Coming Out: How Intimate Connection Fueled a Movement
Johanan Rivera, Manager of Programs

The AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall (Photo Courtesy of the NAMES Project Foundation)

Bohemian Rhapsody, an entertaining movie about English band Queen's rise to fame, takes us through the personal journey of its magnetic lead singer, Freddy Mercury, until his death in 1991. The legendary performer has been an inspiration for the LGBTQ [1] community and was one of the first high-profile stars to die from AIDS-related complications. The press and the public were far from kind upon his death, but the 27 years since have not passed in vain. Watching this movie, I could not stop thinking about how the LGBTQ movement in the US is a testament to the speed at which true intimate connection can move mountains. 

Throughout history, LGBTQ people have self-segregated as a defense mechanism. Until fairly recently, even in the US, coming out meant certain discrimination, being exposed to the estrangement of relationships with family and friends, possible physical violence and even criminal prosecution. This type of segregation made us invisible. It isolated us and deprived us from being fully intimately known by people unaware of our true sexual orientation and/or gender identity.  This kind of segregation “gives people the opportunity to accept dehumanizing myths about others, and to harbor deep suspicions that foster fear and hatred”[2].  We've seen it in the prejudice-filled stereotypes about the LGBTQ  community, just has we have with the African American community, immigrant communities, and other marginalized people.

Although there are many crucial moments in the US LGBTQ movement that helped break this vicious cycle of segregation and bigotry [3], the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987, at the height of the AIDS crisis, was a pivotal moment in terms of visibility nation-wide [4].

On Oct. 11, 1987, half a million people took to the streets of Washington DC to advocate for equal rights. Thousands of LGBTQ activists joined forces with civil rights activists like Cesar Chavez and Eleanor Smeal, celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and, at the vanguard, people with AIDS. That day, at dawn, the AIDS Memorial quilt was unfolded on the National Mall for the first time [5]. People from all over the nation made individual panels in remembrance of the ones they lost to the AIDS epidemic: each panel more or less the size of a grave. More than 1,900 panels brought these men and women to the March. “A monument sewn of fabric and thread” [6] unveiled the humanity behind icy statistics, and became a beautiful, moving and stark visual testament to those abandoned by their families, churches and government.  That day “only the reading of the names and the sound of people weeping broke the silence around" [7]. The nation gasped.

Though visibility was the spark, intimate connection has been undoubtedly the fuel behind the success of the movement ever since. The March further sparked and energized a sense of community among LGBTQ people, inspired the creation and replication of many LGBTQ rights organizations, and ignited a massive wave of coming out stories. As more and more people came out, LGBTQ people started integrating not only at work or in their schools, but also within their families and close social networks. Coming out, this incredible step of self-revealing honesty, became a powerful vehicle for true empathy. Every LGBTQ person out of the closet changed more hearts and minds, creating new advocates for equality. This revolutionized the movement; organizations of LGTBQ allies like PFLAG [8] were created, student groups and LGBTQ community centers found funding, and an LGBTQ sports leagues emerged. It was the steady push of genuine grassroots community-building that created the space for people to feel connected, listen to each other, and gave the LGBTQ community the strength to continue to make the world safe for difference.

Over the course of the last three decades, people in the US have become intimately familiar with their LGBTQ children, siblings, and close friends. This forced the population at large to grapple with sexual orientation and gender identity at an extremely personal level. Today most people in the US report having either a relative or close friend who is LGBTQ [9]. Furthermore, there are LGBTQ people living in almost 99% of counties in the United States, and LGTBQ people are present in every racial, ethnic, religious and socio-economic group [10]. Compared to other civil rights movements, the change has been both deep and incredibly fast. In 1996, only 27% of people in the US were in favor of same sex marriages. Today, only 22 years later, more than 60% support marriage equality, and 70% support non-discrimination laws [11] inclusive of our community [12].

The monumental strides towards equality and the dramatic change in public perception of the LGBTQ community has helped heal the deep scar the AIDS crisis left on a community shrouded in silence and stigma. The success of the LGBTQ movement in the US is a story of the triumph of communion. In the potent words of Linda Hirshman, it is a story of how human connection in its purest form allowed a “despised minority to push back, beat death, find love and change America for everyone” [11].  Having said that, it is important to highlight that the struggles of LGBTQ people vary dramatically not only within the United States, but around the world. While people living in the west have achieved significant victories regarding marriage equality, there are still many countries where same-sex relationships are still punishable by death [12]. Furthermore, changes in local legislation regarding discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity remains elusive at best [13]. LGBTQ kids in rural areas or red states are still the target of crippling bullying, employees working in states without non-discrimination laws can be fired simply for having a photo of their same-sex spouse on the desk, etc. However, in the face of the insurmountable challenges today and ahead, the LGBTQ movement is still breathing, going global, and staying feisty. Twenty-seven years since Mercury's death did not pass in vain. 


[1] LGBTQ is the most commonly used acronym for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. This umbrella term is the shorter version of other acronyms used to be more inclusive of other individuals.
[2] Robert Salem, Intimate Integration: Lessons for the LGBT Civil Rights Movement, 45 Cap. U. L. Rev. 33 (2017) Also see Jessica Joseph, Homophobia and Racism: Similar Methodologies of Dehumanization, HUFFINGTON POST (December 6, 2018, 2:35 PM), www.huffingtonpost.com/jessica-joseph/homophobia-and-racism-similar-methodologiesof-dehumanization_b_3459204.html 
[3] It is important to recognize that the LGBT movement is incredibly rich, complex and far-reaching. It cannot be reduced to a series of big occasions. All public victories stand on the shoulders of the genuine grassroots efforts of activists and pioneers that dared to stand up to the status quo at a time when doing so was truly heroic.
[4] The mobilization was ignited several factors, especially by the AIDS pandemic, Ronald Reagan administration's lack of acknowledgment of the AIDS crisis, and the Supreme Court of the United States ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick. The ruling upheld the criminalization of sodomy between two consenting men in the privacy of a home.
[5] This was the second mobilization of the NAMES Project. Established in 1987, the NAMES Project Foundation, is the international, non-governmental organization that is the custodian of The AIDS Memorial Quilt.
[6] Cleve Jones, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement (New York: Hachette Books, 2016), 164.
[7] Idem.
[8] PFLAG stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Founded in 1973, after the simple act of a mother publicly supporting her gay son, PFLAG is the largest family and ally organization in the US.
[9] A survey of LGBT Americans, PEW RES. CTR. (June 13, 2013). http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/06/13/a-survey-of-lgbt-americans.
[10] Gary J. Gates & Abigail M. Cooke, United States Census Snapshot: 2010, WILLIAMS INST. 1., htpp://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/mp-content/uploads/Census2010Snapshot-USv2.pdf[http://perma.cc/2F9T-EP4H](Based on 2010 US Census reporting that "same-sex couples were identified in 93% of all U.S. Counties."
[11]https://www.prri.org/spotlight/lgbt-nondiscrimination-protections-popular-not-widely-adopted/
[12] Justin McCarthy, Record High 60% of Americans Support Same-Sex Marriage, GALLUP (May 19, 2015): http://www.gallup.com/poll/183272/record-high-americans-support-sex-marriage.aspx
[13] Linda Hirshman, Victory: the triumphant gay revolution (New York: Harper, 2012), Cover.
[14] This is still the situation for LGBT people in many countries around the world. For a quick snapshot of the situation world-wide please see: https://assets.weforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Where_are_the_most_dangerous_places_to_be_gay_World_News_The_Independent_-_2015-12-23_11.21.04.png
[15]  
http://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/non_discrimination_laws