There is plenty of blame to go around in the upheavals concerning Governor McGreevey. Even after pointing fingers at the Cipels, Kushners and McGreevey himself, I have enough fingers left to point one at society for its refusal to let people be who they are.
Anyone with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered people in their lives knows that coming out is one of the hardest things to do. It’s risky, vulnerable, painful and sad. It can also be joyous, relieving, a new beginning and much more. Every coming out is a story of courage and self-recognition.
Whatever the path people take, I’m proud and happy that they get there. Coming out is a huge emotional experience because society treats gay people as lesser beings. Starting on the playground, the worst insult children hurl at one another is “fag,” sending a clear and early message that being gay is undesirable. Tragic incidents of violence against lesbians and gay men have caused great fear and vulnerability. States are scurrying to pass constitutional amendments to block gay people from their civil right to marry. Lesbian and gay soldiers are not allowed to share their personal lives, making them outsiders among people to whom they must entrust their lives. Some parents reject their children for being lesbian or gay. Some respected religious leaders blame lesbians and gay men for earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and economic downturns.
It would be difficult to grow up in American society and avoid absorbing all the negativity about gay people. We breathe it in the air, and each of us must overcome the disapproving stereotypes and hostility towards lesbians and gay men.
So it should come as no surprise that gay people who find themselves in public life, particularly political candidates, are often afraid of being open about their sexual orientation. They shouldn’t have to be. Sexual orientation is a private matter that has no bearing on how someone performs their job. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play out that way, and people like Governor McGreevey end up in a desperate internal struggle.
Governor McGreevey chose a way of dealing with his situation that fails much more than it succeeds: secrecy. I’m not a big fan of secrecy. It seems that most secrets involve covering up wrong-doing. Secrecy wreaks havoc in family relationships. Secrecy is used by the government to hide abuse of our rights and our persons.
However, in Governor McGreevey’s case, he used secrecy to hide his sexual orientation because he believed that it would be impossible to realize his political aspirations as an openly gay American. He believed this because society told him, again and again.
Our attitudes have consequences, and society pays a price for the pressure it put on Governor McGreevey to stay in the closet. His decision to keep his sexuality a private matter put him in a compromising position. It gave anyone who knew his truth power over him. Although the entire political drama has yet to unfold, and we may never know the whole story, our Governor may well have made some public policy decisions that affected us based on his not being able to live as an openly gay man. We, as a society, deserve some of the blame for this.
In recent years we have certainly seen progress in societal attitudes towards lesbians and gay men. This year’s events concerning marriage represent huge progress. Thanks to those “liberal Hollywood” types, the images of lesbians and gays on television have improved. And, even the way that Governor McGreevey ultimately came out represents progress (he could have denied, denied, denied).
The appropriate response to those who come out is to embrace who they are. Despite the disturbing political circumstances surrounding Governor McGreevey’s coming out, Jim McGreevey the human being at least deserves this much.
-By Deborah Jacobs ACLU-NJ Executive Director