Earlier this week I had a conversation with a cis-gender, straight woman whose opinion I respect, about my ruminations regarding the phrase “openly gay.” The moment that sparked this chat was the sharing of an article about one of the football coaches who will be leading a team in the upcoming Super Bowl. While trying to share our individual responses to what is indeed great news, it seemed to me that we didn’t entirely understand where the other is coming from.
When I see this phrase pop up in the media, being a person who over thinks all the things and feels all the feelings, an array of complex thoughts and feelings always percolate to the surface. At first glance, of course the phrase alerts me to news about a queer person who I probably want to know about. Usually it’s a great story about someone in a professional role that for straight folks might seem uncommon for someone who identifies at LGBTQ+ It’s great to learn about more and more people living authentically and doing work they love in every sector of society. Visibility matters. Let me say that again – visibility matters.
Visibility matters to the young woman who hopes to play and coach professional sports. Visibility matters to LGBTQ+ people who are called to be a doctor, teacher, pastor or any field under the sun where one might otherwise be expected to hide the fullness of their humanity. When we see a queer person living authentically and thriving in their chosen field of work, it lets us know, it lets everyone know, that we don’t have to hide, lie or suppress our own truth to do the work in the world we are called to do. Visibility matters to young people who are still under the impression that the world (maybe even their parents) will hate them if they tell the truth about who they are and how they have been created to love. Visibility matters to middle aged people who have suppressed their true selves and are just starting to wrestle with their truth. Visibility matters to LGBTQ+ people of any age who need to see someone like themselves reflected and thriving in the world around us. Visibility = courage. Visibility = hope. Visibility = peace. Visibility = life.
Alongside gratitude for the visibility of folks like me, I also think, hmmm, what is the writer trying to communicate to different audiences with the phrase “openly gay?” In other words, what is their motive? Openly gay reminds me of the closet that so many are still in and where millions of folks want us to remain huddled and ashamed. Intended or not, openly gay smacks of “why do you have to rub it in our faces?”
My heart also hears a similar phrase often used in religious contexts when someone is being defrocked (UMC) or otherwise abused by their community of faith – “practicing homosexual.” This is a phrase used by religious people meant to control and publicly shame a person, to remind them (and those still in the closet) of deadly theology, of the sick lie that they are an abomination.
And on a very personal and painful note, the phrase always reminds me of something my mother said many years ago. Shortly after a stage collapsed at Atlanta Pride (in 2006), she told me she wished people, including her own daughter, had been hurt in the accident, she said “what do THEY have to be proud about anyway?” She went on to say how disgusting “it is” and that we should not be flaunting our depravity. Though we later reconciled and she made great strides to understand who I am, those words will forever ring in my ears reminding me that “openly gay” is sometimes code for disgusting and depraved.
Ultimately what this all calls to mind is what I most long for – the day when queer folks are neither closeted or out, we just are. For the most part, I’m privileged to live my own life, day in and day out, exactly like this. I do not think of myself, nor EVER refer to myself as “openly gay.” My wife and I work in a k-12 school in The Netherlands – she in the high school and I in the elementary school. Our colleagues know we are married and it would never occur to either of us to be “secretly gay.” Parents and students know us and somehow we manage to just be Ms. L and Miss Kimberly, teacher and secretary. We are just Betsy and Kim, each an individual in her professional role and a couple who hangs out with friends after work like any other married couple who works here (there are quite a few). Why on earth would we behave or describe ourselves any differently than any other couple. We’re not an “openly gay married couple” any more than our friends are “openly straight married couples,” we’re just married. We’re just people.
So back to the news that sparked all of this – the first female, openly gay coach in the Super Bowl – Katie Sowers. While it is important to note this groundbreaking moment, the vision I have for such things would be an article that focuses on what Katie has to say about her goals for her team. Let’s have an article that details her strategies as an offensive assistant coach. I bet Betsy would love to read an article comparing Katie’s stats as a coach with the stats of Corey Matthaei, the Kansas City Chief’s offensive line coach. I think you get what I mean.
Now, my hearing and understanding of things is of course different than yours, and maybe it is just the word “openly” that sticks in my craw, and if all this is just navel gazing over semantics, then I can reassess my point of view. I am genuinely keen to find out what you, especially folks who identify as LGBTQ+, think about the phrase “openly gay.”
Until I read the article it had not occurred to me that the term “openly gay” was anything other than descriptive and neutral, probably because I had not heard the term in a context that is negative.
However I am from a different part of the world and live in one of the better places when it comes to accepting diversity (so I am told). We live in an area of a big city with a strong local village community culture.
The term does seem old fashioned and associated with a time when prejudice was worse than now. Growing up as a child in the 60s and 70s my parents seemed to believe that homosexuality was a disease but as such was not a choice so was no reason to treat people badly or differently (plenty of people then believed the disease part but for some reason saw that as an excuse for prejudice).
I suppose that was why I never heard the term then in a negative way growing up which may have influenced my perceptions.
I should add that my parents became much more enightened over time and we have a photo of mum in her 80s jouning in waving a rainbow flag at a performance by a local gay orchestra.
I am not LBTQ+ and mabe my perceptions would be different if I was.
Thank you for your reflection and sharing a bit of your history and understanding. It is indeed unfortunate that your parents (and millions of people) once thought of homosexuality as a disease, but it is also really great news that you feel they have grown in their understanding.
I also appreciate your awareness that not being LGBTQ+ does impact how you hear and understand language about queer folks. Just as I will not hear language about people of color the same as folks in that community, we are all only able to understand fully that which we experience in our own humanity.
I appreciate the opportunity your sharing your views with the LGBTQ community, I too understand. I’m gay myself and live in this time in history is challenging. I never thought I would meet others like myself until I went to my first college, back in the half of the year of 2008. That experience gave me hope to learn to be open to others regardless of how they think. And courage to be myself towards beyond my time there.