Coming Out in Oregon

Happy National Coming Out Day! I wrote this four years ago when I was an editor for the Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon; it was published in October of 2013. This piece became quickly outdated with then-Secretary of State Kate Brown's ascendancy to Governor and the election of Rep. Rob Nosse and now Rep. Karin Power, two openly LGBTQ legislators. That's good news.

The bad news: Oregon's Secretary of State recently declared his belief that being gay is immoral. Yes, in 2017. That's what we're up against. Despite amazing wins for basic rights over the last decade, this is still not an easy time for anyone to come out -- especially a closeted kid who hears what the Dennis Richardsons and Mike Pences of the world think about the LGBTQ community. It's an important reminder (especially for people like me, living comfortably on the west coast) that the LGBTQ rights movement is far from over, and legal wins don't immediately translate to social inclusion. There's more work to do.

So, on this October 11, let's commit to making coming out as easy as possible for all the people struggling with the decision. It's hard, but it's worth it. 

I’m bisexual. Coming out was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. Here’s how two women I barely knew made it a little bit easier.

I got lucky. When I came out to my friends (of all political and religious persuasions) the response was overwhelmingly positive. Most were surprised. Some not so much. But almost all of my peers greeted my news with a smile and a, “Congratulations, Ben. I’m proud of you.”

I’m lucky I live in a progressive part of Oregon. I’m lucky I came out at the U of O (where being anti-gay is much more taboo than actually being gay) and not in middle or high school. I’m lucky to have friends and family that love me unconditionally.

Most closeted LGBT people would give anything for circumstances like mine.

Yet for eight months I still went to sleep every night with shame, embarrassment, and anxiety. I was scared. I felt like a coward. I knew that once I came out, I could never go back in. My imagination ran wild with worst-case scenarios.

My chest still tightens when I remember my moments of weakness: when I tearfully looked my boyfriend in the eyes and told him, “I can’t do it. I will never come out. I just can’t.” The dozens of times I lied to my best friends and family about who I am. All of the times I refused to let my boyfriend hold my hand in public, as if our relationship was something we should both be ashamed of.

I needed role models who had done this before and made it — people that I could identify with and look to for support.

OR Capitol Blue Skies.jpg

Enter Kate and Tina.

Kate Brown, Oregon’s secretary of state, openly bisexual, is one of only a tiny handful of “out” candidates to be elected to a statewide office in the 237-year history of the United States.

Tina Kotek, Oregon’s speaker of the House of Representatives, is the first lesbian speaker of any legislative chamber in the country.

I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to work in politics and public policy. Whatever hindrance Brown and Kotek’s sexuality were in their professional careers and personal lives, they obviously weren’t insurmountable. They are two of the most influential people in the entire state. In 10 years, few political junkies would be surprised to read the words “Governor Kate Brown” or “Congresswoman Tina Kotek.”

Sure, Brown will admit that her sexuality has complicated her professional career at times. While she served in the state Senate, her colleagues were suspicious that she might “push the gay agenda.” When she served as the caucus leader for Senate Democrats, there were rumors circulating on Oregon’s coast (a swing district) that if the Democratic candidate in the district won, there would be a “lesbian bisexual Senate president” – a bizarre insult aimed at tanking the Democrat.  Brown felt horrible that who she was could negatively impact one of her candidates.

As the only out member of the legislature, Kotek is the default spokesperson for the LGBT community.  In 2007, she was sitting on the House floor during the debate over civil unions for LGBT couples. During deliberation over the bill, some of her colleagues would turn to her and say, “Don’t take this personally,” as a tone-deaf preface to hurtful statements about why gay people shouldn’t be entitled to equal rights. It was Tina’s job to politely explain that, actually, it was very personal.

Brown and Kotek have both responded to challenges with humility and grace. They’ve turned their sexuality from a liability to an asset. As I struggled to accept who I am, they were exactly the people that I needed to see.

I’m lucky to have role models like Brown and Kotek. But there are young people across this country who need their own examples.  Closeted LGBT students from middle school to college need to see successful business leaders, teachers, lawyers, and doctors.  Coming out matters not just because friends and family of LGBT people are more likely to support equality, but because other people stuck in the closet need to see strength and courage from others like them.

So if you’re in the closet, take Kotek’s advice: “Being out is great. It gives you the freedom and opportunity to be who you really are.  And when you’re ready to be there, we’ll be here for you.”

Yes we will.