Coming Out: The Original Revolutionary LGBTQ Action

Bennett Singer explains why coming out matters—for the LGBTQ community and the straight community alike, and especially for those who are not in a safe position to do so.

Bennett Singer: When you look at public opinion, one of the clearest markers of how dramatically things have shifted is the number of people who say that they know an openly gay or lesbian person.

Back in 1985 it was 24 percent of Americans who said they knew an open gay or lesbian person. By last year that had shifted up to 88 percent.

And so, we actually dedicated the book—it’s a statistics book, but we dedicated the book to an unknown number, which is the number of people who have had the courage to come out. And that’s an impossible number to document or quantify. But I think it is the starting point for the revolutionary progress that has been made.

Harvey Milk and other pioneers of gay and lesbian liberation made that basic point that coming out was a first step towards greater equality because visibility would lead straight Americans to understand and accept and embrace and advocate for equality for LGBT folks. And so this movement toward acceptance I think is completely intertwined with the growing visibility and the openness and the honesty that LGBT folks have embraced.

I do think data collection and the dissemination of survey results and polls is really important. At the same time I think if we’re talking about what the single most important factor might be, in terms of the revolution toward greater equality for LGBT people, I think you’ve got to look at the media and the idea that media portrayals have shifted so dramatically. That’s one of my favorite chapters in the book actually, the section on film and TV and other forms of media, which when you look at early television portrayals in the '70s and '80s there were occasional gay and lesbian characters, but generally the laughing stock of any given show. And the very first gay couple was on a Normal Lear series called 'Hot L Baltimore' about this hotel in Baltimore. That program wasn’t even broadcast in Baltimore and it was canceled after a handful of episodes, and it was preceded by this warning, you know, to make sure parents didn’t allow their children to be corrupted by the morally questionable content. And so you fast forward from that to something like 'Will & Grace' or 'The Ellen DeGeneres Show' where you have open gay and lesbian characters actually living their lives.

And people can quibble—and I think for good reason—with some of the portrayals, but when you look at the overall trend, just the very fact that mainstream television and network television is showing and embracing healthy, gay characters in committed relationships and in a really positive light, I do think that has been fundamental to the changes we’ve seen.
And then I also think that the ongoing collection of data through organizations like Gallup and the Williams Institute is also fundamental in terms of reminding people that there is this trend towards greater acceptance, and I think that growing acceptance, as reflected by the numbers, leads people to be more open with pollsters so that if Gallup’s numbers on “Should same sex activity be legal?” As those numbers go up—or “Should same sex marriage be legalized?”—as those numbers go up I think that reporting in turn encourages people to reveal their inner support.

So there is a trend and a cycle whereby growing awareness and growing reporting of this awareness leads to greater acceptance.

Not everyone is in a position where it is wise or safe to come out as gay, lesbian, trans, or bisexual—but for those who can, it is a heroic and revolutionary act. We've known that since Harvey Milk campaigned for gay people to make themselves visible to their families and general public: the more stereotypes are met as actual people, the less we fear what is different. There has been an incredible shift in acceptance over the last 30 years and Bennett Singer, co-author of LGBTQ Stats: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer People by the Numbers, puts it down to two primary things: media visibility and data collecting. Mainstream TV has steadily increased its positive portrayals of LGBTQ people, and prominent personalities like Ellen Degeneres are given prime time spots. Progress can also be measured by statistics, which increasingly reflect those people who have the courage to come out, and their families and friends who can now answer surveys more honestly. "Back in 1985 it was 24 percent of Americans who said they knew an open gay or lesbian person," says Singer. "By last year that had shifted up to 88 percent." Conducting these surveys is only half the power of them however, the rest is in the reporting of those stats. Acceptance works through a cycle of reminders and awareness, says Singer: "Growing awareness and growing reporting of this awareness leads to greater acceptance." Bennett Singer's most recent book is co-authored with his husband, David Deschamps: LGBTQ Stats: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer People by the Numbers.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.