The Value of Being Out

Tonight I came across this interview about GLB issues with Barack Obama, and one passage in particular resonated with me:

A college professor of mine helped me to see the lives of LGBT people from a different perspective. He was the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with. And he was just a terrific guy.  His comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues.

I, too, had an experience like that: a fellow student of mine who was willing to tell anyone and everyone that he was gay.  Steve wasn’t an authority figure (although I would meet plenty later), but still an example of pride and self-acceptance who inspired me to reexamine and discard my homophobia.  I had known many closet cases and “don’t ask, don’t tell” gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, and their own shame and fear had given me license to judge them.  I just couldn’t do that with Steve, and after a while I realized that I couldn’t do it with myself either.

This is the reason why I think we non-transition-track transgender people (transvestites, cross-dressers, etc.) should practice some verbal hygiene on the term “out” and stop using it to describe someone who cross-dresses in public settings that are still anonymous, and who doesn’t disclose their transgenderism to their family, friends, neighbors or co-workers.  Of course there’s such a thing as too much information, but there are times when people need to know that we’re transgender.

Clearly our next president benefited from the information he got from his professor, and more importantly, from his professor’s own self-acceptance and self-respect.  The gay and lesbian communities have benefited from Obama’s acceptance and respect.  If transvestites ever hope to be accepted and respected, we have to accept and respect ourselves, and be out of the closet.  And this kind of “out” has very little to do with clothes: we can be out to our friends and neighbors without them ever seeing us in a skirt, wig or maid costume.  All it takes is these three words, “I’m a transvestite.”  Could you say them to Barack Obama?  Could you say them, with pride, to a student who might some day be president?

Update. August 2009: I just discovered that Steve’s husband died tragically in March.  Steve wrote for Americablog about how some of his experiences afterwards highlighted the connection between being out, marriage equality and respect.  Last week, he wrote about how it related to his lexicography work.