National Coming Out Day To mark National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, Sam examines the history, meaning and future of coming out with University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor Marcia Gallo and E. Patrick Johnson of Northwestern University. He also shares coming out stories from listeners and swaps stories with NPR film critic Bob Mondello. Tweet @NPRItsBeenaMin with feels or email samsanders@npr.org.
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It Almost Destroyed Ellen's Career; Now Celebrities Are Playing With 'Coming Out'

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It Almost Destroyed Ellen's Career; Now Celebrities Are Playing With 'Coming Out'

It Almost Destroyed Ellen's Career; Now Celebrities Are Playing With 'Coming Out'

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BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Sam.

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hi, Bob.

MONDELLO: Hello.

SANDERS: How are you?

MONDELLO: I'm fine.

SANDERS: Good.

MONDELLO: So I was just telling Brent, I'm not sure that I'm out to the audience. I mean, I am, right?

SANDERS: I mean...

MONDELLO: ...Because I have been for, like, 30 years. But - but - but (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Today on the show, we're talking about coming out. National Coming Out Day is October 11, and this year is the 30th anniversary of that day. And the thing that I always think every year around this time is - it's never just one day. Coming out happens differently for everyone, often more than once. And for some of us, it seems the process really never ends. Case in point - my friend Bob Mondello, film critic for NPR's All Things Considered. How old are you, Bob?

MONDELLO: I turn 70 next year.

SANDERS: Shut up.

MONDELLO: No, really.

SANDERS: So, OK, what year did you come out?

MONDELLO: That's a hard question to answer. Do you mean to myself? Do you mean to my folks? Do you mean to my friends? Do you mean - it depends what you're talking - OK, well...

SANDERS: So you see what I'm saying. Bob grew up in the '60s, when you could get locked up for even going to a gay bar. It was a very different time. So Bob's first coming out actually wasn't until 1974, after he just had his first same-sex experience. Bob told his best friend, who he thought might also be gay.

MONDELLO: I was in his apartment, and it took me forever to work up to it. I was sitting there, and I was taking deep breaths, and I was trembling. But what I said was, I'm gay (laughter) and I expected him to say, so am I, and fall into my arms, and what he actually said was, oh, twice in one week.

SANDERS: Who was the other one?

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Well, that was kind of my reaction. How dare somebody else beat me to this? But in any event, you know, when I was coming out, we didn't have models in public discourse. There were no models for gay people. Ellen DeGeneres hadn't come out on television, and "Will & Grace" was far in the future. And so I think it's a different world. And I hear about people coming out at the age of 12, and I think, good Lord, I was never that brave...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

MONDELLO: ...I mean, never in the world. And I don't really know what it would be like today to do that.

SANDERS: I don't know either. I mean, I remember my process, and it literally - Bob, it took me years just to look at myself in the mirror and say the words, I am gay. It took me years to do that.

MONDELLO: OK, now if I can turn this interview on its head, why?

SANDERS: I - oh, God. Well, so many reasons. I was...

MONDELLO: You're so much younger than I am.

SANDERS: I am.

MONDELLO: What I'm suggesting is, you're coming out at a different period, and it - yeah, so?

SANDERS: Yeah. I mean, I was raised in a church where it was - you went to hell for it.

MONDELLO: Ah.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah - like, totally.

MONDELLO: OK, that is different.

SANDERS: And they try - and, you know, there were points in my life where folks in the church tried to pray it away, or I tried to pray it away. And, like, what's so weird is, for me, is, like, my process really began when I was in graduate school. And most of my friends were straight because I was not trying to be out, right? But it got to a point in school where, one by one, my straight friends - most of them black - would just sit me down, one by one, and say, Sam, we are tired of watching you grapple with this.

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

SANDERS: You're gay. It's cool. Be gay. Literally, each of them were just like, stop hurting yourself. Stop doing this.

MONDELLO: Well, this was good advice.

SANDERS: Yeah.

MONDELLO: You were lucky to have those friends. That is really wonderful.

SANDERS: Yeah. And, I mean, this is probably one of the few stories where my straight friends dragged me out of the closet. And I'm forever grateful to them for that, and it's still a process.

MONDELLO: I will say that since I have - since the Supreme Court declared that gay marriage was legal, and we were able to get married, I have delighted in - when I speak to groups - referring to my husband who, you know, is here with us today, you know, that kind of thing...

SANDERS: Yeah.

MONDELLO: ...I find it wonderful to be able to do that so that the act of coming out to people I don't know is now not a source of trembling and fear for me. It is a source of pride.

SANDERS: It's a passing sentence. And also, it's just like, it comes up in conversation, and you move on. The young Bob Mondello, would that young Bob ever imagine Bob today coming out to rooms of strangers by casually mentioning his husband?

MONDELLO: (Laughter) No, absolutely not - or talking on a podcast to tens of thousands of people.

SANDERS: Yeah.

MONDELLO: No, that was beyond the pale.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: This episode, we're going to explore the history of coming out and Coming Out Day - how it came to be, how it's changed over time and what it means for the LGBTQ community today. As a warning, listeners, later in this episode, you'll hear a word that has been used before as a slur against gay people. It begins with an F. And throughout this entire show, we'll hear more coming out stories, including some from you, our listeners.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It was a four-hour-long debrief conversation.

E PATRICK JOHNSON: She said, you mean to tell me you like other men? And I said, yes, ma'am. And she said, why?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Plot twist - I didn't grow out of it. I'm hella gay (laughter).

SANDERS: Stick around for more of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to Bob Mondello. I want to take some time now to talk through the history of Coming Out Day, as we know it now. To do that, I sat down with professor Marcie Gallo. Hello.

MARCIE GALLO: Hello.

SANDERS: How are you, Dr. Gallo?

GALLO: I'm great. Is this Sam?

SANDERS: This is Sam.

GALLO: Oh, I'm so excited. And you can call me Marcie.

SANDERS: I will call you Marcie.

GALLO: Wonderful, wonderful.

SANDERS: Marcie is an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She specializes in race, gender, sexuality and social justice movements. She told me that to understand how coming out got its own day, you have to understand the history of the gay rights movement. You might think that that began in the '60s, but Marcie told me the roots of this activism, we can actually see them decades earlier.

GALLO: You know, I would go back to the post-World War II period...

SANDERS: OK.

GALLO: ...And that World War II - some people say because it broke down the social norms in such a huge way and because - remember; it was a war against hate. It was a war against discrimination, right? We were fighting the Nazis.

SANDERS: Well - and then you see these black men come back, and they've fought for freedom elsewhere, and they can't be treated as free people at home, you know?

GALLO: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So the impetus for the civil rights movement, there's a direct connection between the black civil rights movement and the lesbian and gay movement. Many of the early activists were either in the civil rights movement if they were white or - and black - or they were working against the war in Vietnam. That's the other thing that's happening. And I think they started to realize, hey, you know, we're a minority, too. Lesbians and gay people are treated horribly, and maybe it's time for us to organize and start fighting for our rights.

SANDERS: You know, in speaking of coming out, it is very easy, I think, to assume that this is a thing that people always did. But cultural notions of sexuality and defining sexuality have changed. And there was a time when the whole - the very concept of defining or declaring one's sexuality wasn't a thing, right?

GALLO: No, right, exactly. You know, for gay folks, I think the whole idea of coming out is very much a sort of a more contemporary kind of concept. When I was doing research on the first lesbian rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis - who started in '55, 1955, in San Francisco - they didn't use that term at all. They didn't even require that people announce their sexuality. Any woman could join their organization. But when they did refer to it, they talked about taking off the mask, which I really - I think that's such a great visual, right? So the coming out stuff I think might have been sort of a thing with gay men. And certainly, you know, the obvious connotation - right? - is around society - right? - debutante, coming out parties, where they would be presented to society. Well, that wasn't my world.

(LAUGHTER)

GALLO: And it wasn't the world of a lot of people that I...

SANDERS: Funny story - before I was out, I actually was an escort for a friend to her debutante ball.

GALLO: No way (laughter).

SANDERS: I learned how to waltz with her.

GALLO: So you had two coming outs.

SANDERS: Yes, I did.

GALLO: (Laughter) I love it. I love it.

SANDERS: I had the cheapest little rent-a-tux, and it was just Sam trying to make something happen that was not going to happen (laughter).

GALLO: Isn't that great? Oh, that's a great story. Right, so that's - when people said coming out, I'm like, what do you mean - like debutantes, what? But it really gets popularized, as I'm sure you know, is in, actually, in the '70s...

SANDERS: Yes.

GALLO: ...When Harvey Milk says, you got to come out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARVEY MILK: And most importantly - most importantly, every gay person must come out.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: And so, you know, we should first stop to ID Harvey Milk. He was an openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He was an icon for the community. But this tape is him from 1978. He was marking the defeat of Prop 6 in California...

GALLO: Yes, yes.

SANDERS: ...That banned gays and lesbians from teaching in schools there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILK: As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your neighbors. You must tell the people you work with.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: It's so interesting hearing that because the first thing I think when I hear that tape is, I don't have time for that.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I don't have time to keep telling everybody all the time.

GALLO: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MILK: Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.

(APPLAUSE)

GALLO: I think he's right. I think he was right about the more we were upfront about who we were, the more it would shake up the misconceptions. And to start on the personal level with family and friends and co-workers, that had to start to break down some of the stereotypes about, you know, 6 and full-crazy kind of stuff that was very much attached to gay people still.

SANDERS: And so, you know, 10 years after that speech, we see the kind of - the first Coming Out Day. This is October 11, 1988. What has changed in those 10 years, and what has made Coming Out Day become formalized by that time?

GALLO: Wow. That's - a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

GALLO: One thing, of course, is that he's murdered shortly after giving that speech. And that probably encouraged even more people to stand up and say, yeah, I'm gay. Yeah, I'm lesbian. The other thing is that the national movement started growing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Stand up. Stand up. Stand up for love, for truth.

GALLO: And by 1987, when there's the second National March on Washington, there's an actual...

SANDERS: For gay and lesbian rights.

GALLO: For gay and lesbian rights, there was an actual coming out action that people engage in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Thousands of gay and lesbian activists marched past the White House today demanding protection from discrimination and calling for more federal money for AIDS research and treatment.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We're here because we're queer. We're here because we're queer.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: They marched for miles.

GALLO: I mean, it was a huge march.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The official figure reported by CBS News the day after the event - 650,000 people - a figure greater than Martin Luther King's famous march for civil rights back in 1963.

GALLO: It's the largest gay rights march ever.

SANDERS: Were you there?

GALLO: Yeah.

SANDERS: How was it?

GALLO: It was great. Oh, it was so much fun, and that's when my brother and sister-in-law came down and joined in. It - no, it was terrific.

SANDERS: In 1988, coming out got its own day - October 11. That was to mark the one-year anniversary of that big march. Marcie told me it was born out of intense activism by the LGBTQ community over the AIDS crisis and the government's indifference to that crisis, so indifferent that President Ronald Reagan didn't even say the word AIDS in public until September 17, 1985 - a few years after the government first acknowledged this disease. So that's all happening in the background to push this first coming out day forward, and not quite 10 years later, there was another iconic coming out moment. It involved one of my favorite famous people - Ellen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

CLEA LEWIS: (As Audrey Penney) Ellen, you're going to be late for your dinner date with your old college friend, Richard.

SANDERS: She comes out...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

DAVID ANTHONY HIGGINS: (As Joe Farrell) I can't believe it.

SANDERS: ...On her show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

JOELY FISHER: (As Paige Clark) What - that Ellen has a date?

HIGGINS: (As Joe Farrell) No, that she went to college.

(LAUGHTER)

JEREMY PIVEN: (As Spence Kovak) It's like she's been there forever.

FISHER: (As Paige Clark) Ellen, are you coming out or not?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I remember this year. I was, like, 13. And I remember - I don't think my parents told me not to watch, but I knew that I shouldn't watch...

GALLO: Wow.

SANDERS: ...If that makes sense. And I probably saw it later or snuck to see it, but I remember how big of a deal it was for this woman to come out on her prime-time TV show to her therapist who was, at that time, played by Oprah.

GALLO: Oh, God, I forgot that.

SANDERS: Remember that?

GALLO: Oh, that's great.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

ELLEN DEGENERES: (As Ellen Morgan) Right? Exactly. And it's not like I'm looking for perfection, you know? I just want somebody special, somebody, you know, that I click with.

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Therapist) And obviously you didn't click with Richard. Has there ever been anyone you felt you clicked with? And what was his name?

DEGENERES: (As Ellen Morgan) Susan.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: They both sound so young there. Oprah sounds like she's 25.

GALLO: (Laughter) It was a big deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

DEGENERES: (As Ellen Morgan) I don't know. I guess I thought if I just ignored it, you know, it would just go away and I could just live a normal life.

WINFREY: (As Therapist) And what is a normal life, Ellen?

DEGENERES: (As Ellen Morgan) I don't know - normal. I mean, just the same thing everybody wants. I want a house with a picket fence, you know, a dog, a cat, Sunday barbecues, someone to love, someone who loves me, someone I can build a life with and just - I just want to be happy.

WINFREY: (As Therapist) And you think you can't have these things with a woman.

DEGENERES: (As Ellen Morgan) Well, society has a pretty big problem with it, you know? I mean, there are a lot of people out there who think people like me are sick.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: That episode aired more than 20 years ago. Ellen's still around, and a lot has changed, but a lot really hasn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: As part of this episode, we asked you, our listeners, to share your stories of coming out. One listener we heard from is MJ Stanger (ph). She's from St. Clair County, Ill. MJ is 22, comes from a very religious family, and about five years ago, MJ was in a fight with the first girlfriend she'd ever had.

M J STANGER: So I was crying after dinner at the dinner table, and my mom said, what's wrong? And I was like, oh, nothing. And she goes, seriously, you know you can tell me anything. So my dumb-[expletive] was like, OK, I can tell her anything, and I didn't think it through. And I said, Mom, I'm dating a girl. She did not take it well (laughter). She screamed at me. She pounded the Bible on the table. She stormed out of the house and, like, flipped chairs over and slammed the door and was crying the whole time and telling me how disappointed she was and how she knew I was better than this. Like, I was sitting there - I don't think I've ever sobbed so hard in my entire life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STANGER: It was five years ago, but now my relationship with my mom has gotten a lot better. Her and I have a lot of differences still, but at the same time, she's - you know, I hate the line she's still your mother, but she is still my mother. And now I am in a loving, wonderful relationship with my partner. And it's more than I ever could have thought I ever would have been able to have. I - you should see my therapy bills (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: All right, time for a break. When we come back, we'll talk more about what coming out means today and what it means for people of color and other marginalized groups. BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: We're back. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. Today, we're exploring coming out in honor of National Coming Out Day, which is this week, October 11.

JOHNSON: Well, I came out to my mother in 1996 when I was around 26. And my mother is 35 years older than I am, and she's from the South and, you know, very Southern and religious. And so I was very nervous about coming out.

SANDERS: That's the voice of E. Patrick Johnson. He is a chair of African-American studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. And his coming out story really highlights for me all the ways that coming out can feel different for people of color, especially black men.

JOHNSON: I waited till we were about to go to bed. We were watching the late evening news and I said, Mom, I have something to tell you, something I wanted to talk to you about for a long time, but I've been afraid to, and she said in a very kind of dramatic voice, what have you done?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: And I said, I haven't done anything. I'm gay. And then her response was really interesting. She said, you mean to tell me you like other men. And I said, yes, ma'am. And she said, why? And I said, well, Mom, has there ever been a time when you felt attracted to another woman? And she sort of frowned and thought about it and she said no. And I said, well, neither have I.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: What'd she say to that?

JOHNSON: She said, well, if that's the way you are, you know, I guess I just have to accept it. You're my son, and I love you. But that actually wasn't the truth. I mean, it was true that she loved me, but it - she wasn't quite being truthful about accepting it because it would probably be another decade before she really accepted me. And that all came to a head at my commitment ceremony with my partner, now husband. And she wasn't going to come initially, but she decided to come. And not only did she come, she walked in with me, and that was a real turning point for her because most of the people in attendance at our commitment ceremony were straight. And in some ways, I think that gave her permission for it to be OK and...

SANDERS: Why do say that?

JOHNSON: Well, when I - after I came out to her, for instance, she didn't talk to anybody about it - not even her closest friends because I think there was a lot of shame around it because of her reputation in our community and also who I was. You know, I'm the first African-American born in my little hometown to receive a Ph.D., and my hometown celebrated that accomplishment with giving me my own day.

SANDERS: Wow. What's your hometown?

JOHNSON: Hickory, N.C.

SANDERS: OK.

JOHNSON: And so, you know - so there was a lot of hopes and dreams invested in E. Patrick Johnson but not gay (laughter) E. Patrick Johnson.

SANDERS: Is it all good now with your mom over this?

JOHNSON: Oh, it's - yeah. It's a love fest.

SANDERS: Wow. I will never forget my mother - so Pentecostal - I mean, literally, like, was born wearing a chapel cap - like, just Pentecostal.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: We - this was before I was coming out, and I don't know how it happened, but I put on "Brokeback Mountain" when it was, like, happening.

JOHNSON: Oh, wow.

SANDERS: And I was like, oh, I'm going to hear it from her. And I'll never forget - she watched the whole movie. And I was like, oh, my God, she's been quiet the whole movie. The movie ends. I look over. She is crying. And I look at her, and I was like, what's the matter? And this Pentecostal church organist - like, so saved - looks at me and says - through tears, like, choking back tears - well, I just don't get why those two can't be together. It was so strange. It was so strange. Anyway, people contain multitudes, even church folk.

JOHNSON: Absolutely.

SANDERS: Hearing Patrick tell his story, thinking about my own story, it made me wonder why the idea of some grand coming out has always felt, to me at least, like a thing that's just for white people, especially given what we heard from Dr. Marcie Gallo earlier, how the gay rights movement really grew out of the civil rights struggle of people of color and this post-World War II activism also led by people of color. Given those roots, why has coming out felt so white?

JOHNSON: To speak to that question, you have to go back to slavery. When you think about black women being raped and made to bear their masters' children or having their own children taken away from them or black men being lynched or a limb being cut off for just a suspicion of looking at a white woman, you have the ingredients for some pretty messed up psychological and emotional trauma around one's body where your sexuality in particular is always under surveillance or doesn't even belong to you.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well - and, like, that could lead to, obviously, black people feeling as if their sexuality and owning their sexuality isn't really their own.

JOHNSON: Exactly. So if you think about coming out of slavery into post-Reconstruction, there was a movement among the black middle class in particular to counter the images of black people as savages, as - there was an adoption of Victorian mores and values. But what that meant was adopting what is now known, in mostly academic circles, as the politics of black respectability where women, for instance, would, you know, wear gloves and long dresses. And there was a whole sense of propriety. Gambling and drinking and those kind of things were disavowed.

SANDERS: Excessive cleanliness, like, still, like...

JOHNSON: Yes.

SANDERS: The stat that always gives me pause is, like, black people consume cleaning products writ large more than...

JOHNSON: Yes.

SANDERS: ...Any other demo...

JOHNSON: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Because you want to make sure that you look and smell and feel clean to the white folk.

JOHNSON: All of that, you know - if you think about the historical context, it's about, you know, making sure you present yourself in a respectable way.

SANDERS: Yeah. So then now we have a situation where coming out as an idea, as a modern idea, is codified by white people, by mostly white men. Like, coming out as an idea feels very white, gay man or used to - maybe still does. I don't know. But there is a different reality, I think, for a lot of people from marginalized backgrounds - I'm talking about black people, brown people, religious people, whoever - where you live a gay life, but you don't talk about it, and maybe there isn't a coming out day where you tell everyone.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Maybe some folks know and, like, other folks don't. This feels to me to be a thing, but it's much more of a thing for gay people who are not white. Am I right in saying that?

JOHNSON: Yes. And if you are already hailed as - and you fill in the blank in terms of your race - a black person, a Latinx person, an Asian person. And that brings with it a whole set of responses to who you are as a person. And so you, in some ways, don't have any choice but to live with that because you can't hide it. And I especially feel that way for African-Americans in particular because of the connection to the church. You couldn't go to any black church in the United States and not find...

SANDERS: A gay man leading the choir.

JOHNSON: ...A whole gaggle of gays, a whole...

SANDERS: Literally.

JOHNSON: ...Gaggle of them.

SANDERS: Yes.

JOHNSON: And it's a complicated place because I grew up in the church. And the church is actually where I feel I came into my own (laughter) (unintelligible).

SANDERS: I mean, I felt safe there.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

SANDERS: Like, as a young black boy...

JOHNSON: Yes.

SANDERS: ...The church was the one place I knew I wasn't going to be made fun of.

JOHNSON: Correct.

SANDERS: But it was also the one place where I knew that I might hear the word faggot over the pulpit. It was this weird dichotomy.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

SANDERS: But I always felt, in this weird way, safe there.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, the church is where I was encouraged to express myself, which, you know, I was a big, old queen...

SANDERS: Love it.

JOHNSON: ...And - in the choir stand, singing soprano, the only boy over in the soprano section.

SANDERS: And I'm sure they ate it up. I'm sure...

JOHNSON: They did.

SANDERS: They even loved it.

JOHNSON: They did.

SANDERS: They loved you being that. Yet at the same time, the pastor was talking about gay folks going to hell and God gave you AIDS because you sinned.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, not in my church.

SANDERS: Oh, that's good.

JOHNSON: Thank God.

SANDERS: OK, that's good.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: But many churches were doing that.

JOHNSON: But many - oh, absolutely - and still do, and still do. And so, yeah, it's a really contradictory...

SANDERS: It's weird (laughter).

JOHNSON: ...Place. Yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: But that's part of the other thing. But also, you know, we also had the whole down-low...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Phenomenon.

SANDERS: Also, we should stop to define what the down-low is for those who might not know.

JOHNSON: Yes. So men who are on the down-low are men who sleep with men but who do not identify as gay.

SANDERS: And they're usually black.

JOHNSON: And they're usually black.

SANDERS: We don't talk about DL for men other than black men.

JOHNSON: Yes, even though that's not true (laughter).

SANDERS: Oh, totally. Well, I mean, like we have these other...

JOHNSON: But...

SANDERS: ...Euphemisms for, like, white men. They...

JOHNSON: Yeah, but the association...

SANDERS: ...Were leading a double life, you know?

JOHNSON: Yeah, they lead a double life.

SANDERS: Yeah. What does it say about what coming out had become by that point where you move from Harvey Milk in the '70s to Coming Out Day in the '80s to acceptance for folks like Ellen by the '90s, yet at the same time, this subset of the community, black men, is still being labeled with this term DL?

JOHNSON: So at the same time that, yes, there was a part of the community that were not being open, there was another part that was actually being very open.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

JOHNSON: In the '70s, in particular, there were a radical group of black and Latinx lesbians who were open and pushing things forward. And it was that wing pushing back against the second-wave feminist movement, which was white, straight, middle-class women. And these black and Latinx lesbians were like, hello, we're here as well. And so people like Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua - I could go on and on and on of these...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Black lesbians...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

JOHNSON: ...And Latina lesbians. So it's a complicated history. It's not just that black folk sort of disavow coming out or being open about their sexuality in total. Some make that decision, but then there's a whole other set who made another choice.

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SANDERS: E. Patrick Johnson - he'll be back in a bit to talk about whether or not we may be entering a post-coming out world, where lines of gender and sexuality are becoming more and more fluid. But right now another one of your coming out stories.

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SANDERS: Ani Rias (ph) is 25 from Plymouth, Minn. Ani's parents are Catholic immigrants from Mexico. Two and a half years ago, Ani came out to family and friends as queer. Ani's parents reacted OK - not great, but OK. But Ani has a second coming out story about coming out to themselves as transgender.

ANI RIAS: I was in college. And in one of my psych classes, my professor had brought in kind of a trans - she was a trans woman who was just, like, kind of sharing her story. She's like, yeah, I was, like, raised to be only strong and, like, no softness, and I always felt like something was wrong but, like, compensated by being, like, in the military. And I got a wife and had kids and, like, all this stuff. And I never gave myself space to really, life, ask myself and really, like, think about who I am.

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RIAS: I was, like, tipped back in my chair as I always did in class. And I was just kind of mulling that over. And I was, like, giving yourself the space to ask yourself - I've never done that before - interesting. And so I posed myself the question. I was like, well, am I a woman? And I, like, almost fell out of my chair (laughter) because I was like - because the answer was no.

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SANDERS: Ani recently wrote a letter to their mom and dad to explain this, saying they were considering top surgery - a double mastectomy. Ani's parents got really hung up on that.

RIAS: They kind of got stuck on the idea that like, oh, this is a cosmetic issue and - or, like, an aesthetic issue. And it's just like something you don't like about your body. And I don't like things about my body, and everybody doesn't like things about their bodies, but we still all, like, make our way through life. And we just have to learn to love ourselves.

And I was like, well, there's a difference between that and feeling like, I mean, dissociative with your - with, like, a body part. And, like, I don't know - like, something feels, like, genuinely wrong. And so I kind of made it clear that, like, it doesn't matter if you understand or not. But, like, it does matter if you kind of respect and honor my autonomy on that. And that was something they grasped.

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RIAS: Yeah. The other night, we'd, like, said our good nights. And I was going off to bed. And my dad called out after me and - saying like, well, again, good night and thanks for being yourself. I mean, maybe they'll never really understand in depth, but I'm still their kid and, yeah, we still love each other.

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SANDERS: We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: We are back. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. That coming out story from Ani of being trans, it is a very long way from Ellen coming out on TV. And celebrities these days, they are doing it differently, too, so I asked E. Patrick Johnson.

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SANDERS: When you think about that in 1997, now 21 years later, what recent, maybe celebrity, coming out story do you think is most unlike that and can...

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...In some ways, represent how much coming out has changed?

JOHNSON: Most unlike - like, Janelle Monae is an example because she didn't come out as gay. It was something much more fluid.

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: And I think we're in a moment of transness and gender nonconformity that is really influencing how people announce their sexuality. And so it's much more capacious than a, I'm coming out because I like the same sex. It's more like, well, I'm not heterosexual (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah. And, like, she said that she ultimately was, I think, pansexual and that she's...

JOHNSON: Yes.

SANDERS: ...Into guys sometimes, into girls sometimes...

JOHNSON: Yup.

SANDERS: ...And to people that are nonconforming sometimes.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah.

SANDERS: And I also think in the same vein of someone like Frank Ocean, who...

JOHNSON: Right.

SANDERS: ...Kind of came out but, in actuality, never, ever used the word gay.

JOHNSON: Correct because it's - I think in the moment we're in now, it's not about limiting oneself to an identity as much as announcing a breaking down of a binary, not having to make a choice between two things. And in some ways, that's freeing. In some ways, that is forcing us to rethink how we go about our daily lives because we tend to think in binaries.

SANDERS: Or like in categories.

JOHNSON: In categories.

SANDERS: It felt like - coming out 20 years ago, it was, OK, you're going to be gay.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

SANDERS: You're going to be a lesbian.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

SANDERS: We might let you be bi, but we don't know. But you need to choose.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

SANDERS: And it's different now.

JOHNSON: It is very different now. People are saying, no, I don't have to choose, and you're going to call me they (laughter)...

SANDERS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Not he or she.

SANDERS: Or you're going to use the word queer, which can mean so many things.

JOHNSON: Right. But that is also a challenge as well for the political part of this where you have to translate some of the things that we want to folks in power. And sometimes, that means kind of defaulting to the categories that are recognizable to those people.

SANDERS: So then how do members - and this is a question not just for straight people but a question, I think, for people in the LGBTQ community who - I don't know - right now maybe feel like they can't keep up.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

SANDERS: They can't wrap their head around the pronouns. They can't wrap their head around the idea of queerness, which is so much more fluid than what they were used to growing up. What does a push for more understanding look like and feel like in that regard?

JOHNSON: Well, one of the things that really frustrates me, and this - I'm going to sound like the old fart here. But one of the things that really frustrates me about the young people that I speak with today is that in their demand and need to be whatever it is - just fill in the blank - there's a sense of, I don't care how old you are, you need to get with the program.

SANDERS: Well - and that speaks to a larger vein in all of our politics right now that feels like it is this moral absolutism.

JOHNSON: Yes. And there's no room for a stumble or a mistake or just to be human. So if I misgender you, it's automatically seen that I'm being transphobic or being insensitive when I actually just haven't gotten into the rhythm of the gender identity that you yourself just came into.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, one of the beautiful things that happens when nonconforming people, when queer people, when trans people are made more visible, it allows everyone else to be more comfortable expressing more fluidly as well.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and just to relax.

SANDERS: To relax - and so, you know, speaking of relaxed, there's probably a lot of folks who are queer themselves who might say, well, what is the use of Coming Out Day anyway? What is the need for it anyway? Do we need it less now?

JOHNSON: Yes and no. I think no to the extent that because same-sex desire, same-sex representation has become a bit more integrated into our culture vis-a-vis television, film, that it's not such an anomaly. And yet, we still have trans women of color, in particular, who are being murdered every day. And so if folks, particularly those with power, can continue to speak to some of these issues in an open way, that's all for the good. At the same time, there are ways in which each generation coming after us is also the beneficiary of the struggles that we've been through. And so for them, they don't have to make some big announcement the way Ellen did in 1997. They can just be.

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SANDERS: Thanks again to E. Patrick Johnson. He is the chair of the African-American studies department at Weinberg College. That's part of Northwestern University. Also, many thanks to Marcie Gallo, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Of course, many thanks to all the listeners who wrote us to share their coming out stories. We got dozens. And they were heartfelt and beautiful and each special in their own way. Thanks, as always, to Bob Mondello for being Bob. Many, many thanks to our own Kumari Devarajan who led the production of this episode.

And I also want to thank people that have meant a lot to me in my coming out journey - my Aunt Donna, who was always a fiercely proud lesbian - her and her wife Cassie (ph) are a beautiful example to me - and my good friend Samantha Jacoby who taught me throughout our friendship to always live your truest life.

All right. There'll be a transcript of this entire episode at npr.org if you want to revisit anything you heard here today. And of course, you can always email us whenever you want with thoughts about any of this. We're at samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. All right. We're back on Friday with our regular wrap on the week of news and culture and everything else. Till then, thanks for listening. I'm Sam Sanders, talk soon.

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SANDERS: I'm going to tell you what, Bob. I think a lot of our audience will recall the time you came on the NPR Politics podcast with me to talk musicals, so...

MONDELLO: And that makes me gay.

SANDERS: It doesn't make you gay.

MONDELLO: Oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I'm just saying...

MONDELLO: That totally works (laughter).

SANDERS: Some folks might not be surprised.

MONDELLO: The very first piece I proposed to the producers at All Things Considered was that Annie was actually Oliver in drag.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

MONDELLO: And I thought they didn't know, so...

SANDERS: Did they take it?

MONDELLO: Yeah, they took it. It was - it ended up being the second piece I did. They had a news story...

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