Happy National Coming Out day, which, I learned today, was founded exactly 30 years ago by the gay and lesbian activists Robert Eichberg and Jean O'Leary. Thirty years ago, coming out was a big deal. These weren't the Ellen years; they were the AIDs years, and most Americans didn't know a single gay person, at least as far as they were aware. They were, of course, wrong about this.
"Most people think they don't know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact everybody does," Eichberg said in 1993 interview, just two years before AIDS would take his life. "It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes."
Eichberg and O'Leary, along with everyone else who dared live openly as gay, helped changed how society viewed queer people, and in much (but not all) of America today, coming out as gay (and not, say, a mermaid) is as pedestrian, as normal, as church on Wednesday nights. The reaction to my own coming out was a collective yawn. My parents already knew because, in my mom's words, "your father has gaydar." No one was shocked, much less appalled, and that was 15 years ago, in the South. Today, it's even less of a big deal to come out. "You're gay?" you might say when someone comes out. "Well, who the hell isn't?"
I'm generally not one for holidays, but National Coming Out Day is an easy one to celebrate: You just come out, for the first, or second, or hundredth time, generally, at this point, on Facebook. My Facebook feed is chock full of people coming out today—all of whom have come out many times before. Their coming out stories—their coming out statuses, really—are sometimes sweet and sometimes sad, but this year, I find myself scrolling past them, looking for something, anything, different. I don't want sad stories or sweet stories; I want something that makes me laugh. But humor, today, is no longer permitted.
I learned this lesson the hard way on last year's National Coming Out Day. And, as usual, it was entirely my own fault. "Happy National Coming Out Day!" I wrote on Facebook. "I love the new Miley Cyrus album."
While I did, and do, love the new Miley Cyrus album (especially her duet with Dolly Parton), my status was, clearly, a joke. Not a great joke, I admit, but a joke, and one that I'd been making, with some variation, on National Coming Out Day for years. In 2016, my status was "Happy National Coming Out Day! I'm a cat." In 2015: "Happy National Coming Out Day! I pee standing up," and so on. The reaction to this was always just fine. Some people commented on my status, others liked it, and I got a little shot of dopamine with every notification—which, when it comes to Facebook, is the entire point.
But last year was different. My coming out as a Miley Cyrus fan was not appreciated among a number of my Facebook friends. Under my status, an old friend's ex-partner, someone I'd met once, commented that my "privilege was showing." A surprising (to me) number of my actual friends agreed that my privilege was, indeed, hanging out. But, instead of checking my privilege as instructed, I—a fool—responded: "WOW you guys must really hate Miley!!!"
This did not diffuse the situation at all, nor did it help when other friends saw what was happening and came to my defense. Soon my silly Facebook status devolved into the sort of fight that only happens online: People who've never met were calling each other names; people who have met were declaring friendships over. I eventually deleted the status just to make everyone shut up.
What happened to us? Queer people used to be funny. From John Waters to Gore Vidal to Fran Leibowitz to the faggy boys in your high school drama class, humor was our thing. It was a coping mechanism for living in a world that either hated or ignored us, and it worked. Gay people might not have been as funny as black men or fat women, but we were pretty fucking hilarious.
Those days are over.
I suspect, in part, that Trump is to blame. As someone replied to my Facebook status last year, "I’m glad you can make a joke out of this while trans women of color are being murdered and POTUS is working hard to take away our rights. Not only is your post not funny, but it is offensive LGBTQA+ community." It seemed a bit over the top to me, but I could kind of see their point. Life is scary right now. Not for me, really—I'm fine—but for immigrant kids being separated for their families, for Syrians and Brazilians and Yemenis and Brits and Turks and Puerto Ricans and for a hell of a lot of Americans. Maybe there really is no more room for jokes when Trump and his fellow fascists are at the wheel....
Nah. That's bullshit. Humor is as vital now as it ever has been, and, at one point, it was a totally acceptable response to traumatic situations, especially among the gay community. I asked my friend Jeffrey Robert, a 59-year-old writer and comic who came out in 1977, about humor during the AIDS years. He said it was "essential."
"Humor was our number one survival tactic," he told me. "All humor, including rude, crude, silly, campy, offensive, and bitchy. Now, everyone seems to be competing for Most Serious Number One Ally or whatnot."
Perhaps it's ironic, but as the status of LGBTQ people has risen in society, our embrace of humor has waned. Maybe we just need it less. Of course, I know that not all queer people have lost their sense of humor. Wanda Sykes is still funny. Matthew Broderick can tell a joke. But many of us seem more interested in policing other people's opinions—or calling-out their attempts at humor—than just having a fucking laugh.
And yet, "sometimes a joke is just a joke," Jeffrey told me. "But I'm old. It will never be the same. Young people will soon be in charge and they get to decide what is right. And I get to grumble and isolate."
Unlike my ancient friend Jeffrey, I'm not old. I have at least 80 years left, probably more if I start exercising, and I don't want to spend the next eight decades in a community that can't take, much less make, a silly joke about a Facebook holiday. So here's my coming out status for 2018, and preemptive apologies if it causes offense: Happy National Coming Out Day! I'm coming out as straight.