By Nancy Flaxman, MSW
In February 2016, I was contacted by Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa to present on working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors at a Grand Rounds for physicians and other medical staff on June 21st. The Kaiser LGBT Employee Association was sponsoring this cultural competency forum for Pride month.
The week before the Grand Rounds, on June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed and 53 others wounded at the Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, Florida. This was the deadliest mass killing by a single shooter in the United States and the deadliest incident against LGBT people.
Kaiser staff asked me if I could begin my presentation with honoring the victims. Among the many emotions and reactions so many of us had that day and the many days to follow, I had the thought that perhaps many of the victims had not been out, had not told parents and sisters and brothers and friends and employers and clergy that they were gay.
Here is how I began my presentation:
If you are you are LGBT, you have a coming out story. But we don’t have just one coming out story. We have many coming out stories. When we told a parent, a sister, a best friend, a teacher, a co-worker, a doctor.
And our coming out is not just the many stories of what we said and how we felt and how they reacted. Our coming out did not just happen in the past, but faces us each day – today and tomorrow and next year. At the dentist next week when we fill in a form. At the family reunion this summer when we introduce a partner. At the emergency room next year when we fall. Or something as simple as the grocery checkout line when the clerk asks, are you two sisters?
If you are heterosexual and comfortable with your gender, why do you not need to come out about your sexual orientation or gender identity? Because the assumption is that you are heterosexual and that you are who you appeared to be at birth. You did not need to figure out how to tell your parents that you are the boy or girl listed on your birth certificate or that you are heterosexual, nor worry about whether they would still love you. You did not need to tell your best friend or your neighbor, and risk losing that relationship. You probably have never changed the pronoun of who you are traveling with when co-workers asked where you were going on your vacation. You could lose your job or your housing or schooling for a number of reasons, but sexual orientation or gender transitioning is probably not among the causes.
When you walk down the street and hold your partner’s hand, there probably isn’t much more involved than expressing a closeness or enjoyment in being together. For those of us who are LGBT, the simple act of holding hands entails thought, looking around, evaluating our safety, and running the risk of homophobic or trans-phobic comments or actions. When we hold hands, we are outing ourselves. And when we out ourselves, or others out us, there are always risks.
If you walk in to a gay club, you are outing yourself, and as we saw in Orlando, putting yourself in harm’s way. Though we have lived to see marriage equality in every state, the Orlando massacre made many of us feel less safe. It is also true that before this tragic loss of life, in ways we have so incorporated into our being that we are not even aware of it, we are always vigilant. For the LGBT seniors I have been working with for the past 25 years, what happened in Orlando put them right back to the time when hiding was a matter of their survival.
How can we honor those who should have been safe but were not? Each person in the club that night had a story. If you are LGBT, their story is your story. And your story is their story. So when you share your story with a family member, friend, colleague, or another LGBT person, you are not only honoring your life, but you are honoring those who came before us who could not tell their story, those who still are not safe to tell their story, and those who died on June 12, 2016, who are depending on the rest of us to keep their stories alive.