NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
"American Idol" runner-up Adam Lambert made headlines after coming out on the front page of Rolling Stone Magazine. That's almost always a more private decision for gay men and lesbians, but no less pivotal, and each experience is unique. Some argue that these days, it's easier to come out than it was even 10 years ago, but the moment is no less scary and the reaction from friends and family, from coworkers and others is often unpredictable. We want to hear from our gay and lesbian listeners today: Have you come out of the closet? What was the experience like?
Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, the exhilarating affect of a near-death experience. But first, coming out. Oriol Gutierrez is deputy editor of POZ Magazine, for which he wrote the article "Coming Out Again," and he joins us today from member station WMEH in Bangor, Maine. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. ORIOL GUTIERREZ (Deputy Editor, POZ Magazine): Pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And let me introduce the Reverend Irene Monroe, coordinator of the African-American Roundtable at the Pacific School of Religion and a syndicated columnist for religion columnist - syndicated religion columnist - get that right. Today, she joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Good of you to join us.
Reverend IRENE MONROE (Coordinator, African-American Roundtable, Pacific School of Religion): Thank you.
CONAN: And Irene, let's begin with you. Can you share your story? How did you come out?
Rev. MONROE: Oh, my story - well, my story was - well, my experience, I should say, was rather horrendous. I came out to my minister because I was having a crisis of faith. My boyfriend at the time wanted to have sex with me. And I was already living what I would describe a duplicitous life because I knew I was gay. And so I felt like I needed a boyfriend is part of what I call heterosexual accoutrement.
Rev. MONROE: This way, I wouldn't let the community know, and more importantly, the church know that I was gay. And I'm growing up at the time that this is before Gay-Straight Alliance. And I'm also growing up in the black church. And so the one thing that you couldn't be, particularly in the late '60s and '70s, is be heterosexual. And so I felt like I had to go and talk to my minister about this problem. And so I did. I went and I told Reverend Brown, I said listen, I have a crisis of faith. I've not been living like a good Christian.
There's two things: My boyfriend wants to have sex with me, and the feeling is not mutual. But also, I am gay. And he paused for a moment. He was shocked. And he said to me, he says well, have you had sex yet? And I said, well, no. No. I couldn't possibly do that. And he said well, that's good. He says, you know, he says there's no such thing as heterosexual. We can rebuke this demon…
CONAN: I mean sure you meant to say homosexual, you just said…
Rev. MONROE: Yes, I'm sorry. Homosexual. And he said we can rebuke this demon. And he went on to ask me to sort of open up my Bible and read from the Leviticus 18. That's the famous verse that says do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman. It's an abomination - then told me the Romans I verses 26 to 27. And then he said to me, he says, well, basically, what you need here is an experience - the heterosexual experience. And you don't need your boyfriend to do it, but you need me. And needless to say…
CONAN: Oh, my gosh.
Rev. MONROE: …a scuffle ensued. And it was so loud that two of the deacons came down the hall and knocked on the door, wanted to know what was happening. And they could see that the contents on the table was all over the floor. The furniture was turned over. And to make a long story short, he told the deacons - and certainly it spread in the church - that I had propositioned him. But no one believed the story, because we all knew that the reverend had predilection for little girls. And - but somebody had to go. And I was far more expendable then he was. And so I had to not only leave the church, but be placed in a different foster home.
CONAN: That's certainly a dramatic story. Oriol Gutierrez, tell us yours.
Mr. GUTIERREZ: Well, I'm actually - I guess I'm fortunate that my story certainly isn't as dramatic. But one thing I do want to say before I go into details of my story is that, you know, coming out is a process. It's not an event and…
CONAN: Or a sequence of events, anyway.
Mr. GUTIERREZ: It's definitely a sequence of events, and it's never ending. And, you know, it starts from the moment that I think you realize that you were a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and accepting it, and then - in yourself. And then trying to come out to other people, to your friends, to your family. It's a personal process. It's different for everybody. If you're an LGBT person, you are just like every other segment of society. You could be African-American. You could be Latino. You could be conservative or liberal. And based on all those other characteristics, it just makes it such a personalized process. So…
CONAN: But you're right. Every time you meet new people, every time you go to a new workplace, the whole issue comes up again.
Mr. GUTIERREZ: Exactly. Because it's not - it's not all the time visible.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GUTIERREZ: …like being a person of color or having a visible disability, perhaps, where these are things that are just, you know, plain, in sight. So that said, you know, my process, I would say, started coming out to myself. And I certainly realized that at very young age that I was gay and there was just no way around that. You know, as I got older and I learned that society didn't quite take took kindly to that, that's when I started to get confused about my sexual orientation. It really wasn't the other way around. I always had somewhat clarity when I was quite young.
So from that point forward, of course, you know, being raised in a very conservative Catholic Latino family - I'm first generation - being gay, you know, was not something that was going to be easy for me - lots of guilt, lots of shame, certainly lots of stigma, and coming from Machista, you know, family and culture. So I internalized all that. And, of course, you know, the moment of coming to my parents was a big one that happened in 1996. It was further complicated by another set of events.
I also am HIV positive. And I became HIV positive, I believe, in 91 and I tested positive in 92, which is why working at POZ Magazine is a sort of wonderful thing for me. I get to marry my personal and professional life.
Mr. GUTIERREZ: So having the privilege of writing the coming out story in the pages of the magazine was a great experience, and a healing one. But back to the family - so in 96, I actually chose to tell my parents because I couldn't keep it to myself anymore. I'd gone through a major depression, and it was either telling them or risking, you know, further personal harm - you know, potential personal harm to my mental health. So that was a big experience. But I chose at that time not to come out to them as HIV positive because I thought, well…
CONAN: One thing at a time…
Mr. GUTIERREZ: Yeah. One thing at a time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GUTIERREZ: But, you know, it's interesting. It took me until 2008 to actually tell them that I was HIV positive, and hence the title of the article, "Coming Out Again." And it was an interesting process. It was actually quite anti-climatic, and that's a great thing, because the journey from 1986 to 2008 in having them accept me as gay actually eased that disclosure for being HIV positive.
CONAN: We're talking with Oriol Gutierrez and the Reverend Irene Monroe about coming out. We want to hear about your experience. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's start with Jim, Jim calling us from Hillsdale in Michigan.
JIM (Caller): Hi, there. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thanks.
JIM: Good. Now, I just - I wanted to share two stories, one of which was when I came out to my mother and I started to tell her, and she just stopped me right in the middle of that when she says whatever you have to tell me, it doesn't matter. You're my son, and I just want you to be happy. So I feel very, very fortunate about that one. The other one, which is kind of a funny, one was a friend of mine had invited me to a show, and I had been seeing somebody for some time, and she walked up to me and said if you want to bring somebody, that's fine. I don't care who it is. And so I've always had very much support with my circle of friends and my family, and so I feel very fortunate in that respect.
CONAN: Yet even though it was easier for you than our guests, I suspect, Jim, I can hear the emotion in your voice still when you talk about your mother.
JIM: Oh yeah. It's very hard because I lost her at a very early age. She was only 58 when she passed away, but it was so liberating to know that it didn't matter to her, and also it was me becoming comfortable with myself at the time, as well, and I think that's the first hurdle that most people have to cross before they can even address talking about it to other people, so…
CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
JIM: Yup, no problem.
CONAN: And Irene Monroe, I wanted to ask you. Given Jim's experience, what he was just telling us about, was there a moment when you came out to somebody and finally had the experience of acceptance?
Rev. MONROE: Yeah, it was my guidance counselor. She was very accepting of just all of me. I didn't - I couldn't possibly at the time tell my foster mother. I was already a ward of the state, and when you're a ward of the state, you already have a problem of being placed, and you tend to live a rather nomadic existence. So you go from home to home.
I didn't need to exacerbate my homelessness by saying that I was a lesbian. But I certainly had told my guidance counselor, and she was quite accepting about that. Her problem was in me trying to not go and tell the whole world that I was gay, and so she was trying to help my social worker place me in a home that would be open and affirming of all of who I am.
CONAN: I hear what you say. At the moment, you want to affirm who you are and shout it from the rooftops.
Rev. MONROE: Yeah, I certainly did. I was - you know, this is back in the day, when you could say hey, say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud. So I already had my Angela Davis afro. I had my fist. You know, I had all the other stuff, and I just needed to make one more, you know, public statement.
CONAN: Oriol Gutierrez, we're going to talk to you about - you also had experience in the United States military, and what that was like, but we're going to have to take a short break before we get to that. So stay with us.
We want to hear your story, too. As we think about the consequences of coming out, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also go to our Web site and leave your comments there. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, and we got this email from Lynn(ph) in Tampa, Florida. Coming out for me meant not having to lead a double life anymore. I decided to come out at work, and it was daunting. What if people didn't accept me? What if they didn't want to work with me anymore? All these questions ran through my mind.
Coming out is not a one-time thing. Sometimes you do have to do it every day, at least every time you meet new colleagues or co-workers. I would say it gets easier as you go along, but it depends on each situation. You fight the prejudices every day, and hopefully people begin to accept you for you and not try to put you into a box.
Have you come out of the closet? What was it like? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Oriol Gutierrez, deputy editor of POZ magazine. We have a link to his article, "Coming Out Again," at npr.org/talk; and Reverend Irene Monroe, she coordinated the African American Roundtable at the Pacific School of Religion and writes a syndicated religion column on religion, managed to get through at that time.
I also wanted to read these emails. Ginger in Fort Pierce in Florida: You're talking today about coming out, lesbian or gay. What I found through my experiences and those of my friends, it is much harder to come out transgendered because when you come out gay, it doesn't show, but when you come out transgendered and start your transition, everyone can see that at first glance, which tends to lead to discrimination.
And Brian in Murrieta, Georgia - Murrieta, California, excuse me, not Marietta, Georgia. Your guest is correct about coming out being a process. My partner of 18 years and I are now fathers of children age two and three. We're both having to consider issues related to coming out to our children. We're thinking about the right time and the right way to do this. It seems this is something heterosexual parents take for granted.
And Oriol Gutierrez, I did want to ask you about your experience in the United States Marines Corps, and did you come out there?
Mr. GUTIERREZ: No. That was at a time where, you know, that obviously wasn't - and still isn't - accepted. But I certainly did not take the risk, and you know, that's debatable about the merits of standing proud and tall or, you know, trying to protect your own career.
I chose not to disclose. I came into the military around the time that former President Bill Clinton came into power, and there was a lot of hope that he was going to do something about removing the ban against LGBT service, and unfortunately, that didn't happen.
I strongly considered it at the time. There's a further entanglement, there again, with my HIV status. The military actually was the one that told me that I was HIV positive, and surprisingly they were very tactful. Interestingly enough, though, of course, the presumption of heterosexuality, there was no suspicion necessarily that because I tested positive for HIV that I was gay necessarily, but because of technicalities for combat duty, I was given an honorable discharge.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and Laura's(ph) with us from Madison, Wisconsin.
LAURA (Caller): Hi. You know, there's a bit of hope around this presidency, too. Anyways, when I came out, I came out as a trans-individual. It was my children that helped me through this. My brothers and sisters, I mean for years, wouldn't allow me to come into their homes, and we're talking like five, six years, and it was only my kids that allowed my brothers and sisters to change their minds.
CONAN: It's interesting you say that, that - first of all, I mean, that must have been awful, and I'm so sorry for that - but nevertheless that they did change their minds. And what we've read is that one of the things that transforms people's opinions about issues like don't ask, don't tell, for example, is the fact that they know somebody who's gay, that somebody in their family is gay. And Laura, I wonder if that's the experience in your family, that knowing someone who's gay has changed people's minds a little bit?
LAURA: I would hope so, and you know what? Even if you don't know that you know, you know somebody who is gay.
CONAN: Yeah, I suspect you're right. Laura, thanks for the call.
CONAN: Bye-bye, and I wanted to ask you about that, Irene Monroe. As a minister, obviously it's interesting you went into the ministry after your experience, but nevertheless, as a minister, you must speak with people about this fact all the time.
Rev. MONROE: I do. I mean, one of the reason my going into ministry was to deal with homeless youth because I was one myself, and I think it varies depending on communities.
I have noticed, particularly here, you know, in the African-American community and a lot of the immigrant communities, they know that members in their families are gay, but they're quite not accepting of it. And we're noticing, particularly in immigrant communities an incident in suicide among LGBT, you know, youth.
So it is very, very hard. And it's very particularly hard, I find, within the African-American community, a community that understands oppression to a certain degree, has been very enlightening around the issues of race and not understand the connection to our civil rights today. It's very disheartening.
CONAN: And we saw that, of course, in the Proposition 8 battle in California, where African-Americans were among the groups that, well, helped pass that resolution.
Rev. MONROE: Yeah, yeah, that's unfortunate.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Tom, Tom with us from Lansing in Michigan.
TOM (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Tom. Go ahead, please.
TOM: Well, I was going to say I am a younger gay male growing up in Lansing, right in the center of the state. And I think for me, it was far more easier than most, mainly because obviously from my voice you can tell I'm a pretty flamboyant guy. Like, anyone meets me, they just kind of know. And so the first 15 years of my life, I guess, was just me growing up in a glass closet where everyone knew, but I just would - just deny, deny, deny. And so, I think me growing up was harder, but coming out was much, much easier because I would just have to start to say the, like, whole setup into I'm gay, and people would guess it halfway through.
So I don't know. I think it was pretty easy for me.
CONAN: And do you think times have changed?
TOM: I definitely think so. Well, I was going to say, I'm only 20 years old, so I think so, yeah definitely. I think things have become more accepting in the shifts, as far as people that you meet. And even the place I work, I talk to a lot of people, and I've started mentioning my boyfriend instead of just, like, my significant other, just because I think people are ready to hear about that in everyday life.
CONAN: Oriol Gutierrez, do you think times have changed?
Mr. GUTIERREZ: Times have definitely changed, but it's kind of a yes-and-no answer really because, like you mentioned Adam Lambert before, you know…
Mr. GUTIERREZ: He came out on the cover of Rolling Stone, and that's great for him, and I think that's a major step forward, actually, when you think about it, just on, you know, as far as superficial social stuff is concerned.
CONAN: But also, speaking of glass closets.
Mr. GUTIERREZ: Yes, absolutely. And so someone like, for instance, his "American Idol" predecessor, Clay Aiken, you know, he couldn't do that for various reasons and denied it, you know, for years but then was finally able to come out. And even in the last five years, I think things have changed. But it's still, nonetheless - I need to underscore - a very difficult personal decision for every individual.
Every individual case is very different, and certainly in many communities, there's still a lot of intense homophobia, you know, coming from different cultural backgrounds, and we can't forget that. For those folks, it's probably just as difficult as it's ever been.
CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.
TOM: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Here's some more emails. From Dana: My very good friend wanted support when he came out to his mother, and he wanted to just do it instead of a heavy lead-up. So there we were one day in his kitchen, as his mother put away groceries, and he said mom, I'm gay. And she said, well duh. What do you want for dinner?
This from Eric in Wilson, Wyoming: I traveled across the country to tell my parents and spent a week avoiding. On the last day, at the breakfast table, I counted down from 10 and told my Evangelical parents. They were both physically paralyzed.
Finally, my mom turned, placed her hands on my shoulders and asked: Do you have anyone? I was stunned. No, mom, I don't, I said. She paused one more second, then squeezed my shoulders and said: Yes you do. You'll always have me. She has since passed away, and I disclose this in her honor.
And this from Chris: I made the decision when I began thinking of becoming a minister, to be out, though, through that process. I went to seminary, got my degree, did an extra denominational year, did my summer of student chaplaincy, was patted on the back for my honesty and integrity with being out, approved for ordination and then told that if I wanted to be a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, I would have to go back in the closet. I am waiting 27 months for my first church and not sure this calling will pan out, and Irene Monroe, is that an experience that you think many in your calling have?
Rev. MONROE: Oh, we have lost some wonderful, talented people because the church has been so negative around this issue. And you would think that when we raise the question, is it the will of God to devalue and dehumanize the lives of women, people of African ancestry and gay and lesbian people, I think on the question of race and gender, most Americans and Christians and non-Christians clearly see that the answer is no. But I think when we ask the question around sexual orientation, I still think many of our brothers and sisters are challenged on this.
CONAN: Let's go to Gloria, Gloria with us from San Antonio.
GLORIA (Caller): Hi. I came out from - actually, the nuns at my high school brought me out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GLORIA: Yes. They went and found out that I was and they called up all the students, all the girls in class, their parents, and told them, don't let them hang around with Gloria anymore. So just in an instant, I didn't have anymore friends.
CONAN: And you had to go back to that school the next day?
GLORIA: Yes, sir, I did. They even called my parents and had a meeting with me and out me in front of my parents. Of course I denied it because I didn't want to hurt my parents. They were very religious and - well, so was I.
But, yeah, I was pretty - I mean, some of the girls, when no one was looking, they would talk to me. But the last couple of years in high school were pretty tough, being alone and being in sports and stuff. You know, I would be playing sports and, of course, my family didn't want to show up because they were embarrassed. And it was kind of hard. The nuns really did me bad then.
I mean, I'm over it now. But, well, you know…
CONAN: Well, you never quite - we never get over high school than it sounds like your high school experience was a little bit more traumatic than most. Have you thought back as to - have you been able to forgive them?
GLORIA: Well, that particular nun, you know, I've forgiven everything else. But for some reason, I just can't seem to grasp of getting - you know, if I could just talk to her and tell her the damage that she, you know…
CONAN: Did you ever try?
GLORIA: No. I did ask about her one time. She's - I don't know where she is right now. And I thought about going over there and talking to her and telling her how wrong she was. But then I thought, well, what the heck. I'm over it, you know? I'll - my parents - it's just been like 20 years now. I'm 45 now.
It took us a long time to finally get over it and they pretty much accept me now.
CONAN: Well, I'm glad that's worked out for you, Gloria.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GLORIA: But it took a long time. Yeah, I'm glad I did, too.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
GLORIA: Thank you.
CONAN: And I guess sometimes we don't think about - and thinking we're doing the right thing, we don't think about cruelty.
Oriol Gutierrez is our guest, deputy editor of POZ magazine, along with the Reverend Irene Monroe, coordinator of the African-American Roundtable at the Pacific School of Religion, and a syndicated religion columnist. We're talking about coming out.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And this from Cheney(ph) in Portland, Oregon. I came out at 29 years of age with two children. My ex-husband outed me to my family in Nebraska. My mother responded by trying to take my children from me, refusing to return them while they were on a visit. I was forced to fly to Nebraska, take my children out of my mother's arms while she tried to call the sheriff. I fled the state in the dead of night to avoid having to fight for custody in a conservative state. This all happened 25 years ago.
My mother never apologized and still does not accept who I am. My daughters, grandchildren, and I all have strong loving relationships. My children and grandchildren are African-Americans so they have much to deal with in terms of having a lesbian mother and grandmother. I am also a teacher, so coming out at my workplace is always a balancing act.
Irene Monroe, you must have some understanding of her situation.
Rev. MONROE: Oh, absolutely, and particularly being African-American because, as I said earlier, it's this notion in our community that racism is the only oppression that we ought to address. And so, what happens is we create this kind of hierarchy of oppression, ignoring the sexism and the homophobia right there in our community. And so, it's always will be a juggling act. You're not a proper black person, a black woman or man if you say you're gay.
CONAN: Here's an email from Mike in Lewes, Delaware. I struggled with this issue for years. Then in 1975, I had one of those events that pushed the process along. As part of the application process at the National Security Agency, I had to take a lie detector test. Although I had done nothing to lie about, I failed the questions on homosexuality. By the time I reached the NSA parking lot that day, I finally came to grips with who I was and no longer had to lie to myself.
The only word I can find to describe that liberating feeling is elation. A year later, I met my partner, Bob. Today is our anniversary. We have been together for 33 years.
And, Oriol Gutierrez, I can imagine - this is unique experience. Everybody -it's different. But finding yourself being outed by a lie detector test at the NSA, that's remarkable.
Mr. GUTIERREZ: Yeah. That's up there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GUTIERREZ: I just have to kind of underscore a lot of what's been said. There's so much to celebrate in the idea that we're living in times where we can even have this conversation, that there's so many questions and emails coming in, and people are sharing their stories. You know, 20 years ago, I just don't know that we even be doing this right now. So that's wonderful.
Again, on the other hand, we need the sobering recognition that there's still so much of a road to walk. I mean, case in point, you know, we've been talking about people of color, African-American community, Latino community, disproportionately affected by HIV infection.
Mr. GUTIERREZ: So that's, I'm sure, due to a lot of factors, which we don't have time to discuss. But one of them that I certainly believe in is the stigma against LGBT people. And, you know, these things are all interconnected. And it's still so important to just come out. And I would encourage everyone to do so.
CONAN: Irene Monroe, you must have talked to people who wrestle with this decision. Is it your job to urge them to come out or your job to urge them to be square with themselves?
Rev. MONROE: My job really is for them to be comfortable with themselves. One of the things that the larger gay and lesbian community doesn't understand is that it is really a luxury to be able to come out. Because when you're a person of color and you're coming out, you're coming out and going where is always the question because what you'll notice is that you don't have in this country black and Latino, you know, gay ghettos. So where are we coming out to?
And I'm not, by any means, advocating the closet, but it's just showing how complicated it is for people of color to come out. It's not like we can leave our communities and live in white communities because we have to deal with racism.
So, when I have - when I deal with people of color, kids of color, I ask them to be, you know, true to themselves - that they have to have a discerning, you know, spirit about this, that they always have to think about their safety.
Homelessness is a big issue. If you're out on the streets, you're out of the system, you're also out of school. So, I always say it has to be incrementally, and you have to find support systems along the way.
CONAN: We want to thank our guests and thanks to everybody who wrote and who called. I'm sorry we do not have time to get you all today.
Oriol Gutierrez, deputy editor of POZ magazine, where he wrote the article "Coming Out Again." There's a link to that on our Web site at npr.org/talk. He joined us from member station WMEH in Bangor, Maine. And Reverend Irene Monroe, coordinator of the African-American Roundtable at the Pacific School of Religion, with us from WBUR in Boston.
Coming up, we're talking about the elation of survival.