I’ve been fascinated by the Occupy Wall Street movement. A few weeks ago, when a former student who now lives in New York City contacted me on Facebook asking for my reaction to the Zuccotti Park protests, I had no idea what she was talking about. Now, of course, I know EXACTLY what she was talking about – and so does most of the rest of the nation. Now we’re seeing protests springing up in cities across the U.S., including in sleepy little (or mid-sized, actually) Sacramento. While the media is critiquing the movement by stating that the “99 percenters” don’t seem to have a clear message or agenda, I would actually argue quite the opposite. Informing people that 1% of the U.S. population controls 80% of the wealth has been an extremely powerful message – powerful enough to kick many of my students, colleagues, and friends out of their apathy and into action. People’s frustrations with these longstanding economic disparities have reached a tipping point, and now we’re seeing a critical mass of people who are willing to put themselves on the line and take serious action. The most powerful aspect of this action, I believe, involves putting a name, face, and story to the people who are impacted by these inequities. It’s about making the invisible visible.
The Occupy movement has sparked my thinking about possibilities, particularly with respect to LGBTQ rights. What if the LGBTQ population in the U.S. decided to take significant action against homophobia? Many would argue that significant action has already been taken (and is still continuing). We’ve achieved significant gains through legislation, judicial action, and voter-driven initiatives. Many of us have lobbied in our respective workplaces to develop non-discrimination policies and to offer domestic partner benefits. And yet, relying on these processes has only gotten us so far. We have a long way to go. So what could a grass-roots movement against homophobia look like?
Yesterday, in my Psychology of Sexual Orientation class, we discussed the coming-out process for LGBTQ individuals. As part of this discussion, I made the point that coming out, while potentially risky, can ultimately help to reduce prejudice and discrimination against people. When a person has the opportunity to have significant contact with an LGBTQ person they care about, such as a brother, daughter, or close friend, that person is more likely to develop positive attitudes about lesbians and gay men in general (this idea is often referred to as the “contact hypothesis”). If, on the other hand, the person’s only knowledge about LGBTQ people comes from homophobic stereotypes and inaccurate media portrayals, then that person is much more likely to harbor negative attitudes towards LGBTQ people. Coming out, therefore, is a powerful weapon against homophobia.
What if everyone who identifies as a sexual minority decided to come out and live fully as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered person? And how many people are we really talking about? Although survey results vary, the general consensus is that about 3.5% of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Of course, “We Are The 3.5%” doesn’t pack very much punch. However, even though 3.5% doesn’t sound like a very significant percentage, note that we’re talking about almost 11 million people. That DOES pack some more punch. (Keep in mind that this is a conservative estimate; not everyone who completes a demographic survey is willing to give an honest answer about their sexual orientation.) If 11 million people decided to come out and live openly and unapologetically as an LGBTQ person, that would probably get a lot of people’s attention. Eleven million people could really make something happen in this country.
National Coming Out Day just took place on October 11th. Eleven million people. Think of the possibilities.