From 'coming out' to 'bringing in'

  • by John Bauters
  • Wednesday May 17, 2017
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"Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents. I know that it is hard and will hurt them, but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you, not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake." – Harvey Milk (1978)


I remember almost coming out 22 years ago like it was yesterday.


I recall preparing to tell two of my high school classmates that I was gay. After thinking about it for several months, I was confident in my plan. I would be the only student in my small Midwest high school that identified publicly as LGBTQ. Just days before my planned reveal, a classmate named Dave told several students in the drama club he was bisexual.

By the end of the day the whole school knew.

The following week, I remember returning to the boys' locker room after gym class. As the rest of us prepared to return to class, I noticed Dave silently searching random lockers for his school clothes. Moments later he found them: in a toilet that had subsequently been used. A note affixed to the stall advised him to drop out of gym class, employing an all-too-familiar anti-gay epithet to convey the message.

As the rest of us were seated against the gymnasium wall and interrogated for about an hour, I watched through the gym teacher's office window as Dave sat sobbing, waiting for his mother to arrive with a new set of clothes so he could return to class. I imagined the humiliation he felt. I wondered how he would explain to her what had happened.

Nobody confessed or fingered the culprit. After an hour we were all returned to class, free to go about our school day as if nothing had happened. There would be no justice for Dave.

Gossip about Dave and the events in the boys' locker room permeated the school hallways for weeks. I couldn't sleep for days. The trauma I experienced living silently alongside Dave's public ordeal had lasting impacts on my health. I lost the ability to discern empathy and fear. I worried that Dave would hurt himself.

I never executed my plan to tell my high school friends that year. Witnessing what happened to Dave delayed my own coming out by two years. To this day I still live with feelings of guilt that I did not have the courage to come out or at least be strong enough to publicly support him.

Harvey Milk's call for the LGBTQ community to come out recognized the power we possess when we act together. Since then, we have materially altered our common destiny, secured greater protections for our families, and changed the national narrative around what it means to be LGBTQ. Milk's words have served us well in the fight for equality.

As we look to the future, however, we must recognize that coming out is not where it ends, but where it begins.

Forty years ago, it was far more common for LGBTQ people to come out later in their adult lives. Most had finished school, held jobs, owned homes, and found social circles they relied on to support one another. Much like Dave's situation, a lack of family, peer, and social supports made coming out as a youth an unimaginable prospect for most.

Today, people self-identify as LGBTQ at much younger ages. People see LGBTQ voices and influences on social media and they embrace Milk's message to come out much earlier in life. Being out and accepted is a life-affirming experience for young people who stand to live healthier and more complete lives.

New challenges exist. Unlike many who came out in adulthood, today's youth have not finished school, are often not old enough to be employed, cannot obtain health care for themselves, and do not possess the tools to be fully independent. Thus, while society has warmed to the LGBTQ community as a whole, the younger people are when they come out, the more vulnerable they are if their most immediate family and peers are not supportive.

Evidence of this growing problem is everywhere. Covenant House, a national nonprofit that serves homeless youth, estimates that as much as 40 percent of the homeless youth population identifies as LGBTQ. These young people are high-risk for drug use, HIV, depression and sex trafficking. This is an issue we cannot afford to ignore.

As an openly gay elected official, I stand humbly in the long shadow cast by Milk's legacy of leadership. The call to "come out" was a rallying cry for acceptance and unity. We must take stock in our many recent accomplishments but also look to our future: today's youth.

For years I wished I could go back to my high school days be there for Dave. I lamented that I missed an opportunity to live openly and courageously as Milk implored. I don't wish that anymore. As Milk showed us 40 years ago, courage is a commitment to our common future.

With that in mind, do as Milk encouraged us to do: come out. But do more. Mentor our youth. Contribute your time and money to helping meet their needs. Build our community. Be yourself.


John Bauters is the vice mayor of Emeryville.