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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Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

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Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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