Coming Out in a Red(ish) State

“The tide of history only advances when people make themselves fully visible.” These were the words of television host Anderson Cooper after he came out last year as a gay man, and they ring especially true during Coming Out Week — a week set aside to celebrate and empower those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

Coming Out Week 2013 arrives after a year of spectacular progress in the gay-rights movement. Since last October, the Supreme Court ruled parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional and struck down California’s Proposition 8; residents of Maine, Maryland and Washington went to the ballot box and legalized same-sex marriage in their states; and closer to home, the Montana Legislature finally stripped our state’s disgraceful “sodomy law” from the books.

I also continue to be impressed by the shows of support in the Bozeman community, from last month’s Rally for Equality to the Human Rights Campaign “equal-sign stickers” seen plastered on vehicles around town.

Now, it would be unfair of me to write an article about Coming Out Week without stating where I’m coming from; I am gay. This was certainly difficult growing up in the isolated clutches of Northwest Montana where I had no LGBT role models to turn to, making high school a lonely experience rife with internal struggle. However, when I came to Bozeman and found a town with numerous role models and straight allies, I realized coming out is a hell of a lot easier when you’re surrounded by the right group of people.

Despite the incredible forward march toward equality over the last few years, coming out as LGBT is still a prospect saddled with fear, dread and uncertainty. As Greg Smith, an openly gay licensed counselor in Bozeman, explained, “People are essentially changing how the world sees them.”

Coming out isn’t just a concept exclusive to the LGBT community, but it is the severity of the struggles that make coming out as gay or lesbian especially precarious. High school is a minefield for many LGBT youth — a recent report by the Human Rights Campaign said LGBT students are twice as likely as peers to say they’ve been physically assaulted at school. Upon growing older, many face the possibility of being fired from jobs, denied hospital visits and disowned by loved ones for being gay or lesbian. The fact that this still happens not only in notoriously anti-gay nations like Russia or Uganda, but also in the United States, is tragic.

However, Smith said that staying in the closet presents many challenges as well. “When we have a personal secret,” Smith explained, “there’s usually shame involved.” This is certainly true. Keeping sexual orientation — something that is such a fundamental and integral part of our being — a secret can be an emotionally exhausting and often painful experience, as I can personally attest. That is why “coming out” is such a huge deal for LGBT people.

Meanwhile, Montana is in a unique ideological position — we’re considered a “red state” (based on how we vote in presidential elections), yet one of the most pervasive worldviews is live-and-let-live libertarianism, not hard-line Evangelical conservatism. I feel fortunate to say that, so far, the positive experiences I’ve had in this state have vastly outweighed the negative ones (only recently did I experience having a gay slur blurted at me while walking down a street). “Oh, you’re gay? That’s cool,” has made up the majority of responses I’ve received.

Despite our libertarianism, Montana is far from immune to discrimination. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana is combating this discrimination with a lawsuit that seeks to secure domestic partnerships for Montana residents. The plaintiffs have experienced blatant discrimination such as being denied bereavement leave and losing a house (same-sex relationships don’t qualify for worker’s compensation benefits) upon the death of a partner. Unfortunately, the Montana Supreme Court sent the case back to District Courts in December 2012, asking the ACLU to amend their arguments. Perhaps the ACLU will have more success the second time around; it would be an outrage to let this opportunity to support Montana’s LGBT community slip away.

In the meantime, let’s not let our “live-and-let-live” values slide into apathy. If our state is going to prevent appalling discrimination from happening in the future, we need to harness the power of our ideals and make the fair treatment of the LGBT community a priority. This doesn’t just require more of us in the community to come out and make our presence known; it also requires straight Montanans to “come out” as allies and make LGBT equality a Montana issue. Perhaps I’m dreaming, but wouldn’t it be incredible to see our quaint red state set an example as a progress-maker for the rest of the nation?

“Coming out is just about being honest,” Smith explained. “It’s saying, ‘I’m coming out because you don’t see me as who I really am.’” This may take quite a bit of courage, but that’s what Coming Out Week is all about: Having the courage to be who you are, even if it is not not the “norm” or accepted by many in society. Fortunately, we’re lucky enough to live in an age when public figures such as television anchors, politicians and even professional athletes have the strength to be open about their sexuality. Let’s use Coming Out Week to reflect on the courage shown by the LGBT community, the progress we’ve made — and, of course, the journey still to come.