By CHUCK WOLFE
In the late 1970s, when a nascent LGBT equality movement was under attack across the country, Harvey Milk urged us all to fight back by coming out. “You must come out … to your parents … to your relatives … to your friends … to your neighbors … to your fellow workers,” Milk said. “Once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.” He believed coming out was the key to winning, and he was right.
More than 30 years later, his advice is changing our country. We are coming out, and the reality of who we are is replacing the lies and distortions pedaled by our opponents. That’s why voters in Maryland and Washington last year rejected attempts to reverse marriage equality laws. It’s why California enacted an LGBT history requirement for public schools. And it’s the reason the Massachusetts Legislature finally passed a transgender rights law.
Being ourselves, and living our lives with integrity, has opened the eyes of our friends, neighbors, families and coworkers, and research has shown that the more out LGBT people someone knows, the more likely they are to support our equality. Today, brave young people are coming out in high school and even earlier, and the result is record high support among those under 30 for issues like marriage equality and nondiscrimination laws.
That’s why it’s so important that we do more to make it safer for people to come out in places where equality is slow to arrive. Our victories in regions like New England and the West Coast are remarkable, but elsewhere in our country that type of progress seems otherworldly and impossible. Harvey would be proud of our success, but I bet he wouldn’t celebrate for too long before asking how we planned to replicate it in Mississippi, Kansas or Alaska.
The obvious answer is to press for federal laws and policies that would end the patchwork of municipal and state laws that leave so many LGBT Americans living in fear. But until those are in place, we must work to bring hope to a lesbian teenager in Arkansas afraid to hold her girlfriend’s hand, a trans woman in North Dakota who hides her identity to keep a job, or a kid with two dads in Alabama who wonders why others don’t see the loving parents he does.
Coming out delivers that hope. Seeing yourself reflected in a gay local elected official, a lesbian school principal, a bisexual member of Congress — that has the power to transform how people think about themselves and what they can accomplish. They begin to hope that they can change their own communities, and then they turn that hope into action.
Harvey believed in personal politics and making change where he lived. He helped spark a generation of LGBT people to live more authentic lives, but that started in his tiny Castro camera shop.
“To sit on the front steps — whether it’s a veranda in a small town or a concrete stoop in a big city — and to talk to our neighborhoods is infinitely more important than to huddle on the living-room lounger and watch a make-believe world in not-quite living color,” he once said.
We have much left to do before all LGBT Americans enjoy the equal protection of our laws, so let’s make Harvey proud. Come out, stand up and help deliver hope. Everywhere.
Chuck Wolfe is president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute.