The Road to Systemic Oppression is Paved with Good Intentions


Posted on October 11th, 2017 by Elizabeth Boylan

An Essay on National Coming Out Day

Cross-Posted on Medium.com.

Each year, on October 11th, my Facebook feed is populated with the personal stories of friends and others sharing their experiences of “coming out” – of publicly disclosing their sexuality or gender identity to friends, family, or colleagues.  National coming out day was founded in October 1988 to “celebrate individuals who publicly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, [queer,] and/or transgender.”[1]

National Coming Out Day was initiated in 1988 as a response both to direct action movements by LGBTQ activists, and the critical lack of public acknowledgment of LGBTQ persons by the general public in the United States. The crisis of HIV and the experiences of persons living with HIV and AIDS were diminished and ignored by government officials. News media, when confronted with having to report on the matter, frequently presented inaccurate or speculative information.  The lack of clear and accurate information regarding HIV and AIDS in popular media, and Public Health officials’ original designation of HIV/AIDS as “GRID”: “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” drew a false equivalency through association between a terrifying epidemic and homosexuality. As a result, serophobia[2] magnified the homophobia, biphobia, queerphobia and transphobia already present in society, leading to a lack of progress in the achievement of equality measures and public support for LGBTQ persons.

National Coming Out Day’s originators, Jean O’Leary and Rob Eichberg, saw that actions taken by LGBTQ activists at the time were often in reaction to anti-LGBTQ initiatives or actions; as such, it was easy for the media to stigmatize LGBTQ persons as defensive and reactionary: To counter the perceived stigma of this, “they came up with the idea to celebrate coming out and chose the anniversary of [a march held on Oct. 11, 1987 in Washington, DC] to mark it.”[3]

The “reactionary” element that is referenced in much of the literature and around National Coming Out Day – particularly as catalogued by neoliberal LGBTQ groups such as the Human Rights Campaign – alludes to the activism and advocacy of ACT UP, the “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power” founded in New York in 1987. ACT UP, in its founding principles, notes “We are dedicated to empowering groups to take direct action to help end the AIDS Crisis. ACT UP is committed to a democratic inclusive activism.”[4]  The group sought to bring public attention to the public health crisis of HIV/AIDS and the impact it was having on the experiences of LGBTQ people in the United States.  ACT UP centered on engaging in direct action and empowering those individuals most stigmatized and at risk of institutional or personal violence as a result of their sexuality, gender, or serostatus to be at the forefront of demanding political and cultural change.  A press release from the prestigious Dance Theater Workshop accompanied an award for their work in 1988 “For meeting the challenge of the AIDS epidemic and its crisis of conscience with vigilant acts of political and cultural provocation – thereby giving voice to the essential creative will of our humanity.”[5],[6]

“The late 1980s then became a symbolic ode to the 1960s radicalism…. This mantra of immediate and fundamental change was very significant because achieving this singular vision ACT UP challenged many of the existing social, political, economical, and religious norms, making it inherently radical in its approach towards getting concrete results.”[7]

ACT UP’s radical tactics and confrontational methods of engaging with health-care providers, pharmaceutical companies, police, and community leaders had direct impacts on the provision of rights and healthcare for LGBTQ persons and spoke clearly to the rightful anger and discontent of LGBTQ persons at their maltreatment by social and political institutions.

National Coming Out Day sought to distance the ways that LGBTQ persons were perceived from the radical activism of ACT UP, and in doing so, they presented a palatable veneer for public consumption that ignored, denied, and silenced the rightful anger of the persons most vulnerable in the LGBTQ communities.  It also presented a false vision of what “LGBTQ Action” represented – – “Pride” rather than “Protest.”

Pride can exist in subjugated communities, and it must as a means of creating a positive organizing force.  In publicly identifying, people must be granted the dignity of pride: the privilege to be righteous in expressing that their unique experiences matter and have value.  However, when we address the need and organizing force of pride within subjugated communities, it must be utilized as a tool for demanding that peoples’ needs be met, and human injustice be addressed.

In seeking to re-cast the LGBTQ movement’s public persona from one of “Empowered Protest” (ACT UP) with an ethos of visibility or “Pride without Protest”, National Coming Out Day homogenized the LGBTQ movement, and distanced visible LGBTQ persons in the greater public eye from those activists whose work was having a direct impact on changing policy and obtaining rights for LGBTQ persons through direct actions and radical activism.

In Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, Sarah Schulman addresses this issue: “Visibility was a construct that the gay and lesbian movement invented to explain and excuse the cruelty we were experiencing. We denied that it was intentional. Instead we invented the idea that it was an inadvertent consequence of heterosexuals having a lack of information about what we are really like. If they would discover how we truly are, they would not want to hurt us….Looking back at the way we created the issue of ‘visibility’ as a strategy for change is a painful confrontation with the realization that it was an engagement with magical thinking.”[8]

Nearly 30 years later, looking on the founding of National Coming Out Day, there are parallels in discourse regarding LGBTQ rights and activism to those in the late 1980s – there is of course the contingent of persons and groups, namely the Human Rights Campaign, who sought equality in marriage rights as a primary issue for same sex couples in the United States, and experienced success upon the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Marriage equality, while hailed as a cultural victory, is a “privilege” that was pushed to the forefront of public discourse around LGBTQ issues in the United States at the expense of furthering fights to change policy in regards to critical rights, such as employment protection, and the inclusion of sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression as protected classes under hate crime statutes at the State level:

  • Only 20 states and the District of Columbia have statewide protection in place for persons from employment discrimination based on gender identity
  • 22 States and the District of Columbia have statewide protection regarding employment discrimination on the basis of sexuality.
  • Gender identity and expression are only protected in 17 states and the District of Columbia under hate crime statutes.
  • Sexuality is only acknowledged as a protected class under hate crime statutes in 30 states and the District of Columbia.
  • 20 States do not offer any protection for LGBTQ persons under their current hate crime statutes.[9]

In the wake of the Obergefell decision of 2015, we have seen a marked increase in right-wing affiliated religious groups in the United States mobilizing Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation and “Religious Liberty” exemptions so as to deny services and equal access to LGBTQ persons on the alleged basis of their sincerely held religious beliefs.  This movement fundamentally undermines the rights that LGBTQ persons are entitled to as human beings in the United States.

In 2014, a Columbia Law School press release noted, “With increasing frequency, opponents of same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, and gender equality have sought a safe harbor in religion to justify otherwise illegal employment and business practices.”[10]  In a blog post addressing this issue, Professor Katherine Franke noted, “With greater and greater frequency, respecting equality rights is seen as optional while respecting religious liberty is mandatory,” speaking to the disturbing trend that was developing as marriage equality gained traction in state legislatures throughout the United States, and which has continued to develop at the Federal and State level in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

The presence of highly visible cultural phenomena that frequently center the narratives of white, professional, upper-middle class LGBTQ persons seem to push forward this narrative of “coming out” as being a positive experience.  In activism and in allegory, this hinges on “spectacularly brave gays and lesbians” as Schulman calls them, to be leaders in creating a visible queer population, who face social stigmatization and rejection to pave the way for a less treacherous path of living openly for other queers. Such pride without protest can only occur when the first persons coming out do not face substantial risks to their personhood, livelihood, economic resources, housing, or well-being due to publicly disclosing their sexuality and/or gender identity.  By placing the onus on LGBTQ people to come out, it privileges those who already have social capital based on race, economic status, or social standing.  This ultimately, too, puts the person who is “out” in a precarious position of being publicly exposed to greater scrutiny, and leads to a paradigm enabling and favoring a “model minority” stereotype, which further burdens and invisibilizes persons in the LGBTQ community who are multiply marginalized and at risk for experiencing greater systemic and individual violence on the basis of their identity.

The idea of “visibility” in media is hailed as an achievement for LGBTQ people, but it is a false notion that such increased visible representation is an indicator of substantial change in the pursuit of rights or equality for LGBTQ people.  In November of 2016, the Guardian featured an article with the headline, “LGBT characters on TV will make up larger percentage than ever, study finds.” And in 2012, Vice President Joe Biden talked around the issues of advances for LGBTQ rights and equality by equating cultural zeitgeist with success in stating, “when things really began to change, is when the social culture changes. I think “Will & Grace ” probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”[11]

The “study” mentioned in The Guardian is GLAAD’s 2016-2017 media report.  While the data of the report indicates the highest percentage yet of LGBT characters on television in the 2016-2017 season in the 21 years of the organization’s monitoring (4.8%), it also addressed serious issues about falsely equivocating or endowing this increased quantity with value. In the Report’s introduction, Sarah Kate Ellis, President & CEO, GLAAD states: “…the numbers remain only part of the story. For all the advancement made, many LGBTQ characters still fall into outdated stereotypes or harmful tropes.” Ellis addressed the disproportionate lethal violence that queer female characters are subjected to so as to serve (often straight, cisgender) protagonists, and the real message such “representation” provides – the acceptable systemic devaluation of queer female persons in society.

It is not without irony that at a time when Joe Biden’s beloved situation comedy, Will & Grace, is being revived on NBC.  The sitcom centers on Will, a gay cisgender male character who is a white, upper-middle class, able-bodied lawyer in New York.  The cast features two prominent white cisgender gay male characters, Will, and Jack, with their cisgender, heterosexual female friends, Grace and Karen. The primary 4 characters all live in well-appointed apartments, the gay characters are never shown as having sex, and the show largely ignores issues such as economic inequality, racism in LGBTQ communities, HIV and AIDS, and violence against LGBTQ people. While popular, the show’s association with a notion of progress for true LGBTQ rights falsely equates visibility and acknowledgment (“yes, there are gay people, here are some that won’t cause your Nielsen stock to plummet”) with “real change.”

A core concern, too, when discussing National Coming Out Day is the fact that encouragement to “Come Out” is complicated for persons whose identities and experiences put them at greater risk of institutional and physical violence.  When paradigms that further privilege white, cisgender, upper-middle class lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals are enforced, it further marginalizes persons of color, persons who experience economic inequality, religious and ethnic minorities, and particularly transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, especially those whose experiences and identities place them at the intersection of multiple marginalized groups. Systems that institutionalize violence against marginalized individuals (such as discriminatory practices in finance, access to healthcare, social services, and education) may have multiplying oppressive effects on multiply marginalized individuals.

A prominent report by Lambda Legal asserts “44% of reported hate murders in 2010 were committed against transgender women.”[12]  The 44% statistic only represents those crimes officially categorized as hate crimes in FBI statistics and AVP analysis. The actual number of anti-transgender hate murders that occurred in 2010 is likely higher but ultimately underreported due to systemic transgender and anti-gender-non-conforming discrimination by communities, families, and the criminal justice industrial complex.  Lambda Legal’s report addresses the fact that this epidemic of lethal violence against transgender women is a terrorizing element that may discourage transgender from disclosing their experience or “coming out”, and discourage these people from “seeking community support” when victimized in other ways.

In 2017 to date, 23 transgender individuals have been murdered, which represents an increase over the 27 recorded in total for the calendar year 2016 by GLAAD[13].  21 of the 23 people who were the victims of transphobic murder in 2017 year are people of color. GLAAD Reports:

Victims of anti-transgender violence are overwhelmingly transgender women of color, who live at the dangerous intersections of transphobia, racism, sexism, and criminalization which often lead to high rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness….the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reports an alarming multi-year trend showing that transgender women experience a greater risk of death by hate violence than any other group.[14]

Increased visibility is not the answer to resolving the issues of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and queerphobia in our society.  When “coming out” or the experience of “being out” puts an individual at risk of violence, we cannot ethically justify the risk of persons’ safety – economic, social, or personal – as a means of propelling social change, nor can we suggest that the continuation of the tradition of “National Coming Out Day” benefits anyone in the LGBTQ community, as it particularly disadvantages those at greatest risk of violence.

As a community, we cannot continue to practice systems that privilege a select few in their “being out,” for this ultimately perpetuates paradigms that enforce model minority stereotypes, and further marginalize those at greatest risk of institutional and personal violence.  It is our responsibility as community members to develop actions that center the voices and needs of those most marginalized among us in seeking change.

Assimilative movements, or movements that hinge on “Pride without Protest” have not proven the test of time, and only serve to create a false perception of equality.  Particularly at a time when our President has taken multiple actions to decrease, diminish, and undermine the rights that LGBTQ persons have fought for, we cannot place any stock on “visibility” as any sort of panacea for achieving real and lasting rights for LGBTQ people, or for protecting anyone from personal or institutional violence.

The institutions of systemic violence have always been present in our society; while there has been some progress in the last 40 years in LGBTQ movements – whether they served only individual communities within the larger LGBTQ community, or whether they served the community as a whole – we need to recognize the real work and sacrifice – the protest, passion, and commitment to revising legislation and engaging in work, writing, radical community support, and action that have garnered success in moving towards equality – and redouble our efforts to meet these current challenges with “vigilant acts of political and cultural provocation – thereby giving voice to the essential creative will of our humanity.”

[1] Mitchum, Preston. “On National Coming Out Day, Don’t Disparage the Closet.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/10/on-national-coming-out-day-dont-disparage-the-closet/280469/. 10/11/2013.  Accessed 10/11/17.

[2] Serophobia is defined as “ a manifestation of fear and aversion by certain people, towards people living with HIV… [which] manifests… through acts of exclusion or discrimination, whether implicit or explicit.” stopserophobia.org. http://stopserophobia.org/hiv-aids/#stop-serophobia. Accessed 10/11/17.

[3] Human Rights Campaign. “The History of Coming Out.” hrc.org. http://www.hrc.org/resources/the-history-of-coming-out. Accessed 10/11/17.

[4] ACT UP. “Documents.” Actupny.org. http://actupny.org/documents/documents.html. Accessed 10/11/17.

[5] ACT UP New York. “Home Page.” Actupny.org. Accessed 10/11/17.

[6] Gere, David. How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS. University of Wisconsin Press. 2004. 82-83.

[7] Farooq, Sameen. ACT UP: The AIDS Revolution. http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/pub/departments/bcurj/pdf/farooq.pdf. Accessed 10/11/17.

[8] Schulman, Sarah. Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. The New Press. New York. 2009. P 45-46.

[9] The Movement Advancement Project. “Hate Crime Laws.” lgbtmap.org. http://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/hate_crime_laws. 10/2/17. Retrieved 10/11/17.

[10] Columbia Law School. “New Project on Religious Exemptions and Civil Rights Launches”. www.law.columbia.edu. 3/24/2014. Retrieved 10/11/17.

[11] NBC News. “Transcripts on Meet the Press: May 6: Joe Biden, Kelly Ayotte, Diane Swong, Tom Brokaw, Chuck Todd.” NBCNews.com. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/47311900/ns/meet_the_press-transcripts/t/may-joe-biden-kelly-ayotte-diane-swonk-tom-brokaw-chuck-todd/#.Wd6YEBNSwlI. Retrieved 10.11.2017.

[12] https://www.lambdalegal.org/publications/trt_transgender_violence

[13] Adams, Nick. “GLAAD Calls for Increased and Accurate Media Coverage of Transgender Murders.” GLAAD.org. https://www.glaad.org/blog/glaad-calls-increased-and-accurate-media-coverage-transgender-murders. 9/25/17. Retrieved 10/11/17.

[14] Adams, Nick. “GLAAD Calls for Increased and Accurate Media Coverage of Transgender Murders.” GLAAD.org. https://www.glaad.org/blog/glaad-calls-increased-and-accurate-media-coverage-transgender-murders. 9/25/17. Retrieved 10/11/17.

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