Coming Out into Community
June 17, 2016
By Ginny Gilder
“I don’t mind being gay, but I’m never gonna fly that rainbow flag,” I protested to my girlfriend, Lynn. We were on a California beach near Santa Cruz celebrating my friend Camille’s fiftieth birthday, a group of a dozen lesbians, most of whom were dancing, clapping, prancing around the beach with big rainbow flags held high. Lynn and I stood on the edge of the group, shoulders hunched, our hands noticeably empty of any sticks hoisting multi-colored fabric, thrust deep in our pants pockets.
It was 1998. My fourteen year marriage to my three children’s father was foundering. I was stepping into a new life with Lynn, who was also ditching her decades-long marriage, gingerly carrying my dream of merging our five children into one family. We’d fled our Seattle coop and the pain and guilt of our progressing divorces for a weekend to revel in our new identities as gay girls. So why, at my first chance to bond with other lesbians, did I feel such distaste?
Perhaps I should have realized, in the twilight of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twenty-first, that my approach to my own homosexuality proved coming out was not just a private, but a public act, and a political one. I did not make any of my choices—first, as a twenty-five year old to live in hiding from myself as a straight person, then to confront, acknowledge, and slowly embrace my full identity fifteen years later—in a vacuum. They were all reasonable decisions made in the context of American society’s views on homosexuality.
Lynn and I made it through the party without offending anybody. Afterwards, I started sorting out what being gay actually meant. I balked at the idea that, because my true love was a woman instead of a man, I should claim membership in a group that was so publicly adamant about its identity. I didn’t want to set myself any further apart from the mainstream. Couldn’t I just be out and proud quietly? Did I have to advertise my diverse status? I questioned whether my sexuality, a solitary dimension of my identity, should trump everything else about me, loom above other aspects of myself as the essential identifier. What was the point, other than to magnify my sense of separation? Waving that damn rainbow flag all over the place would just give people a reason to label, judge, and avoid me. I couldn’t see the upside.
Even in liberal Seattle, though, I began to discover the perils of being gay in America. I wasn’t publicly shamed or physically attacked. But I had crossed a line with my father that had diminished his view of and respect for me; I couldn’t blink away the stares evoked by my holding hands with Lynn in public; and I couldn’t ignore my distressed kids’ stories about their classmates’ reactions to my sexuality. Of course I knew about Mathew Shepard’s beating, torture and death, in Laramie, WY, which happened a month before my friend Camille’s birthday. I’d heard about attacks on gays in communities around the country, from Rockford, AL to Redding, CA, from Queens, Philadelphia, and Newark to Cortez, CO, Elizabethtown, KY, and Grant Town, WV. Maybe stepping out in solidarity with other gays wasn’t all about me.
My own experience of daily life, combined with the glaring reality of discrimination of gays everywhere (in 2013, perceived sexual orientation was the genesis of over 20% of hate crimes reported to police in the US) taught me the value of joining a community that acknowledges the challenges of being gay; battles daily for protection, validity, recognition, and respect; and reminds me to keep my head up proudly. I didn’t embrace the need for solidarity with the greater GLBTQ community overnight, but slowly my awareness of belonging to this larger movement awakened, along with my desire to participate, to strengthen and be nurtured by it.
Today, Lynn, now my wife, and I own a piece of property we named “Rainbow Rock.” Rainbow stickers adorn our vehicles. We attend Pride parades, donate regularly to several organizations working to promote and protect gay rights, and seek to engage and educate others. Lynn also joined the national board of Lambda Legal, where she served for six years. In short, we have embraced our rightful place in this diverse and precious community.
Joining forces with others creates a sense of harmony, safety, and affirmation in a world where difference is usually deemed threatening. In the immediate wake of the Orlando murders, the need for solidarity couldn’t be more evident, both within the GLBTQ community and the broader American citizenry. Hate seems to lack boundaries these days. Sticking together, remembering love is far more powerful than hate, rejecting the politics of fear, affirming the potency of diversity as a source of profound and lasting strength—now that’s solidarity.
As an out and proud gay girl living in this country I love, I’m counting on our solidarity, both within the gay community and the broader citizenry, to help heal the broken hearts of those in the Orlando community. I’m counting on that solidarity to confront the dysfunction of a rage-filled minority, terrified by the idea of a pluralistic society dedicated to freedom of expression. And, I’m luxuriating in that solidarity, knowing that there’s a place I belong, without question.
About the Author
Ginny Gilder is an Olympic silver medalist in rowing, the founder and CEO of an investment business, and co-owner of the Seattle Storm. The mother of three children and stepmother of two, Gilder lives with her wife, Lynn, and their two poodles in Seattle, Washington. Follow her on Twitter at @ginnygilder and visit her website.