A couple of weeks ago, I came across a battered and water stained copy of the ‘The Gay Mystique’ a ground breaking book, published just a few years after the Stonewall riot. Jeff had picked it up years ago at a thrift store and it had lingered unread on our bookshelves. Reading the book is an eye opening experience for me, not just as a testament to how far we have come in the more than 40 years since, but also in how clearly the author has captured the issues that we are still facing today. Here is one of my favorite passages from the very end of the book:
“When a person comes out, the dam is burst. He can get in touch with all his emotions. He feels his loves more deeply, his pleasures more keenly, and his anger in a clean and honest form-he is no longer fighting himself. It feels good. It is a precious discovery. It shows. Look at the faces of liberated gay people. Look at their eyes, their smiles.
But there is more to be gained than this. Every time a homosexual holds himself back, denies the validity of his emotions, accepts the need to hide, he silently agrees that straight society is right to force such a life upon him. He may accept himself, he may even respect himself, but that self respect is never complete. There are always unacknowledged reservations.
Coming out is always a gradual process-you cannot change your life overnight. But most gay people who have left the closet recall a particular moment or experience that was especially important, the point at which they really knew they were free and would never hide again. For me, this moment occurred at the end of June in 1970 when the first march was held in New York to commemorate the Stonewall riot.
There had never been a gay march in the city before and nobody was sure how the police and the straight public would react. A good deal of contingency planning went on behind the scenes in case of violence. The crowd swelled and swelled, surpassing the wildest expectations. Suddenly we were off.
I doubt if the spirit of that first march will ever be recaptured. The crowd was defiantly beautiful. I had never seen so many different gay people, so many smiles, such radiance-where were the unhappy homosexuals I had heard about all my life?
Feelings ran high. We moved uptown past police lines, blue uniforms, billy clubs, patrol cars, flashing lights: I could smell the confrontation. Before we reached Central Park we were a tide flooding Sixth Avenue from sidewalk to sidewalk for blocks and blocks. We were strong, our voices rocked the buildings as we passed. OUT OF THE CLOSETS AND INTO THE STREETS! We were gentle: “I am a lesbian and I am beautiful,” read a sign. We were a tapestry, a riot of color, a madcap dance, the last American revolution.
I reeled in the glory of it, walked as I had never walked before, soared.
I looked up at the walls of glass and stone, at the tiny faces looking down, and laughed and shouted: I’m gay and I’m proud. I hadn’t shouted since I was a child. When had I really felt proud before? The years of hiding and hating myself and putting up with things and hurting and lying and wanting to scream ripped through me and exploded.
There’s no going back after that. You can’t feel those feelings and take them back to the closet and nurse them. When you know what it really means to be free, you know that freedom is life. Do you know how it tastes to be alive for the first time?
Oppression in any form requires the complicity of the oppressed. To come out is to refuse to oppress oneself, refuse to play the game. To come out is to assert one’s validity and equality and to declare that one will defend them. It is the only real form of self-respect.
There is no moral obligation to come out of the closet-or if there is, it is not one which anyone homosexual can determine for another. We would never have been in the closet in the first place if we had not allowed others to make our moral decisions for us.
Freedom must be chosen.”
Peter Fisher, 1972 in ‘The Gay Mystique’ Stein and Day Publishers