Today is National Coming Out Day – a day intended for celebrating coming out and encouraging the act itself with the belief that doing so will contribute to the elimination of homophobia and oppression. It’s something I never could have imagined as a teen growing up in a rural community whose family attended a Southern Baptist Church in the long ago 1970s. Sure, this sounds like the start of a “back in my day” story.
Maybe it is, at least in part. Coming out to myself was a very long process for me and at one point it was taken out my control quite accidentally. It began with the realization when I was five that I was somehow different and that I needed to keep whatever this was a secret from everyone else. That approach meant ignoring people starting in grade school when classmates started taunting me on the playground. After the first time it turned from verbal to physical I was extremely fortunate to able to remove myself from the circumstances that allowed it to happen.
Comics was one of my few safe places. They were often more simplified back then. Crossovers were rare. Events like the yearly JLA & JSA teamup were anticipated. Annuals had special stories often with different artists working on much loved characters. Not that comics were completely devoid of politics and SJW ideas as some CGers think they were. Denny O’Neil’s and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/ Green Arrow stories is the most obvious example of politics and social issues in comics that comes to mind, followed by Steve Englehart’s Secret Empire story arc in Captain America that led to the Richard Nixon leader analog being unmasked and committing suicide. Heroes like Black Panther, Falcon, and Luke Cage felt fresh and contemporary in a medium in which people of color were mostly green, blue, or orange at the time. Of course, the X-Men as metaphor for the oppressed minorty can’t be understated.
Those stories gave me hope for a better future but none of these or the many other comics I read included any queer representation to tell me I wasn’t alone in the world. I had no idea that the Comics Code Authority, whose graphic seemed like a constant eyesore for the space it used on every cover, was charged with making positive queer representation, among other things, a taboo. This prohibition didn’t prevent creators from using coded characters though I was too naive to have decoded the few my younger self did come across like THEM! that mod Diana Prince fought. There were possible homophobes who attacked Jim Rook shortly before he became Nightmaster. Valkyrie met Felicia the jail inmate in Defenders #36. More recently I discovered or rediscovered the “Anonymous Fashion Guys” in an issue of the Inferior Five and Anton Previn who appeared just once as Iris West’s hair stylist and a nameless theater manager who briefly appeared in an issue of the Joker’s short lived series.
None of these characters were heroes. At the time there wasn’t a gay reporter working at the Daily Planet (and there still isn’t!) let alone a gay Justice Leaguer or Avenger. Like many other young closeted kids I learned how to read for subtext. A few TV shows such as All In The Family, Mary Tyler Moore, and Soap began to deal with homosexuality but watching these shows with my family led to uncomfortable feelings for me.
The only instance in my education a queer person was mentioned was one year in my high school art class when a college art major came to assist and let the rumor drop that he thought Michelangelo and Leonardo were gay.
So queer representation didn’t really exist for me. Even the word “queer” at the time was thought of as a slur and I still haven’t entirely defused the word for myself.
Living in Small Town USA made coming out seem unimagineable. I imagined I’d continue just working and being vague and evasive when topics of romance and marriage came up. Like I said above, the choice was taken from my control very much by accident by what I think of as one big comedy of error that created great anxiety for me until I calmed down enough to realize how lucky I was that my family still loved me.
Where am I going with this? As a teen I desperately wanted and needed queer representation. It is better today thanks to a lot of talented and thoughtful creative individuals working in different media though it’s lacking in some respects. While young me was terrified of being found out, being openly gay hasn’t been an issue in the ways that I feared as a child. Coming out is easier today than it was ten years ago, never mind forty. Even so, coming out should be your choice and done under your terms as much as possible and at every point in your life seek out (or create) the representation that inspires, validates, and motivates you!
Keith Haring art used without permission.