This month’s issue of Camp celebrates two themes: October is LGBT History Month, and Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day.
As we get closer to Election Day, much has been made by media outlets and Hillary Clinton opponents about how Clinton didn’t tell the press and the public that she had pneumonia until after she had to leave the Sept. 11 tribute in New York City due to her health.
Once again, people said she was lying to the public. But Clinton’s campaign said she didn’t disclose her illness because she “didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal.” She probably felt she wasn’t lying, but rather was simply not bothering to tell people about her personal health, because after all, it’s personal.
The incident made me wonder about the fine line between simply not telling people something they felt they needed to know and outright lying. For LGBT people, this subject is far too close to home, and it’s called “the closet.”
I was raised Catholic. We were taught about mortal sins and less-serious venial sins. We went to confession weekly to tell a priest behind the confessional screen about anything we had done that we considered to be a sin.
I took it seriously. I confessed to far more than I probably needed to, but Catholicism encourages guilt over every minor infraction. It doesn’t take much to be considered a sin.
So I didn’t lie. I was taught that was wrong.
The toughest thing for me to comprehend in adolescence was that I was not attracted to girls and that I was going to have to lie about that. It was incomprehensible for me to think about a lifetime of lying, but I thought I had no choice. There were no openly gay role models on TV or in politics at that time. I honestly thought this deep, dark secret of same-sex attraction would be something I would have to bear my entire life.
Being gay to me meant a lifetime of secrets. And for me and many young people, that thought was so unbearable that suicide became something many of us thought of quite often.
I survived that period, but still kept lying about my sexuality. I moved from the Midwest to the West Coast primarily to keep my sexual orientation from ever being known to my family. It was easier to live 2,000 miles away. I didn’t have to talk on the phone every day and lie about who I was dating or about being out with friends at a gay bar the night before.
I’m open now with family and friends about being gay, but I’m hardly alone in those memories of secrets. Many in the LGBT community cannot tell their employers they are gay for fear of being fired. Many still cannot come out to their families for fear of being disowned. For decades, our brave LGBT men and women in uniform had to lie about their sexual orientation because the truth would mean being discharged from the military. As a nation, we even encouraged those lies – or omissions of truth – with the shameful years of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy.
I understand some of the public’s unease about Hillary Clinton when they say they don’t trust her. Years ago at one of my jobs, my managers had a complaint about me. They said they “didn’t know how to read me.” That was because I thought of my job as something separate from my personal life, like the separation of church and state. It bothered my managers that I didn’t ask about their spouses and kids or share anything about my personal life.
I wasn’t necessarily lying. If someone wanted to know whether I was gay, I’d tell them. But I didn’t talk about it at work. I didn’t talk about my partner or what I did with friends. There were no photos of my partner, our home, or our pets in my office.
I didn’t change, and my relationship with my managers never got better. Finally, I was called in to a manager’s office and fired. They told me “it was not working out.” It had nothing to do with my work performance. I passed every annual review with flying colors. It was honestly because the employees didn’t know how to “read me.”
Publishing Camp, we’ve had to be sensitive to avoid photographing people who were not out. I wrote a story about our FrontRunners group many years ago, and the photographs I took showed the men running away from the camera instead of toward it, because one member was in the military so we couldn’t show his face.
I interviewed a gay physician years ago, but couldn’t mention his partner because he was in the military. I remember less than 10 years ago when a TV station filmed people at a fundraiser in a gay bar, they focused on people’s hands on the tables and avoided including their faces. In fact, I can remember people running to the bathrooms if they saw a photographer or TV crew in a gay bar.
Obviously, I’m not equating being LGBT with being a politician. We expect to know the full truth about public figures, even if someone feels it’s not important.
But as we celebrate our history and celebrate coming out this month, it’s still important to remind ourselves that lying, or omitting the truth, belongs in the closet. The truth will set you free.