Out of the Shadows
The fight for queer liberation continues
It was October 11, 1992. I was in Washington D.C. for the annual displaying of the AIDS Quilt and organizing for the upcoming National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay rights.
As I stood there on the National Mall, surrounded by people grieving the partners and friends they had lost to AIDS, it hit me like a freight train.
I could no longer deny who I was.
Surrounded by such grief, I knew that life is too short not to live free and be your full, authentic self. That day I told my husband I wanted a divorce.
Coming out is complicated.
It’s not something you do once. It’s a process, and it’s something you have to do over and over again.
First I came out to my husband. It took me another six months to come out to my parents as I helped organize the state of Michigan for the National March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay & Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in April 1993. And it would be years before I could safely be “out” in every workplace.
I will be eternally grateful for the fact that both of my parents supported me when I spoke my truth — a rarity in those days, and often still today. But my mom was understandably worried for my safety.
The 90s were a dark and violent time for the Queer community. For every incident of anti-LGBT violence that made the news, and few of them did, there were countless more never reported as hate crimes.
Beatings and murders were commonplace.
If they weren’t attacking our bodies, they were attacking our homes, our cars, our spaces — and always, our very rights.
Mom urged me not to advertise my identity to the world. Don’t put bumper stickers on my car. Don’t hold hands with a woman in public. Keep it low-key, and be safe.
While I knew it was coming from a place of love, I couldn’t accept this advice. I was done living in the shadows.
As I began my life out of the closet, I was filled with a sense of hope and purpose. Just a few weeks after coming out, Bill Clinton won the White House. Upwards of 89% of the Queer community turned out for Clinton, who ran on promises to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military and pass laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Clinton’s election gave us hope after 12 years of Republican rule. It was the first time the Queer community organized as a voting block, and it led to a record number of LGBT candidates winning elections from Congress down to neighborhood commissioners.
But those hopes turned sour when President Clinton oversaw the passage of DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It’s hard to describe the sense of betrayal we all felt as we confronted these policies in our daily lives.
When I got a civil union with my new partner in 1999, the officiant performing the ceremony repeatedly emphasized that our union was NOT a marriage, and legally he could not refer to it or imply in any way that it was equivalent to marriage. We both felt humiliated and angry, but we had no other means of having our partnership legally recognized.
The years that followed were even harder.
In 2004 a wave of anti-gay marriage bills began sweeping state legislatures. Having failed to press for a federal constitutional amendment, for the next several years anti-gay groups began pushing for amendments banning marriage equality to state constitutions. One of these was Proposition 8 in California in 2008.
I moved to California in 2007 to work for Sally Lieber (then the Speaker Pro Tem for the California State Assembly). In 2008, I asked to be put on the campaign to stop Prop 8. It meant taking a salary of $27,000 a year (a 64% decrease from my salary with the Speaker’s office), and it meant countless hours of tireless organizing. But I knew I had to do it — too much was at stake.
The day after we lost that vote, I walked the streets of San Francisco (where 45% of residents had voted in favor of the ban) feeling despondent. I looked at the homes on my block and wondered which of my neighbors had voted against me.
But I couldn’t afford to give up.
After losing Prop 8, I went to work for Equality California. Using the off-year election in 2009, we organized in communities that had voted 55% or more to take away LGBTQIA rights. Over the course of 18 months, we had 1 million door-to-door conversations.
I remember knocking on one woman’s door. She had voted for Obama. She told me her brother was gay, but she had voted against marriage equality. I talked to her about my own experience coming out to my parents 16 years earlier, and how much it had meant to me to know they had my back. At the end of our conversation she said “Well you’ve given me a lot to think about. I’m going to call my brother.”
These kinds of conversations were happening all over the country, and that’s why the tide began to turn in 2009.
In 2010 the Hollingsworth v. Perry case led to the overturning of California’s gay marriage ban. In 2013, SCOTUS ruled DOMA unconstitutional in the United States v. Windsor. In 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges led to marriage equality nationwide.
These are real victories for the LGBTQIA community, and I am grateful for each of them. But as we’ve seen from decades of attacks on abortion rights, we cannot depend on Supreme Court precedent alone. We have to set our sights higher and fight for true, irrevocable equality.
We must pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
Even today, in 2021, as someone who now identifies as gender non-conforming, I still have to worry about my safety in some parts of the country. Even today, many trans and non-binary folks don’t feel safe coming out at work — and with good reason.
In more than half of U.S. states, people can still be fired or denied housing because they are LGBTQIA.
With a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, it is clear that Queer people can only truly be secure when we cement these rights with a constitutional amendment.
The framework to achieve this is already there in the ERA.
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
This language, coupled with the Equality Act before Congress now, will firmly establish women and all LGBTQIA people as protected classes under the Constitution.
Conservatives excel at getting us mired in culture wars over wedge issues. By picking things apart as individual issues, it’s easy to chip away at our rights. But when we affirm our standing as equals under the full protection of the Constitution, they lose all standing.
It’s time we stop engaging the right-wing on their turf and began fighting on our own terms. Think bigger, reach higher.
I was 13 years old when Harvey Milk was murdered.
I remember it vividly, and I draw on his courage often. His landmark speech about hope resonates with me to this day — not just for Queer liberation, but for all the things we’re fighting for.
Harvey once said, “Coming out is the most political thing you can do.” When I came out of the closet 29 years ago I made a conscious decision to use my identity to fight for change.
That fight continues to this day.
I draw strength from my peers in the Queer community and hope from our growing ranks of allies.
I know I am fortunate to work in spaces where my rights are not only recognized, where I am free to be my full, authentic self — but where I am flanked by allies in the fight for my equality. It is an enormous privilege to work with the next generation of leaders in Congress, and I don’t take that for granted.
Our fight is far from over. To this day, the intersection of racial and Queer identity leads to enormous persecution and violence — particularly among Black trans women. Trans youth struggle with much higher rates of homelessness and suicide.
It is urgent that the Queer community organizes in solidarity with the movement for Black Lives, justice for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, Indigenous people, and reproductive justice.
None of us are free until ALL of us are free.
If you are struggling with coming out of the closet, if you are facing discrimination at home or at work for being LGBTQIA, or if you are in crisis today, reach out to one of the resources linked here or shown below for immediate support.
Whatever you may be grappling with today, please know that you are not alone. There are millions of us ready to fight by your side, and we won’t stop until we have achieved true liberation.