LGBT History Month – guest commentary
Most Americans are aware that we celebrate Halloween in October. But far fewer know October is also LGBT History Month and the time of year we commemorate National Coming Out Day.
Unfortunately, many of us in the LGBT community spend too much time hiding behind identities that are not our own, akin to dressing up on Halloween. Why is it that in 2018 are we still concealing our identities? As a vocal researcher, activist, author, and member of the LGBTQ community, the answer is because of the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community — often amid homophobia and hate — create stress in our lives. In turn, that stress undermines our individual health and the health of our population.
Coming out is about living one’s truth. This year’s commemoration of LGBT History Month and Coming Out Day (October 11, 2018) had particular salience for me since I spent the last year documenting the coming out stories of 15 gay men. They ranged in age from 19 to 78. Every gay man with whom I spoke for this project and others I have known throughout the course of my life have experienced, and continue to experience, the ongoing process of coming out and living their individual truths.
It is why when I assumed the role of Dean at Rutgers School of Public Health. I was resolute in sharing my narrative — I was the first openly gay man named as a dean of a school in the university’s 250-year history. It is not as if other gay men had not been deans. Undoubtedly in the pre-Stonewall era some had been in the closet, while other gay men fill these roles today. But none live their whole identity — their individual truth — every day of their lives. My life as a gay man is front and center in all aspects of my life, including my career and scholarship. That is my truth.
All experiences are colored by the conditions of the time we live
Despite the social and political advances we have made toward equality in the last 50 years, there is a substantial faction within our country who demean, ridicule, victimize, and kill gay men and other LGBTQ people. Earlier this month, we commemorated Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, who was beaten, tortured, and left to die 20 years ago for living his truth. Hate continues to be spewed by many, including political and religious figures.
Each generation’s coming out experiences are colored by the conditions of the time. As a member of the AIDS Generation, our struggle was to stay alive while we fought a virus that was exacerbated by societal ignorance. For those before me, the Stonewall Generation, the battle was to be able to live openly without fear of punishment from the law, without fear of being physically assaulted or murdered, or without fear of being “repaired” through illegitimate forms of treatments or chemical castration.
Today’s young gay men, whom I have come to know as the Queer Generation, still face the challenges of the past. This is compounded by limited fiscal opportunities and a white middle class hypermasculine archetype. What connects all of us is our lifelong reality of reconciling those feelings of otherness we experience as young boys and the ongoing reality of coming out and living our truth. You see we don’t come out just once. We come out our entire lives.
Greece is the country of my origins
Last year, I traveled to Athens, Greece, to meet with colleagues at universities to build global collaborations. At, 55, and despite trying to live my truth, I found myself again confronted with the challenges of coming out. While in the country of my origins, I was very conscious of my sexuality and coming out to my newest collaborators. Until very recently, Greece, has been highly resistant toward the LGBTQ population. When the country’s lawmakers proposed civil union legislation for same sex partners in 2015, the Greek Orthodox Church, a stronghold in the country, fought with all its might against it. That includes Metropolitan Amvrosios, who said of gay people, “Spit on them! They’re disgraceful! They’re nature’s abominations!”
A year earlier, during my mother’s memorial service at St. Demetrios Cathedral of Astoria, Queen, a priest, who will be forever known to me as Ernie, went out of his way to angrily declare the law of the land is not the law of god. He was fully conscious that my husband and I were in the first pew grieving our loss. His hate cut right through me. But for every Ernie there is a Metropolitan Nikitas, a prominent leader in the church who has embraced me as I work with him and others to enlighten my religious leaders on the challenges faced by gay men like me.
During my time in Greece, there were moments that transported me back to when I was 18 years old. I relived the disclosure of my identity to my parents and my hyper-consciousness about my sexuality. But instead of turning inward, I spoke with love and zeal about my life as a gay man, my husband, and my career dedicated to eradicating HIV and the multitude of other health disparities experienced by my people that were fueled by social inequities and discrimination.
You see for me — and for all gay men — pride means living our truth in every moment. And it means stepping out from behind the mask.
Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH is Dean and Director of the Center for Health, Identity Behavior & Prevention Studies, School of Public Health, Rutgers University. His book Out in Time; From Stonewall to Queer, How Gay Men Came of Age Across the Generations will be published by Oxford University Press in 2019. Follow him on Twitter: @DrPNHalkitis.