Notes & Queeries: Yes I Am

Sometimes it seems as though the only LGBT stories in the
media are coming-out stories, and after writing about coming-out for
what seems like the thousandth time, it can become a bit tedious. That’s why Milk was such an inspiration to me. The
film wasn’t about coming out, and yet it showed me exactly why it is still so

As Harvey Milk argued in the film — and in real life — coming
out is the way that we will make this LGBT movement a human one. When straight folks
personally know gay people, they are less likely to discriminate against us.

I knew the bare bones of Milk’s story, but the movie brought
it home to me. You know the feeling: When you are totally surrounded by the
world in a movie or TV show or book, and there’s nothing between you and the

In Milk, the hard
facts of history became a three-dimensional, lived-in world. Like any queer
resident of San Francisco,
I’m familiar with the Castro District, but seeing it on screen and dressed up
in the 1970s gave me the feeling you get when looking at photos of a good
friend in her youth. It’s a kind of double perspective: Here’s your friend now,
and though time has changed her features, you can still recognize the younger
person she was, there, in those photos.

Seeing the Castro peopled with Harvey Milk and his cohorts
was both strange and familiar. His shop, Castro Camera, closed long before I
ever came to San Francisco, but I have walked down the block it was on
countless times. The corner where Milk stood on his soap box and exhorted
others to join his cause is different now — it’s dominated by a Diesel store —
but I recognized it with a lurch in my stomach. Oh, I thought. Here we are.

I was at first startled by how young Milk’s supporters were,
and yet I shouldn’t have been. They possessed the same youthful passion that
lighted up the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. Perhaps the
most surprising element of Milk’s story is that he didn’t run for office until
he was 43 years old.

Several critics have noted the parallels that Milk has to this fall’s heartbreaking
loss of the right for same-sex couples to marry in California. But I think the clearest
parallel might be the rise of a generation of young gay rights activists.

Right now we are at a moment in our struggle for equality
where youthful voices and leadership are breaking through the ranks of what has
become a somewhat entrenched LGBT movement. For everyone who has been involved
in the post-Prop. 8 activism, Milk
must surely be an inspiration and an eye-opener: We can do it.

The movie also made me feel a bit ashamed at how I have
grumbled over having to write — again — about someone coming out. It’s
understandable, of course, that those of us who have already come out might be
more interested in what happens after
coming out. But living in the bubble of San Francisco — or the online bubble of — allows us to forget that if we want to have the same rights
that straight people have, we have to connect with straight people.

The only way to do that is to come out — all of us — so that
they can see that LGBT people fill every category of human being. Every shape,
every size, every age, every color — just like them.

That’s why Wanda Sykes’ recent coming out has been so
meaningful. There has been a dearth of out lesbians of color — or out LGBT
people of color, period — and we need more of them. We exist, too.

When Sykes was a guest on The Tonight Show on Dec. 10th, she told Jay Leno that she hadn’t
planned to come out at that Las Vegas
gay rights rally in November. But “once I got there in front of all these
people … I felt like I had to say something,” she said.

She explained that she had been with her partner for a long
time, and though she was out in her comedy, she hadn’t felt the need to speak
publicly about her private life until Prop. 8 took away her rights to be like
everyone else.

I would guess that many LGBT people feel like Sykes did;
that their private life was nobody else’s business, and why should they talk
about who they have sex with? Straight people don’t have to go around saying,
“I’m straight.”

I do understand that feeling: that if it’s normal, we
shouldn’t have to talk about it. But the fact is, one of the gay movement’s
biggest stumbling blocks is that many of us can blend into the heterosexual
world. Many of us are not markedly “gay.” Many of us pass as straight. And
unless we come out, we remain invisible. As anybody who reads this site must
know by now, visibility matters.