Congress Could Learn a Thing or Two From National Coming Out Day
This Friday marks the 25th anniversary of National Coming Out Day, a celebration of what it means to be openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or an ally. But it also marks nearly two weeks of an ongoing and escalating crisis in Washington, with a worsening government shutdown and a fast-approaching debt default.
At first glance, a national celebration of what it means to be LGBT and to express one's identity openly and honestly may seem completely unrelated from political brinkmanship. But as I thought about my own coming out story, I wondered if our political leaders could benefit from the dose of humility and empathy that one gains from difference.
Some of my earliest memories are imagining what my life would look like as an adult, and in every version of my idyllic future there was always a woman by my side, raising our children just as I thought everyone else did. At the same time, I secretly harbored an attraction to men and a deeply suppressed form of cognitive dissonance that told me every other guy must harbor the same attraction, or else mine somehow didn't preclude me from being straight.
There were times, of course, when this disconnect first came to fruition. In high school when my straight guy friends asked me which famous actress I found most attractive, I feigned an answer. Or in college, when my dad asked who I was dating and I made up a story about a girl. And then there were the times when I hid the person I was seeing from even my closest friends and family, preferring instead to give the impression of heterosexuality.
But even after my mom suspected my secret and encouraged me to live openly and honestly, I didn't somehow still retain a sense of majority status during and after my coming out process. In fact, as any LGBT person or member of any minority community will tell you, you're repeatedly reminded by mainstream culture just how different you are lest you dare try to forget.
For me, this manifested in the form of ridicule, stares, and taunts that practically every gay man has experienced. Like holding hands with the guy you're dating, and getting called a "queer" and laughed at by complete strangers; wanting to show public affection to your partner — just like straight couples do everyday without a thought — but fearing for your safety in the process; and going to a bar with like-minded friends, and finding yourself under sudden attack by other patrons threatening to physically assault you.
These stories, and way worse,are the kinds of risks that LGBT Americans and other minorities take every single day. But for me, the experience of being different taught me to turn to others rather than turn away from them. These basic trademarks of human decency — humility, empathy, and compassion — are also the highest ideals of public service, but our political leaders in Washington have shown little interest in governing by them.
One need not look much further than the public statements by members of both parties to see my point. As life-saving medical research is halted, support for vulnerable women and children is frozen, and emergency preparations for life-threatening storms are put on hold, most politicians continue to behave like everyone should just deal with it. An anonymous Obama administration official recently told the Wall Street Journal that "we are winning," a comment that the administration later distanced themselves from.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are demonstrating the full extent of their callousness. Members have variously told us that the shutdown is just not that big of a deal and that they have to get something out of it, which of course means keeping their paychecks even while hundreds of thousands of furloughed workers can't work because of their votes.
Part of the problem is not only the hyper-partisanship in Washington; it's that most politicians simply don't have the life experiences to care about anyone who's not them. There are only seven openly LGBT members of Congress, an historic but paltry 1% of a body that represents a nation with at least 3.5% of its citizens identifying as openly LGBT.
Congress also underrepresents the country in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status. Only 18% of Congress are women. Members of color collectively represent less than one-fifth of the body. At least 87% of the body identify as Christian; the average age is almost 60 years old; and most members are multi-millionaires.
Of course, there are no guarantees that a representative body more demographically attuned to the country won't shut the government down. There are no assurances that if only a few members of the LGBT community or other minorities served in Congress, we won't be amidst yet another crisis in governance. But a more diverse body just might act more charitably and compassionately, particularly when politics and policy can mangle livelihoods and put the nation's future at risk.
Indeed, just as many young people have the courage to come out as LGBT to their closest friends and family, members of Congress would be wise to follow our lead and show a bit of courage in their work. Perhaps then, if only momentarily, we'd see a glimpse of decency on Capitol Hill.