Organizing Experience

When I was a child I wanted to be a politician. I gave this up when I came out. At eighteen, I wrongly predicted that a gay man was unelectable. At the time it seemed like a terrible loss; I’d always wanted to make government do good and I really liked giving speeches. Now that I’m in my forties, it’s hard to believe that I had been planning for what I’d be doing in this stage of my life since I was twelve. Had I not given up on those dreams, midlife is about the time that I’d be up to running for something big – like governor.

We now know that there was no reason for me to give up. Openly gay men can run for major office and win. But being taken off the path of electability (in my mind) changed me in other ways. These ways make me unelectable anyway. For one thing, I embraced socialism. (Which now seems like a winning stance, so that doesn’t necessarily count either.) Moving to Canada, in rejection of the United States invasion of Iraq (and the torture of the Iraqi people) make winning any major office in America hard to imagine. (But who knows? Donald Trump’s election proves that there are no longer any predictive rules in American politics.)

All of this is beside the point. My childhood plan was always to go to university, become a lawyer, climb the ladder of Democratic party respectability, and eventually run a government as an executive. Even as a child I knew that I’d have to conform in certain ways. Pacifism was out. Radicalism not promising. Compromise, even before I held power, required every step of the way. Coming out made radicalism necessary – to my identity, self-respect, and survival as a human being. Compromise in the face of dehumanization, of self or others, has no place. Our only option to use all the power we have to do what’s required to humanize, to stand in solidarity with others for universal and unconditional respect and love. Believing this, mainstream anything was over – or at least I believed for most of my late teens and twenties.

Coming out and giving up on my, then, lifelong dream of being a politician changed me. It radicalized me. And the margins came to me. Having been pushed out of bounds, by those whose straight privilege mattered enough to protect it, I now could see the world as an entirely different place. Keep in mind that the AIDS crisis was in full force, absent medical advances that came into fruition half a decade after I came out. AIDS had been treated differently because of who it affected most. In the United States and other developed countries AIDS disproportionately affected gay men, injection drug users, and poor people. Globally, AIDS disproportionately affected developing countries, with many Central and East African particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

As the crisis unfolded, in the American context, anti-gay sentiments got in the way of a putting public health first. Who got the disease mattered. Our lives mattered less because of our sexual orientation. Being in the crosshairs of indifference, I was gifted a vantage point held by the vast majority of people. Only a small minority knows otherwise. The rest of us, we are in those crosshairs and our lives don’t matter, at not enough to topple the systems that put some lives over the lives of others. It was easier to believe that injustice rooted in the fabric of society does not exist from the vantage point of a hierarchy that puts white, straight, educated, and professional men in a place of privilege. Having lost my place I fell into a tailspin.

I’m still white, educated, and professional. I still occupy the place of a cisgender man. So I didn’t fall far from the top of our imagined hierarchies. But fall I did. And that was enough to make me at least look down. Falling, I realized that I needed to stand. Standing required others. In the search for others that followed I was swept up. Lost in angry radicalism, late adolescent fury, and chronic depression I explored parts of myself and the world in that my straight option would of struggled to find.

This pivotal period did not start the moment I came out to myself. It did not start the next moment, when after telling myself (in my head) that I was gay I told myself “there goes running for president”. Who knows if I’d ever had run for president as a serious enough candidate to be noticed and make a difference (my actual goal at the time), but I was one of those children who’d been planning running for president for nearly as long as I can remember. In my mind, I was really giving something up. Just as I had given up saying or doing certain things – just in case they came back to haunt me in my later ambitions. And I knew I had a choice: The closet was something I was aware of as a more predictable alternative. No, this moment was not the start of knowing how and where the margins work.

Being both internally and externally closeted, while knowing this to be the case, is a powerful experience that only those with something hide can know. I learned a lot about hiding in the years before I came out. I was also depressed for much of high school. It took me about a decade to figure this out, when I finally learn how to express rather than depress my feelings. The darkest depression came soon after coming out – when I reoriented my place in a world whose elites could care less if I or others like me lived or died. This exploration took me to many new places. Infused with every step was a deepening sense that everyone existed in the margins and that we needed to work together to rid of the lines that pulled us apart.