They were author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, comedienne Wanda Sykes, and singer Clay Aiken.
That they are gay and lesbian made not a scintilla of difference to me.
I am a woman. I am an African American. I am a lifelong human rights advocate. There is little that is more important to me than for each and every person to be afforded the opportunity to make the most of his or her own life, while being their own authentic selves.
And yet I know that, for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT), the simple fact of who they are can cost them their friends, their families, their places of worship, their jobs, their housing, (until recently) their right to serve the country – and even their lives.
That, to me, is why National Coming Out Day is so very important.
While I don’t tend to think that a person is straight by default, I also don’t tend to give a lot of thought to the sexuality of people with whom I’m not personally involved, especially not that of people in the public eye who I know only from the talents they share with the world.
And so I thought a little about three very different human beings, at different stages of their lives, from different backgrounds, upbringings, religions, philosophies, and personality types, who came to the decision that “the power of truth and living honestly is very liberating.”
I thought about a life in hiding: hiding an essential aspect of self, hiding who you love, hiding who you are. I thought about an old favorite song in a new way:
How can I even try?
I can never win
Hearing them, seeing them
In the state I'm in
How could she say to me
"Love will find a way?"
Gather round all you clowns
Let me hear you say
Hey you've got to hide your love away
Maurice Sendak (author and illustrator of Where The Wild Things Are, In The Night Kitchen, Outside, Over There and many works for television and stage) was 80 years old when he came out, a year and a half after the death of psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, Sendak’s partner of fifty years. In a New York Times interview, asked if there was anything he had never been asked in his long career, Sendak responded, “Well, that I’m gay,” adding, “I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business.”
Sendak, the son of Polish Jews, lives in New York City. He says (and I have no doubt that he is right) says that the idea of a gay man writing children’s books would have not been well-received when he was starting his career. The artist, though, is so intensely private that he not only did not tell his parents he was gay, he never told his elderly mother that he had had a heart attack when he was 39.
Though there might have been some noise out on the fringe, I do not recall any negative reaction to Sendak’s coming out. For as much as Sendak claims to hate people, he has earned a spot as a beloved literary icon. As far as being gay, the world might not have known, but he was out and in the open within his circle of artists and friends.
Wanda Sykes (actress, comedienne and Emmy Award winning writer) was 44 when she came out. In the aftermath of the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which stripped lesbians and gays of their existing right to get married in the state, Wanda found herself so enraged that, without planning to, she revealed that she was a lesbian and had just married her partner Alex the month before under the previous California law.
She told the crowd at the Las Vegas GLBT Center, "I don't really talk about my sexual orientation. I didn't feel like I had to. I was just living my life, not necessarily in the closet, but I was living my life."
"Everybody that knows me personally, they know I'm gay. But that's the way people should be able to live their lives."
But because of the passage of Proposition 8, she said “I felt like I was being attacked, personally attacked — our community was attacked."
"Now, I gotta get in their face. I'm proud to be a woman. I'm proud to be a black woman, and I'm proud to be gay."
Wanda, whom was born, raised and educated in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C., is the dauighter of an Army colonel and a banker. With a degree in marketing, she spent ten years working for the National Security Agency before moving to New York, later opening for Chris Rock and then becoming a writer for his show. Wanda has written a book and has starred in several comedy specials, as well as having many roles in television and film.
Sykes and her wife Alex are now the mothers of twins.
The reaction to Wanda coming out was overwhelmingly favorable. Though some people claimed that they knew all along, despite the fact that Wanda had been married to a man for seven years, she received a lot of support from the LGBT community as she raised the profile of her activism, doing PSA’s for GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) and receiving a GLAAD Award for promoting a positive image of an LGBT person in media.
Clay Aiken was 29 when he came out, a month after the birth of his son Parker Foster Aiken, whose mother is record executive Jaymes Foster. Appearing with his infant son on the cover of PEOPLE Magazine, Clay said that “(Coming out) was the first decision I made as a father. I cannot raise a child to lie or to hide things. I wasn't raised that way, and I'm not going to raise a child to do that."
Photo by A. Cotton
Clay was raised a Southern Baptist in a conservative family in Raleigh, North Carolina. (In his 2004 inspirational memoir, Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life, Clay self-identified as a Democrat and as a progressive.) In later interviews, he said that he thought he was a late bloomer, then later thought he might be bisexual, before accepting that he was gay in 2003. (Clay said that growing up. he only knew of a few very flamboyant gays in Raleigh and since he was not like that, did not believe he could be gay.)
When interviewed for a cover story for Rolling Stone magazine in the summer after he completed American Idol, Clay had said that people did not know what to make of him because he was “not gay or a womanizer.” That throwaway line (he had not yet told any of his family or friends in Raleigh that he was gay) became a point that some in the press continued to harp on. Clay did not repeat it: in fact, he later told Larry King and others that he was not going to talk about his sexuality anymore because “people will believe what they want to believe.”
The birth of Clay’s son was the tipping point for the singer, who by 2008 was also out to those in his personal and professional life. Fan reaction was mixed, from those who shrugged and went on with their plans to see Clay on Broadway, to those who were surprised but quickly adjusted, to those who reacted as though personally betrayed.
For some reason, media reaction was less welcome than it had been for Sendak, Sykes or the others who came out in that year. There was a degree of sneering “Of course” (as if Aiken’s sometimes over-the-top comic style was any more or less flamboyant than of say, Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, both straight at last notice.) There was even someone* who foolishly said it was too little, too late, as if Aiken had somehow missed the memo that he was overdue for his debut at the coming out cotillion. (*This man later wrote that gay actors can’t play straight roles, so consider the source.)
Before coming out, Clay never denigrated members of the LGBT community, he never worked to block their rights or make their lives a single degree more difficult. I will never understand how negatively some reacted to his coming out. Perhaps, even though some stood in his shoes, they did not believe he could be both gay and Christian. Perhaps their erroneous assumption (made despite ample evidence to the contrary) that Clay was some arch-conservative reactionary colored their thoughts.
Clay has gone on to be an advocate for LGBT issues, particularly as it applies to young people. He has testified before Congress for GLSEN on the importance of building a safe school environment for students of all orientations and backgrounds. In addition to his continued support of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Clay has received an award from the Family Equality Council for presenting a positive face for gay parenting, spoken at the HRC’s gala and been a presenter at GLAAD’s Media Awards. None of this surprises me. One of the things I admired most about Clay from when I first “met” him nearly nine years ago was how fearlessly he uses his voice for those who have been marginalized by society.
In concluding his speech before the Human Rights Campaign's Carolinas Gala last year, Clay said:
The LGBT community has seen and attained unprecedented visibility and legitimacy in mainstream America. We have a great deal more work to do to ensure that LGBT individuals and families have the same rights, benefits, same freedoms that all straight Americans have. And I know that my son's world will be a better one, because no one, no matter how hard they try, can stop our progress.
And like those civil rights movements that came before, our message is the message of fairness, of righteousness, of decency. Our message is the message of the future.
Our time is now, and it is about damn time.
Tony Award-nominated actor Chris Sieber (“Monty Python’s Spamalot,” “Shrek The Musical,” “The Kid” and much more) was a cast-mate of Clay’s when Aiken made his Broadway debut in “Spamalot.” In an interview with The Advocate, when asked his reaction to Clay’s coming out, Sieber replies “Clay's a dear friend of mine, and of course I knew. He was quite open with me, but he has a lot to protect. (When Clay came out) I texted him and said, ‘Good for you. Welcome home.’"
Welcome home. That phrase, for me, is the heart of it.
No one should be told that it is too late for them to come out.
No one should be mocked, ridiculed or put down for their timing of this intimate and life-changing decision.
No one should have to fear that they will lose their job, be thrown out of their homes, be harassed at school, be condemned by their famnilies and friends.
No one ever should have to fear for their safety or for their very lives.
No laws should inhibit any person’s ability to pursue our founding principles of life, liberty and happiness.
No one, no adult and certainly no teen, should feel that it will get worse, not better, that there will be no one to welcome them and no place to call home.
I am not a member of the LGBT community, so I can’t join Chris Sieber in saying “Welcome home” to those who come out today, or in the days to come.
But I can say –
You are, as always, welcome in my life and welcome in this world we share. I will be there to lend whatever support I can, to embrace you instead of condemn you, to show that I appreciate your value as a fellow or sister human being.
And I am so very glad that never again will you have to hide your love away.
Clay Aiken’s keynote speech to the 2010 Human Rights Campaign Carolinas Dinner, Raleigh, North Carolina, February 27, 2010
Wanda Sykes addresses a rally supporting same sex marriage, LGBT Center of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas on November 15, 2008