By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
ROYAL OAK – Humor and serious ideas joined to create a spirited discussion at the April 6 diversity event hosted by Oakland Community College’s Royal Oak and Southfield campus diversity committee.
Openly gay moderator Charles Pugh of Fox 2 News set the tone in his introduction, “I’m Charles Pugh, and I am a homo…sapien,” he said to appreciative laughter.
Humor helped to keep both the audience and the panelists at ease during the presentation, titled “Coming out is just the beginning: The Status of Gay and Lesbian Americans.” Grace McClellan, executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center, Triangle Foundation’s Director of Policy Sean Kosofsky, and Cass Varner, youth services coordinator for Affirmations Lesbian & Gay Community Center joined Pugh onstage and discussed topics ranging from the importance of coming out to the challenges faced by gay and lesbian couples who wish to adopt children. Panel members also educated the audience, many of whom were straight, about the difficulties faced by LGBT people in aspects of life ranging from employment to illness to personal safety.
The two biggest topics of the evening, by far, were the importance of coming out and the debate as to whether gay rights are civil rights.
Asked by an audience member why coming out is such a big deal, Pugh responded that he came out for several reasons.
“It was liberating,” said Pugh, “I didn’t have a secret anymore.”
According to Pugh, the response from his station’s viewers was overwhelmingly good; out of 300 emails, roughly 275 were positive. There were hate calls, but “cowards can say anything, and then hang up,” Pugh said.
Varner called coming out “the first part of a huge process,” which for young people can include being kicked out of their home and the effects of coming out on their education.
McClellan said that the next step after coming out is frequently dealing with prejudice. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT, said McClellan, and 25 percent of gay men who come out are physically assaulted by a family member when they do so.
Kosofsky said that everyone who can come out should do so, in part to help all LGBT people.
“People’s attitudes toward our community change when they know that they know a gay person,” said Kosofsky, who also urged people who know gay people to speak out as well.
“No gay person is safe anywhere as long as the hatred continues,” he added.
Kosofsky gave advice on how to come out to those who haven’t done so yet. In addition to making sure you are completely comfortable with yourself, Kosofsky said, “Don’t use family gatherings as the occasion for your coming out.” He added that LGBT’s should have a safety plan when coming out in case something goes wrong.
When another straight audience member indicated continuing confusion about the importance of coming out, Pugh explained, “Signs of heterosexual privilege are everywhere, but no one knows gay people are there,” unless they speak out.
As for the civil rights discussion, Kosofsky summed up the issue when he said, “LGBT rights are part of a spectrum, from the genocide of American Indians, to women’s rights, to the black civil rights movement. This is a large discussion – it can’t just be a soundbite. We can’t equate our experience with the black experience, but you can’t deny that our rights are important, too.”
“It is not about whether your oppression is worse or our oppression is worse. It’s about the fact that the oppressors are using the same tools against us,” he added.
Toward the end of the presentation, one audience member proved the necessity of the gay civil rights movement when she called same-sex adoption “sick.” Overall, however, the straight people in the racially diverse audience, even those who did not understand or agree with the speakers, were open and engaged in respectful dialogue.
Pugh said he was encouraged by the number of straight people who attended the event.
“I appreciate the straight people who are here, because we need you,” he said. “We need you to help fight this battle, because we can’t do it alone. I’m not asking you to agree with me, I’m asking you to respect me.”
Varner agreed, adding, “This is how acceptance is built.”
Perhaps the strongest statement of the evening was made by Kosofsky, who in discussing the fight for equal marriage rights said, “Any student of history knows that we will win this battle, whether it’s ten years or one hundred years from now.”