Is 'Coming Out' A Responsibility?

Rachel Maddow, the popular MSNBC news anchor who is openly gay, caused a stir this week when she said that closeted gay anchors "have a responsibility to come out." The statement renewed an old debate about whether coming out is a right or a responsibility.

What is the basis for arguing that one has a duty, not just a right, to come out?

To help understand, we can refer to some words from Harvey Milk, the San Francisco gay rights activist who was assassinated in 1978, explaining why open identification can be so important: "I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let that world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine."

Pride in identity can be empowering, an antidote to even the most venomous prejudice. By forcing society to rethink what was once considered wrong or shameful, Milk and other identity-oriented LGBT activists changed the cultural landscape and weakened longstanding biases.

But still, is the good that results from coming out enough to make it a duty? If staying in the closet helps perpetuate discriminatory attitudes, does that give rise to a responsibility to come out?

Taking it further, as a humanist activist I wonder whether Maddow's comment might be applicable to the secular movement. After all, in a 2006 study atheists were found to be the most disliked and distrusted minority group in America, ranking below gays, Muslims, and recent immigrants. While prejudice against any of these groups would be wrong, one must question why atheists would be so disfavored, especially since numerous studies show that, from a statistical standpoint, atheism does not correlate to high crime rates, health risks, or any other immoral or socially undesirable outcome. With so much prejudice against them, it's not surprising that many atheists are "closeted" to some degree, hesitant to identify openly.

Hence, is there an argument that secular individuals - atheists, agnostics, and humanists - have not just a right, but a responsibility, to come out, to identify openly in some manner to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and/or the world at-large?

Statistics suggest that significant portions of the American population are essentially secular in outlook: About half the population does not attend any regular religious services, about 15 percent identify as "none" when asked for religious affiliation, and almost one in five will not affirm a belief in a divinity. Yet, despite the undeniable existence of this large demographic, politicians and media pundits rarely even acknowledge nonreligious Americans when discussing policy or current events. This no doubt can be attributed to the fact that, despite the size of the nonreligious population, relatively few have historically asserted self-identity as atheist, agnostic, humanist, or otherwise secular.

Would a concerted campaign to encourage secular individuals to "come out" change public attitudes? The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science thinks so, and even launched the "Out Campaign" to encourage atheists to come out. The campaign's scarlet "A" is now seen frequently in online profiles and elsewhere.

In the 1980s and 1990s we saw the landscape change when congressmen and other high-profile public figures began coming out as gay. Today, only one congressman is an open atheist (Rep. Pete Stark of California), though it is well known that many others are closeted. Do they have a responsibility to come out? Would doing so help to diminish unfair prejudice and challenge the Religious Right's claim of moral superiority based on religiosity?

Of course, there are significant differences between being gay and being an atheist, and few would suggest that the discrimination experienced by atheists is equivalent to that experienced by gays and lesbians. Even though atheists are the most disliked minority, being an atheist is not an experience that is particularly difficult on a day-to-day basis. The realization of a teen that he or she doesn't believe in a divinity, for example, doesn't normally carry with it the gravity and real-life ramifications that come with realizing that one is gay.

Nonetheless, there are serious personal and social consequences that come with keeping atheists closeted. Religion becomes exalted and validated in an atmosphere of apparent general consensus about its value, while the public's association of religion with morality is reinforced, thereby affecting the entire social, cultural, and political landscape. All of us, including future generations, pay a price as a result thereof.

Thus, perhaps some would argue that Maddow's statement holds true for the secular community as well, that atheists, agnostics, and humanists have a responsibility to assert their identity to some degree. If it does, even under Maddow's standard the duty arises only "if and when we feel that we can." As such, whether seen as a right or a responsibility, the decision to come out is ultimately a personal one.

(via "Our Humanity, Naturally")

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First, lets be clear: Sexuality is not merely a "preference." I am reminded of a discussion about this topic on a now very old episode of Sally Jesse Raphael, during which Sally realized how very easy most people had it. In fact she commented "I remember when I was growing up, I never felt like I had to go to my parents and say, Mom, Dad: I'm straight." Sally realized that to lead any semblance of a normal life, with family, friends, romantic involvements, and ultimately a partner, spouse, or a larger family, one cannot hide their romantic involvements, their partner, or their spouse from the rest of their family, close colleagues and associates, nor from their friends. Heterosexuals seem to have it easy because society accepts their romantic entanglements. However, for homosexuals, many in society still have trouble accepting homosexuals, particularly those who want to "flaunt their lifestyle" by say: having a relationship, creating a life and spending it with the one they love, getting married, perhaps having or raising children, all, GASP, without hiding it behind closed doors, behind a great big wall, or on some big gay island somewhere where they don't have to see it for fear of burning out their retinas. In fact, the latest Pew Research shows that the groups who most think that homosexuality should NOT be accepted by society are: Conservative Republicans, Blacks, and White Evangelicals. All the details of the latest study and the demographic breakdown may be found here: I don't think that coming out creates a "hyper-focus on sexuality" but instead opens a window where others are allowed to know more about someone who is gay, and about that individual's life, without using vague pronouns or euphemisms to avoid referring to your same-sex spouse, mate, or partner. No terms like "friend" or just plain "we" but actual names and what you did for the weekend, normal office chit-chat around the proverbial water cooler. Lastly, the questions posed about the need to come out by someone who enjoys masturbation or even inanimate objects really isn't necessary and is comparing apples to oranges. How so? Simply, homosexuality is just one dimension of a person's life, and making that dimension public allows others to more fully get to know someone -- home life, loves, passions, etc. As far as masturbation? Let's face it, everyone does it, gay or straight, so who the heck needs to come out about that?!?! Anyone who says they don't, is probably lying.
Having a public voice is necessary to obtain and keep a share of rights and privileges bestowed by the legislation...and having a public voice necessitates someone being "out." I am honored and greatly appreciate the people who have taken that step on their own and my behalf; I do my little part in my everyday life to show people that lesbians/atheists are normal folk with normal lives. The fact that this is right for me does not mean it is right for everyone...anyone living an 'off kilter' life takes stock of the risk of exposing that life to the public and chooses the best course for themselves. Infiltration may take longer than some such as Rachel Maddow would like, but it is a persistent, unstoppable method that keeps gaining momentum and will eventually reach saturation so people will wonder then if there ever was a time without gays and atheists.
There are at least three groups of people currently closeted in the United States: those of non-straight, non-vanilla sexuality and/or gender; atheists and to some extent agnostics; women who have had abortions. We know that being publicly in the first group can get you killed. It wouldn't surprise us if a woman who goes public about having an abortion were to be murdered by one of the, um, pro-lifers out there. I don't know about the safety in society of atheists and agnostics but it can probably get your new car keyed to announce that's who you are! Ironically, this goes exactly to Maddow's point. The more of "us" there are in any of these categories, the safer "we" will be in the future. It's what happens right now that's the problem. People enlist in the military. To some extent, they volunteer to go abroad and get shot at. But we don't choose our gender or sexuality, and actually, I don't believe we "choose" our religious beliefs either [full disclosure: I'm a god-believer, and I'm studying for the Unitarian ministry, where about half of us are atheists]. The more I learn about the brain, the more I believe that matters like these are not chosen, in the way you decide between chocolate and vanilla. So I have a hard time thinking that we MUST out ourselves for something that's basically hard-wired. The fact that it's hidden does suggest that there's danger to ourselves in making it public. And as for abortion? I have known women who had abortions because they didn't dare go public, or try to live with, a particular pregnancy. Being public about the abortion would be just as bad or dangerous. It seems to me that the gay people I know who really are out generally live in supportive communities. It may be that atheists and agnostics can't find such communities -- so who will stand with them if they lose their jobs, or suffer from harassment, or have their families turn their back on them because of the announcement? So I totally get Maddow's point and I am glad she raised it. In a sense, I even agree with her. But I also think each of us has a responsibility to ourselves to protect ourselves. I hope this could trigger individual self-examination. WOULD it really be so bad if I came out? Am I making excuses based on old information? I'd follow the self-examination with a search for evidence of changed minds. Because making the decision NOT to come out -- to your family, to start with -- is making an assumption about who your family is and what their values are. You actually do not know how they'll react; you're assuming. If you come out, the ball will be in their court, but in a sense you'll have control you didn't before ... because you can't be outed any more. It's up to them to decide how much honesty they can really live with.
Finally! Someone who sees that individuals are MORE then just a sexual orientation! I wish the militants of "gay pride" understood this!
Why should anyone find it a duty to proclaim their sexual preferences? Do those who prefer masturbation need to come out? Those who are sexually attracted to inanimate objects? Not that there is any reason to, but if a straight person were to "come out" and proclaim their heterosexuality they would come to be known for their sexuality and not something else that may have been more important to them. This hyper focus on sexuality undermines the far more important and vital things that people have to contribute whether they are gay or straight, and I think that is ill-advised.
As a lesbian and atheist, I found it much easier to be publicly out to everybody, but fear that my employment will be negatively impacted if my coworkers and supervisors (many of whom are openly dislpaying Christian pamphlets, crosses and referring to the fact that they are ministers). I agree that we have an obligation to stand tall and proud, but I cannot imagine that I can change my coworkers narrow-mindedness by announcing my doubts about their believes to them. In case of my sexual orientation I believe that it is at least possible to break through many prejudices. I'd really like to know how others see this.
I think there is a fine line that any "closeted" person (whether gay or atheist) has to deal with in pondering the implications of being "out". One is, can those you "come out" to HANDLE that revelation? When you deal with a xenophobic, bigoted, intolerant society (like too much of America is!), you may wind up being on the "LOSING end" of what turns out to be a LETHAL gamble (Matthew Sheppard comes to mind-and I am not sure he was even "out"!). The other issue is one of privacy. WHY should any person with a homosexual or atheist identity feel they "have" to be "out"? (This is why I think "Pride" parades are so ridiculous!). Everyone has labels they place on all apsects of their various identities, and everyone has the right to remain "closeted", or "anonymous", or PRIVATE about them! Having others tell you, "You need to be "out" about this (being gay, atheist, etc.) is a obscene violation of YOUR right to privacy. Its YOUR choice to do what you want with when/whether you "reveal" your secret identities (as many as you have!). Be careful, and comfortable if you do.

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