ph.D., is a sociologist, author, and television and radio commentator who writes about culture, politics, and civil rights.