Coming Out and Movement Politics

An astonishing number of young men and women who came to the United States as children without government authorization are going public with their status.  When they come out, they acknowledge that they are breaking the law and put themselves at risk for arrest and deportation. Their stories make for dramatic and compelling testimony in support of the DREAM Act.  (Thanks to Roberto Gonzales for posting this link, for example.)

Coming out is a critical component of most movement strategies.  Coming out means revealing something about yourself that people might not know otherwise, and taking some risk in doing so.  We hear most about coming out as a political strategy from the gay and lesbian movements, and now, from DREAM supporters, but it’s really a part of most movements’ strategies.  Often, it’s about proclaiming a belief (rather than a legal status or sexual orientation): Christians testify to make faith visible; atheists go public to undermine the apparent social consensus on divine authority.  Advocates of animal rights, health care reform, racism or civil rights, and virtually every other cause you can imagine, make their beliefs known, hoping to build support for them.  People may go public with being (or not being) a virgin, or having had an abortion or cancer to show those around them that the experience is more common than others might have thought.

When people come out with their beliefs, they mean to show their friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers that what they believe isn’t marginal or odd, but is a position that makes sense to “normal people.”  Depending upon the belief and the context, they risk something about those relationships, and maybe even the relationship itself.  They might also be risking being cast out from their community, getting beaten up or killed, losing a job, or going to jail.  Risk changes depending upon the issue and the community.

When people come out, they encourage others like themselves to do the same, often explicitly, and certainly by example.  They hope that there is some safety in numbers.

And it matters.  When the Supreme Court ruled (Bowers v. Hardwick, 1986) that states could prohibit some kinds of gay sex, Justice Lewis Powell, who voted in support of the decision, reportedly told his colleagues that he had never known someone gay–one of his clerks was closeted.  Justice Harry Blackmun’s dissent was drafted by a clerk who was openly gay.

We have to believe that one reason support for same sex marriage has grown so rapidly is that more and more Americans are learning that friends and neighbors and relatives are gay, and are much less comfortable discriminating against people they have come to view as, maybe, normal.  No one doubts that gays and lesbians haven’t served in the American military since there was a military–even if their sexual orientation was hidden.  And as it gets safer, gay men and lesbians become more likely to come out, and coming out has been an integral part of a movement strategy.

But risk hasn’t disappeared for gays and lesbians, even if it has diminished in many settings.  Even relatively recently, members of Congress whose same sex activities were exposed were more eager to claim identity as alcoholics than as gay.

Kathryn Himmelstein’s study shows that gay teens, although no more likely to get in trouble than straight students, were likely to face much harsher punishments.  As reported in the New York Times:

She used data collected from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which followed middle and high school students for seven years beginning in 1994. The study is a broad overview of adolescent health but contained information on teen sexuality and both minor and serious misconduct. The study asked teens about nonviolent misdeeds like alcohol use, lying to parents, shoplifting and vandalism, as well as more serious crimes like using a weapon, burglary or selling drugs.

Notably, teens who identified themselves as lesbian or gay or who experienced feelings of same-sex attraction were less likely to engage in violence than their peers. However, they were far more likely to be expelled from school, stopped by police, arrested or convicted of a crime.

Girls who labeled themselves as lesbian or bisexual appeared to be at highest risk for punishment, experiencing 50 more police stops and about twice the risk of arrest and conviction as other girls who reported similar levels of misconduct.

Now what about those young men and women who risk deportation? Take Pedro Ramirez (right), elected student body president at Cal State Fresno.  Ramirez, a high school valedictorian and double-major, could not receive the small salary for being student body president because he doesn’t have a social security number.   Brought to the United States at age three, he says he didn’t realize he was an illegal immigrant until he started applying to colleges.  Cal State administrators were willing not to pay him, and to keep his status a secret, but Ramirez came out in response to a anonymous threat that he would be outed.  The LA Times reports

In a way, I’m relieved…I don’t want to be a liability or cost the school donations. I never really thought this was going to happen. But now that it’s out there, I finally feel ready to say ‘Yes, it’s me. I’m one of the thousands.’

He is one of tens of thousands, and increasing numbers of them have declared their status at marches or when questioning candidates for office.  They want to make their point as obvious as possible: they are young Americans who have already demonstrated significant achievement and tremendous potential for the future.  You may not realize that you know an illegal immigrant, they say, but you do.

In coming out, these people are risking not only their own deportation, but the safety and well-being of their families.  Their bet is that, when push comes to shove, Americans will want to protect young, ambitious, and honest young people who are among our best, brightest, and bravest.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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5 Responses to Coming Out and Movement Politics

  1. Pingback: DREAMers inside and outside the Democratic convention | Politics Outdoors

  2. Pingback: Tracing the progress of same sex marriage | Politics Outdoors

  3. Pingback: Coming out and opinion change | Politics Outdoors

  4. Pingback: Coming out on mental illness | Politics Outdoors

  5. Pingback: Coming out in the immigration debate | Politics Outdoors

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