Especially when Ellen DeGeneres got her own show! Not the one where she dances, but that first one, where she accidentally came out into a microphone that was on a podium and she didn't know that it was turned on but it totally was! And then Will and Grace was on TV! And RuPaul! And later those Queer Eye guys coined the word "manscaping!"
These days, it's practically fashionable to be a Hollywood gay, or, at least, to be banging one. Many of the same gay celebrities who helped to catapult homosexuality into the mainstream in the '80s and '90s have maintained a high profile, parlaying their relationships into continuing examples of gay activism. Ellen and Elton married Portia and David, and a host of young celebs have set a (mostly) positive LGBT example for their fans. Thanks for keeping the dream going, Lindsay Lohan. We like your hustle.
Organization and activism: Then and now
It's hard to galvanize any community if it's forced to function as a secret society. O'Connell says that, as a confused high-school student in Revere, she had absolutely no idea if any of her peers were gay. Years later she found out, after being plucked from the line outside the now-defunct lesbian club Someplace Else by the bouncer — who'd been one of O'Connell's high-school classmates and a popular athlete. Once inside, O'Connell was surprised, again, to find three more sporty school-chum ladies sitting at the bar — giggling, because, they said, they'd always watched O'Connell in high school, just waiting for her to come out. Supportive, huh? And not at all creepy.
The establishment of the first Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) very much facilitated the coming-out process for young people, even more so once the organization started to snowball to the rest of the country. Founded at Concord Academy (in Massachusetts, y'all) by Kevin Jennings — who also founded the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), known originally as the Gay and Lesbian Independent School Teachers Network (GLSTN) — the student group aimed to create and maintain a supportive and safe environment for all students, regardless of sexual identification. In other words, gay students finally had an excuse to meet other gay students and gay-tolerant students, and a forum in which to discuss all things gay and student-y. Plus, the GSA served (and continues to serve) as an introduction to political activism. College-application bonus! There are now thousands of GSAs — more than 4000 of which are registered with GLSEN. (Go to glsen.org for more information.)
The local young LGBT community has, of late, been focusing their efforts on promoting same-sex marriage and combating civil abominations like California's Prop 8. Social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental in helping to organize protests, demonstrations, and vigils. The local chapter of Join the Impact used Facebook almost exclusively to unite a localized force of opposition to Prop 8, and, again, to advertise related events. Grassroots politics are charged with power when making good use of online tools — crucial, in this day of instant communication and viral outreach.
Communicating: Then and now
O'Connell recalls that, back in her time, people — especially parents — lacked the vocabulary necessary to have a conversation about homosexuality. Men were "flamboyant" or "mama's boys," not "gay." Women were "spinsters" with "roommates." AIDS was known as the "gay disease." It wasn't cool, as it is now among the liberal-arts-college circuit, to dabble in try-sexuality. And even if it were, nobody was talking about it. In fact, O'Connell says, if you dared come out to your parents, all of their dreams for you died. No wedding, no kids, no future.
Thanks in large part to the aforementioned innovations in technology and entertainment, there are now more opportunities for parents to ask their kids about sexuality, and more jumping-off points for conversation. In fact, for those parents of LGBT offspring who live in the great states of Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine, there is a joyously tulle-filled wedding-planning bender in their future.
Mostly, though, today it's okay to talk about sexuality. At least, more so than it used to be. Should you bring up your same-sex affinity for cock while at a family reunion Bible Belt barbecue? Probably not. But, today, it is pretty darn okay to talk with those you love and trust about who you're with, and about who you are.
None of this means that you should flaunt your orientation if you have reservations or fear for your physical or emotional well-being. Coming out should, overall, be a positive experience.
O'Connell and her One in Ten co-host, Keith Orr, advise young listeners who don't feel safe coming out to wait. Thankfully, Boston's Pride events are safe havens, celebrations of self and unity and sexuality and family. And dancing. Good lord, is there dancing. If there ever was a place to be yourself . . . I mean, last year at the parade I saw a woman bound in strips of latex, sporting leather fairy wings and about six pounds of glitter. And it was glorious.
Perhaps, though, the biggest and most valuable difference about coming out "then" versus "now" is best explained by O'Connell: the day has passed when the most interesting thing about you is that you're gay. If that's true, then it should be of great comfort to those who want just to get their sexuality out there and move on to more important things. Like Jazz Choir.
Sara Faith Alterman sometimes answers to the name Sam. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.