The gay community has always been trapped by a damnable catch-22: our best weapons in the fight for sexual freedom are our individual choices to proudly declare ourselves queer; yet our greatest challenge is still the insidious pressure to hide.
So it’s no wonder that, nearly forty years after the Stonewall uprising, so much of our politics still turns on delivering a single message to gay folks: come out and stand proudly as who you are. We march our Pride celebrations down main streets worldwide every June. We laud LGBT celebrities who refuse to obfuscate about their sexuality. And every Oct. 11 we celebrate National Coming Out Day.
That urgency is surely appropriate, because the closet is a poisonous place. Those lingering in shame face life with both emotional and physical handicaps. And they harm others—history is littered with closeted gay men and women who have led self-destructive campaigns to demonize others who refuse to stay quiet or accept second-class status. From congressional offices to high school classrooms, people who are struggling to repress their own sexuality are often the most insistent about keeping everyone else in the shadows, too.
The good news is that the come-out message is breaking through, particularly among youth. For every public figure who dodges questions about sexuality, there are scores of young people who are bravely speaking up for themselves at ages as early as thirteen.
And some of these young people are able to compellingly articulate the collective stakes of these seemingly individual choices. In a story recounted in my book, Drifting Toward Love, which follows the lives of several gay youth in New York, 21-year-old Hermone, put it this way to her closeted best friend and roommate: “I feel you on being scared. But the extent to which you’re out is the extent to which you’re an ally to me. Your not being out jeopardizes my safety.” Hermone explained to her friend how homophobia, and the struggle against it, works: that there’s strength in numbers on her side and that fear like his emboldens the homophobes on the other side.
But as more and more young people like Hermone bravely stand up, they also put themselves at great risk. They risk being shunned by family: studies estimate anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. They risk being the target of brutal violence like that dished out to fifteen-year-old Sakia Gunn, who was stabbed to death in 2003 after she rebuffed a man flirting with her and her friends by announcing that they were lesbians. And they risk their health as they embark on sexual exploration amid an officially imposed silence about ways to do so in an affirming way.
All of these difficult realities mean the gay community—and individual gay adults—must do more than exhort folks to come out. We must also take care of those who do so, particularly youth.
The estimated 3,000 to 8,000 homeless queer youth in New York City easily overwhelm the one hundred or so beds available in gay-affirming shelters. At last count, just two state school systems included neutral or affirming discussions about homosexuality in sex ed curriculums. The few gay mentoring programs that exist nationwide are struggling to find adult participants. These and other issues of crucial importance to gay youth must get the same communal attention as the important drive for gay marriage.
The closet remains gay America’s worst enemy, and young people all over the country are rightly kicking its doors down. But everybody—gay or straight—who longs for an America free of sexual bigotry must rally to make sure those young people step out into safety rather than still more danger.
Kai Wright is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared in Essence, Mother Jones, The Progressive, and the Village Voice. His new book, Drifting Towards Love: Black, Brown, Gay, and Coming Out on the Streets of New York, will be published in January by Beacon Press. He is also publications editor for the Black AIDS Institute and author of two previous books on African American history.