By Jovida Ross, Exhale’s Director of Programs
I first came out as Queer when I was 17. At first I told a few close friends; when that went OK I told more people. Then I was out socially. I told my parents; moved in with a girlfriend for the first time; and eventually I became a leader in an LGBTQ organization.
Each of those steps brought a new coming out process: mustering my courage, taking the risk to speak my truth without knowing what response I would get, and living with the consequences. I’m fortunate that my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, with very few instances of shaming or overt discrimination.
Yet still, every time I find myself in a context where people assume I am straight, I face the question of whether I should come out yet again.
As ESPN contributor Mary Buckheit recently told NPR:
Most people think of a person’s coming out as one momentous day, or one unnerving phone call home, or one blurted sentence, even. But the truth is you come out a thousand times.
People who live the realities of socially and politically charged experiences (like sexual identity, immigration, abortion, and many others) hear lies, stereotypes, and insults thrown around about people like us. And we don’t know how others will react when we do share our own experiences. “Coming out” is a continual assessment of risks and rewards, and, when we go for it, it takes courage and resilience to step forward.
Among the great rewards are the trusting relationships we gain when our risk-taking is met with caring support. With each coming out experience, my sense of community expands. These networks add to my sense of strength, and my ability to come out, yet again, the next time around.
I see this mixture of risk-taking, courage, and community reflected in the stories of the undocumented immigrants who are stepping out of the shadows to share their experiences.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came out as undocumented (and gay) in the New York Times yesterday, with a heartfelt piece describing his experience. In his video, he talks about his own personal “underground railroad” of teachers, bosses and friends who have helped him navigate his status along the way.
As word of Jose’s courage spread online, #undocumentedimmigrant was trending on Twitter. Inspired by his story, many of those tweets were spontaneous disclosures from individuals of their own undocumented status.
Jose himself was inspired by the activists from the Trail of Dreams. They are students who were brought to this country as children. They grew up as undocumented Americans. In 2010 they walked from Miami to Washington, DC, to share their stories and to advocate for their ability to participate meaningfully in society, and advocate for the DREAM Act.
These DREAMers also drew on networks of love and support that buoyed their activism. Before going public with their immigration status, they connected with each other. They built organizations and communities that were invested in and inspired by their leadership.
I recently met several of the Trail of Dreams activists. I was particularly touched that many of them are Queer identified, and are informed by coming out about both of these experiences that become identity.
These undocumented students are taking big risks to tell their stories. Many of them are facing very real consequences. And they speak anyway, to reclaim and humanize their stories. While they have a political goal (building support for the DREAM Act), they also have a more fundamental human goal: to communicate their dignity.
As a listener, I have learned from connecting with the DREAMers. I appreciate the risks they are taking to share their stories, and I believe their courage will bring more understanding to the conversation about immigration.
As Jos Truitt writes on Feministing:
When a political issue becomes personal, when people understand it not in the abstract but as impacting real people, they’re able to empathize.
While I don’t have direct experience of living as an undocumented immigrant, I know a little bit about how it feels to live in the middle of a cultural firestorm, to have my body and heart targeted, politicized, and misrepresented. I also know what it feels like to be heard, supported, and loved; how powerful it is to speak my truth and to experience how people around me adjust, learn, and grow in response. I know that when this connection happens, we treat each other better, and gain strength together.
Women who have had abortions also take risks when they disclose their personal stories. They risk reprisals from loved ones, faith communities, and employers. And, though abortion is a common experience (1 in 3 women will have an abortion in her lifetime), it takes real courage to “come out” about this experience.
It takes courage every time a caller picks up the phone and speaks to an Exhale counselor. Or logs on to our private online space to talk with other women. Or tells her story through digital media, or on MTV. However she chooses to share her story, we acknowledge her courage, and meet her with caring support. One by one, we build relationships and learn together, as each experience is unique.
I am working to grow the Pro-Voice movement with Exhale because I believe in the transformative power of empathy. I believe our liberations are fundamentally connected. I believe that when we share and listen to each other’s personal experiences, we are better able to create communities where we are all respected, supported, and free to thrive